During the last three years since the incumbent government led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, ‘matters maritime’ have gained ascendency, clearly suggesting that India’s political and ruling elite have shed the proverbial ‘maritime blindness’. New Delhi has taken multitude of proactive initiatives at the national and international levels that straddle political, economic, security, technological and social domains. These initiatives have been driven by a number of competing political priorities, rising economic interests and changing security dynamics of India vis-a-vis the international order. Among these, at least three issues merit attention: (a) maritime security; (b) international relations; and (c) economic development. Significantly, these form the core of a national maritime strategy, a foreign policy pivoting on the oceans, and the critical need to harness the resource potential of the seas for economic growth.
Besides, a number of other interconnected maritime issues such as climate change; rise of sea levels; and the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 in which Goal 14 titled “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” including its sub-goals which address marine pollution, protection of marine and coastal ecosystems, issues of ocean acidification, overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, etc. figure in various national programmes, joint statements with friendly nations, and are actively promoted by the government as issues of ‘common interest’ or ‘matters of concern’in multilateral forums.
Maritime Security Gains Precedence
Among the many threats and challenges emanating ‘from’ or ‘on’ the seas, Prime Minister Modi has flagged the threat of sea-borne terror and piracy as two major issues confronting the international community. India’s security and maritime interests are closely linked, and sea based terrorism figures prominently in the national security calculus. The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks loom large in the minds of the government and policymakers have supported efforts to ensure robust coastal security apparatus.
Likewise, sea piracy off the Somali coast has been an issue of international concern and the Modi government has exhibited a strong commitment by deploying the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden to ensure that the sea lines of communications passing through the Indian Ocean are safe.
At another level, a number of maritime challenges confront India – the changing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region; and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which includes the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Furthermore, Chinese port access to Gwadar in Pakistan, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, militarisation in South China Sea including issues of freedom of navigation, and proliferation of naval platforms in the Indian Ocean have attracted the attention of the Indian government.
Seas as Facilitators of Foreign Policy
At the foreign policy level, there is strong evidence of the government’s desire to expand maritime security cooperation with neighbours and island states in the Indian Ocean through capacity building. This is built on a strong belief that such an approach can potentially lower the possibility of cataclysmic incidents and accidents at sea. This issue gains greater salience given that the scale and complexity of maritime challenges in the global commons are enormous and ‘international stability cannot be the preserve of single nation’. The government is of the view that all seafaring nations and their maritime security agencies must work collectively to ensure safe and secure commerce on the seas as a shared goal and responsibility. In this context, the government has encouraged the Indian Navy and other maritime enforce agencies such as the Coast Guard to build ‘bridges’ with friendly nations, and develop norms for cooperation with the aim of work together with likeminded forces.
The Modi government has formulated a proactive foreign policy which encourages capacity building of coastal states such as Kenya and Tanzania and island countries (Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka) that lack necessary military wherewithal and therefore remain vulnerable to threats and challenges. The government has proactively engaged major and smaller maritime powers and India has emerged as a formidable and reliable maritime partner. New Delhi has signed a number of bilateral maritime cooperation agreements for capacity building including MoUs which entail joint patrolling and conducting surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zones of smaller nations and support their need for maritime domain awareness through information sharing. Also, the Indian government has supported multilateral fora such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in the Indian Ocean and the ASEAN led East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that address common maritime security issues and call upon member states to work together to address non-traditional security threats and challenges at sea.
Harnessing Oceans for Economic Development
Prime Minister Modi also announced his vision for the seas through ‘sagar’, which means ‘ocean’ and stands for ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’. In this context, Blue Economy has resonated with the government and Prime Minister Modi sees the oceans as catalyst for economic growth. He has likened the Blue Economy as the ‘Chakra’ (wheel) in the Indian national flag and has observed that development of coastal areas and island territories are the “new pillars of economic activity.” This has led to the national plan for ‘port led’ development projects that link the hinterland with coastal areas.
In essence, the Modi government has availed the unique opportunity to highlight the role of the oceans and seas in national and international affairs. It has invested huge politico-diplomatic, economic and security capital to showcase to the world the maritime prowess of India and its commitment to support a rule based order on the oceans that has the potential to unite the international community.