The recently concluded visit of the Saudi monarch to India, the first in fifty years, has significance beyond energy supplies. It signals the reaching out of the leadership of the Islamic world towards a moderate, secular country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, in order to alter its own international image of religious intolerance. It will have a positive effect on India’s relations with Muslim countries, long hostage to Pakistani demands on the wider community to keep India at arms length.
Limitations of Military Power
Asymmetrical threats like terrorism place limits on the effectiveness of conventional military power. The new strategic moves on the world stage will, therefore, have substantial political and economic content. This is evident in the attention being paid to the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China, whose vast territories, populations, natural resources and booming economies are expected to make them formidable trading competitors. Military power will always remain important but its application will be increasingly constrained and circumscribed by economic linkages and consequences. The prosperity and interdependence of the developed countries precludes warfare amongst themselves, and the increasing success of the European Union and ASEAN cooperative models points the way to future international relations.
India and the Security Council
In such a situation, how important is it for India to push its claim to a Security Council seat? There are “No midwives at the birth of great Powers.” They have to be “self-born”; existing powers will always try to keep out new comers until they can no longer do so. This has been the case with the present P-5; each was opposed as it grew in economic and military strength, the last to be acknowledged being China. Now it seems to be India’s turn. It would be well advised to quietly work towards its economic development and putting its domestic house in order, which is in a nightmarish mess because of administrative failures. Meanwhile, it can remain ready to take up an uncomfortable chair at the high table as and when it is invited!
Trade and Economy
India’s economic growth will greatly increase trade and over ninety percent of it will traverse the high seas. This will demand huge investments in port infrastructure, ships and shipbuilding, EEZ exploitation and search for assured energy supplies over the long term. This is already leading to a more pragmatic and proactive foreign policy including energy cooperation initiatives towards Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Central Asian states, Russia, China and as far afield as Sakhalin and Nigeria. The proposed civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA is part of this same energy security policy but in a much larger strategic framework. Despite years of western pressures, India has in any case made nuclear power a key ingredient of its energy policy, an argument increasingly being advanced by western countries for themselves to guard against oil blackmail by producer states.
Maritime Scene In India
Neglect of Investment in Maritime Sector
India followed an incomprehensible maritime investment policy for decades, bearing the stamp of a landlocked accountant bureaucracy. Entrepreneurship was stifled in the shipping industry. Ports were allowed to decay and wallow in inefficiencies. Shipbuilding remained stunted due to taxation policies. Coastal shipping was destroyed due to lack of incentives.
It was not entirely a negative picture however. Offshore exploration resulted in Bombay High and other discoveries. Fisheries kept growing due to initiatives by the coastal states. The National Institute of Oceanography was set up at Goa and a permanent research station in Antarctica. Claim was established as a pioneer investor for seabed mining rights under UNCLOS. The Indian Navy kept designing and building complex warships in increasingly confident, public sector shipyards.According to the Economic Times (Jan 9, 2006), 102 shipping companies together own barely 699 vessels with a gross tonnage of only seven million tonnes, a figure which has scarcely grown over years. The share of Indian shipping in our own trade also continues to stagnate at below 30%, which should be nearer 50%.
Small private workshops grew to become competent ship repairers and builders of small vessels. An ancillary industry came up, along with the growth of engineering capabilities for general applications. And to keep all these activities going, young professionals appeared, many emerging in their hundreds out of maritime training institutes to man foreign flag ships from Hong Kong to Norway.
New Maritime Initiatives
The Indian State, with its new mantra of liberalisation and globalisation has rediscovered the importance of the sea and awakened from its slumber. A “National Maritime Development Programme” is awaiting Cabinet approval. It envisages an investment of Rs. 60,000 crores in ports by the year 2012 and Rs. 40,000 crores in shipping by 2025. Someone is at least thinking beyond next year’s budget! The Sethusamudram seaway project between Sri Lanka and southern India to shorten the distance for smaller vessels between the east and west coast is being executed. Ship owners have been freed from the bureaucratic stranglehold of the Ministry for acquiring and disposing off ships and are benefiting from tax reforms. Shipping protocol has been renewed with Pakistan and maritime boundary disputes, though not resolved, are being addressed.
Growing Trade in the Indian Ocean
International trade has a huge maritime component due to economics and sheer volume. This will increase, especially so in the Asia-Pacific region as the dynamic economies of Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, ASEAN and India, add to shipping in the Indian Ocean, already teeming with oil and gas tankers needed to fuel these economies. Sooner, rather than later Africa will contribute more to this trade, and Indian trade openings to South America around the Cape of Good Hope will see a surge in traffic in the southern Indian Ocean and across the southern Atlantic.
Building a navy is the task of generations, requires a vision of a hundred years and a practical working time horizon of fifty. Who knows what the world will be like, fifty years from now? Who friend and who foe?
Along with trade will come new vulnerabilities, demanding increased vigilance and larger and more capable naval forces ready to deploy rapidly, independently or in concert with other navies. Since the USA is the end destination of so much of global trade, its concerns for safety from sea-based terrorist attack, especially through container cargo, have to be taken into account by its trading partners. India has already done so, in its own interests too, by enforcing an agreed Container Security Initiative (CSI) for surveillance at designated ports in India.
Less readily acceptable is the US-proposed Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), designed to detect and intercept transportation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by sea through cooperative maritime effort of participating navies. India is uncomfortable with the legal implications of high seas search of suspicious vessels without the authority of an international agreement under United Nations auspices.
Terrorism at sea and a related scourge from ancient times, piracy, can be checked only with the cooperative effort of all seafaring nations. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have achieved notable successes in intercepting hijacked merchant vessels and apprehending the pirates. The Malacca Straits and adjoining seas are a favoured area for pirate activities. In a positive development, sixteen countries, including India, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand, have signed a Regional Cooperation Agreement to combat piracy. A centre will be set up in Singapore and the Coast Guard will be the implementing agency in the case of India.