Homeland Security

Indo–Pacific Oceans Initiative
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 06 Jan , 2022

Concept of Indo-Pacific

Eminent historian and scholar Radhakumud Mookerjee in his seminal work on Indian Shipping, while tracing the history of maritime activities of Indians from historic times, brought out that India was linked with all major movements in the world which had influenced the history of mankind. In his view, there was “ample evidence to show that for full thirty centuries, India stood out as the very heart of the Old World and maintained her position as one of the foremost maritime countries. There was no lack of energy on the part of Indians of old in utilising to the full, the opportunities presented by nature for the development of Indian maritime activity”. He went on define the geographical position of India as “in the heart of the Orient, with Africa on the West and the Eastern Archipelago and Australia on the East, her connection with the vast mainland of Asia on the North, her possession of a sea-board that extends over more than four thousand miles…”. More than a century after the work was published, India and the world as such has started looking at the area Mookerjee described, as Indo-Pacific, the significance it holds in the 21st century and more importantly, the relevance of India as a key player in the area.

The concept of linkages between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans emerged towards the close of the 20th century due to the economic development in Japan, China, ASEAN, Korea and Taiwan which resulted in increased shipping through both the oceans for movement of energy and mineral resources from West Asia and Africa to these nations and transportation of finished products from there to nations in other parts of Asia, Africa, Americas and Europe. Indo-Pacific today is a multi-cultural and multi-polar region accounting for nearly 60 percent of the world’s GDP and 65 percent of population. It is also a major repository of marine resources both living and non-living. Maritime trade and commerce transiting through the region including energy flows is equally significant and is close to 60 percent of global maritime trade.

India and the Indo-Pacific

India’s strategic geographical location and her natural maritime orientation which was so well brought out by Mookerjee, was further expanded upon by KM Panikkar and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru soon after independence. While this resulted in the plans for developments in the maritime arena and India had an aircraft carrier-capable Navy by 1961, possibly due the subsequent border issues and wars with China and Pakistan, a continental outlook developed. The first decade of the 21st century once again saw India launching many initiatives in the maritime area. It received a real fillip when at Port Louis, Mauritius, during the Commissioning Ceremony of Indian-built Offshore Patrol Vessel Barracuda into Mauritian National Coast Guard on March 12, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “…Today, the world speaks of a 21st century driven by the dynamism and the energy of Asia and the Pacific. …The seas forged links of commerce, culture and religion with our extended neighbourhood across several millenniums. Our more recent history has focused our attention on our continental neighbourhood. But India has been shaped in more ways by the seas around us. Today, 90 percent of our trade by volume and 90 percent of our oil imports take place through the sea…. India is becoming more integrated globally. We will be more dependent than before on the ocean and the surrounding regions… Our goal is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues and increase in maritime cooperation. We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region…”

The theme was further expanded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his address at the Shangri La Dialogue at Singapore on June 01, 2018. He said, “For thousands of years, Indians have turned to the East…The humankind now looks to the rising East, with the hope to see the promise that this 21st century beholds for the whole world, because the destiny of the world will be deeply influenced by the course of developments in the Indo-Pacific region…The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges…India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members… We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on the sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. When we all agree to live by that code, our sea lanes will be pathways to prosperity and corridors of peace. We will also be able to come together to prevent maritime crimes, preserve marine ecology, protect against disasters and prosper from blue economy… India stands for open and stable international trade regime. We will also support rule-based, open, balanced and stable trade environment in the Indo-Pacific region, which lifts up all nations on the tide of trade and investment.…. India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific region – from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas – will be inclusive. … We will promote a democratic and rule-based international order, in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign. We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open; our nations secure from terrorism and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict…. This is how we wish ourselves and our partners to proceed in this vast region and beyond.”

Indian Proposal to Conserve the Indo-Pacific

Against this concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific, India proposed at the East Asia Summit at Bangkok on November 04, 2019, an Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), to manage, conserve, sustain and secure the maritime domain. Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally announced the Initiative during his address at the Summit. He said “…Our world is passing through turbulent times. Terrorism, violent extremism, sharpened conflict over resources and territory including maritime space is the major problems of our times. International laws and rules, including those that govern the maritime domain such as UNCLOS, are under increasing strain. Trans-boundary challenges such as climate change, marine pollution and unregulated and excessive exploitation of resources are making our planet insecure’’.

Recalling India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific enunciated in Singapore in June 2018 and shared vision of many other nations on Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, he proposed a cooperative effort “…an Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, ….in line with Sustainable Development Goal 14 – which calls on the world to ‘conserve and sustainably use’ the maritime domain – we should make visible efforts to create a safe, secure and stable maritime domain. We should recognise the imperative for all States in the region and those with interests in it, to work collaboratively to safeguard the oceans including from plastic litter; build capacity and fairly share resources; reduce disaster risk; enhance science, technology and academic cooperation; and promote free, fair and mutually beneficial trade and maritime transport. Work in each sector could be led by one or two countries. This would help Governments align better with public opinion demanding cooperative solutions to global challenges. The initiative would be truly open, inclusive and cooperative… We are grateful to Australia for its positive outlook towards Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. I also suggest interested countries to engage in India’s Initiative on the pillars of maritime security and disaster risk reduction….”

Essentially, IPOI seeks to create partnerships with like-minded countries across the expanse from the Eastern shores of Africa to the Western Pacific Ocean, to ensure security and stability in the maritime domain through a non-treaty-based, cooperative and collaborative approach between nations to meet common challenges in the region. IPOI covers a wide spectrum of significant issues through its seven pillars which are:–

    • Maritime Security
    • Maritime Ecology
    • Maritime Resources
    • Capacity Building and Resource Sharing
    • Disaster Risk Reduction and Management
    • Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation
    • Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport

Pillars of IPOI

Maritime security, which is the first pillar of IPOI, is the key element to ensure stability and progress in the maritime arena. Challenges to maritime security could emerge to economic well-being of the nation i.e., energy, trade and commerce, living and nonliving resources or to social stability i.e., crimes in the maritime arena or to political peace i.e., maritime sovereignty or even to health of its people i.e. the environment. Towards the second half of the 20th century, it became evident that there was a shift from traditional Naval confrontation on the high seas, to non-conventional maritime security challenges which would include maritime terrorism, piracy, drug and human trafficking, gun running, poaching or Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing and illegal gathering of sensitive seismic and economic data. Many of these threats could also emerge from non-State entities which could well be funded by States who choose to remain in the background. Needless to add that challenges to maritime security are varied and complex, and often cut across political boundaries. It would also be apparent that the array of threats within the maritime environment cannot be met by individual States alone and calls for cooperation between nations to safeguard common maritime interests.

The United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2014, in order to safeguard our planet and improve lives of people by 2030, of which Goal 14 is focused on ‘life below water’ and the need to conserve oceans, seas and marine resources. The oceans impact climate, rainfall, coastlines, much of our food and even the air we breathe. Hence, careful management of oceans and the resources they hold, is one of the keys to a sustainable future. This is where the IPOI pillars of Maritime Ecology and Maritime Resources with close linkages to each other and having a significant role in saving our oceans come in. It is also relevant that by some estimates, marine and coastal resources and industries are estimated at $3 trillion per year or about five percent of global GDP. Blue Economy is increasingly being recognised as an important dimension to future sustainable development of oceans and their resources including aspects such as maritime transport, renewable energy, waste management and tourism. Hence there is a need to curb unsustainable procedures and practices including Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and balancing economic interests with potential environmental damage. Incidentally IUU fishing is estimated to be between 20 to 30 percent of total fisheries production and worth between $10 to $23 billion presenting a major threat not only to resources and ecology but also to national economies.

It would be clear that the pillar of maritime security is intrinsically linked to the pillars of maritime resources and ecology. It would also be evident that in order to ensure maritime security, safeguard maritime resources and ecology, it is essential to monitor or become aware of activities in the maritime domain. Enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) calls for collection, analysis, fusion and timely dissemination of enormous quantities of data from diverse agencies which simplistically put, would imply regular gathering of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of areas of interest. Only then would it be possible to track movements of ships, aircraft and submarines operating in the area, prevent illegal activities, assist vessels in distress and safeguard own waters from surreptitious monitoring/incursions by unauthorised vessels. In view of the vastness of the Indo-Pacific, no country can have the capacity or resources to do it alone. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation between nations in the region to build up the resources/capacity and optimally use it by sharing resources and information is what is called for in the fourth pillar of IPOI i.e., Capacity Building and Resource Sharing.

The Information Fusion Centre (IFC-IOR) set up by India at Gurugram in 2018, was a major step in collaborating with countries in the region and multinational agencies to enhance maritime awareness and sharing of information. As reported, the Centre currently has linkages with 21 partner countries with many of them having Liaison Officers based at the Centre and 22 multinational agencies across the world to enhance the surveillance of maritime spaces and sea lanes of communication across the Indo-Pacific. Only generation of real-time, holistic picture of the Indo-Pacific region would enable deployment of maritime forces as need be to assist or to prevent a situation from developing into a crisis.

Disaster Risk Reduction and Management is the next element of IPOI which in maritime parlance amounts to Search and Rescue and disaster relief or Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) as we now call it. It is a major challenge to maritime forces and prediction mechanisms, warning systems, contingency plans and rapid reaction forces need to be put in place to mitigate effects of disasters like tsunami or cyclones when they happen. Natural disasters apart from causing major damage to life and property along the coastal zone, would also adversely impact shipping, fishing and other offshore activities. Smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific region would be looking up to major nations for help and evacuation assistance and hence it is major area for countries to collaborate. Regular interaction and exercises between maritime forces of countries in the region i.e., Navies and Coast Guards is called for, as such training would be a major fillip for inter-operability and familiarisation with various maritime regions, resulting in speedy relief when called for.

Cooperation in Science, Technology and Academic fields is another initiative with ample scope for collaboration between nations in the maritime area. Joint studies and research on maritime issues at multiple levels in academic institutions, professional training academies and in think tanks have the potential to bring innovative solutions for many unresolved issues. Major nations in the Indo-Pacific could take the lead in collaborative efforts by bringing in domain experts as needed to provide training as well as help overcome capacity/resource shortfalls in partner nations.

Connectivity and Transportation can easily be termed as vital needs for development of maritime trade and commerce. This in turn calls for development of ports and associated infrastructure and shipping. The Sagarmala project envisages modernisation and capacity enhancement of India’s maritime infrastructure and operational capabilities. India has also undertaken some initiatives to enhance maritime connectivity in countries in the region. India’s ship building facilities could also be used to support smaller nations in the area.

Having looked at various pillars proposed under IPOI, which are as such in keeping with sustainable development goals of United Nations, it would be clear that building partnerships with like-minded nations is essential for its success. Across the Indo-Pacific, most nations have come around to the view that oceans are an area where close international cooperation is called for. Many are willing or have already entered into issue-based agreements with other countries of the region. India has reached out to a number of countries and many have expressed keenness to cooperate on the IPOI. Basic concept is for one or two countries to steer a pillar and others joining in. An early step under this concept was taken when the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership (AIIPOIP) was initiated as a follow up of the Australia-India comprehensive strategic partnership announced in June 2020. Australia became the lead partner on the Maritime Ecology pillar and is looking to drive scientific collaboration and share best practices across the Indo-Pacific on reducing marine pollution, with a focus on plastic waste. It is planned in the initial phase to generate ideas and bring together all stakeholders in a collaborative way to share expertise and resources. Vietnam, Philippines and recently France have agreed to join IPOI.


The concept of the Indo-Pacific and its emergence as the theatre for economic and strategic competition in the 21st century has given India an opportunity to expand her strategic profile. Countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia and several European powers with interests in the region have been looking to India as a strategic partner to safeguard their interests. The rise of China and her forays into the Indian Ocean Region and expanding presence in India’s immediate neighbourhood makes it important for India to be seen as being equally capable of reaching out and building partnerships in China’s backyard. Partnerships offer options to meet geopolitical and strategic challenges.


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India’s vision has always been for a free and open Indo-Pacific, where nations undertake cooperative endeavours to create a safe and secure maritime domain for the mutual benefit of all. The IPOI launched by India in 2019, proposes cooperation in seven areas/pillars viz maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation and trade, connectivity and maritime transport, all of which covers the entire gamut of maritime challenges facing the world in the 21st century. The concept of Indo-Pacific and IPOI was aptly put across by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar during his Valedictory Address at the Delhi Dialogue in December 2019 when he said “….While the nations of the Eastern Indian Ocean and States on the connecting seas leading to the Pacific are defining their vision of the Indo-Pacific, there is room for a Western Indian Ocean version of this concept too. In line with our own view that the Indo-Pacific naturally includes our Western Ocean neighbours in the Gulf, the Island nations of the Arabian Sea, and our partners in Africa, India’s approach to this concept led us to recognise that both geographical extremities of the Indo-Pacific and everything in between should ideally have their own indigenously evolved approach to the Indo-Pacific”. …On IPOI he said “This initiative, in short, calls for establishing a free, open and cooperative platform to respond to a range of maritime challenges and needs…”

Clearly, IPOI urges nations of the region to look beyond narrow geopolitics and work together to safeguard the maritime domain, in all its facets for the greater good of mankind. As far as India is concerned, which was not aligned to any of the power blocks of the 20th century, her vision for Indo-Pacific and the concept behind IPOI offers an opportunity to have issue-based partnerships in keeping with the basic principle of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). While the IPOI is still evolving and challenges exist, the early joining of Australia and interests expressed by many others to be partners in the initiative augurs well for its future and would be another enabler for India to emerge as a major player in Indo-Pacific in the 21st century.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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