Military & Aerospace

India’s maritime and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 May , 2018


Until very recently we would be talking only about India’s challenges, maritime and others, in the Indian Ocean region and not the Indo-Pacific region. The concept of the Indo-Pacific is a very new one; it did not figure in geopolitical analyses in government, think-tank or academic circles that I know of until Shinzo Abe, during his first term as Prime Minister, sowed the seeds of this concept at political level during his speech in our parliament in August 2007 on the “Confluence of the Two Seas”. In it he spoke of a broader Asia encompassing the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, stretching from the United States to Australia and India in an Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.

The Indo-Pacific concept has quite clearly roots in the new challenges that Japan is confronted with in the East and South China Seas, to meet which it has enlarged the political and security canvas to include the Indian Ocean, which means reaching out to India as a security partner, whereas traditionally Japan has focused on the economic dimension of its relationship with us.

The Indo-Pacific concept addresses the limitations of the Asia-Pacific geopolitical construct that we have been familiar with, one which has excluded India. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) launched in 1989 did not include India, as did the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) launched in 1996, though India was admitted into ASEM in 2006. India still remains outside APEC despite stated US support for its inclusion.

It is anomalous that any forum that purports to cover Asia should exclude India, which is the continent’s second largest country and the only power in a position to rival China. India’s reputation of being a relatively closed economy and a difficult economic partner would explain its exclusion, apart from political factors. This exclusion has meant the lowering of India’s regional profile and greater centrality of China in Asian affairs. With India’s economic rise and the growth of its international stature, the circumstances have been evolving in favour of integrating India into the political and security dimensions of the Asia-Pacific region, and this through the Indo-Pacific concept.

This concept has found political support in India because the source of Japan’s concerns in the western Pacific has been a source of India’s concerns too. By accepting this concept we have come a long way from the time when we politically opposed the presence of foreign powers in the Indian Ocean, saw them as endangering peace and stability there, viewed Diego Garcia as a threat to our security, and strongly backed the concept of the Indian Ocean as a  Zone of Peace.

With changes in the international situation, our relationship with the United States has been visibly transformed, and especially so after the India-US nuclear deal in 2005 which  removed a critical strategic impediment in an all-round improvement of ties. This is reflected in an unprecedented expansion of the defence relationship. The capacity of the Indian Navy for ocean surveillance has been greatly enhanced by the acquisition of the P8I maritime patrol aircraft from the United States. After protracted negotiations India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in August 2016 which gives the armed forces of the two countries access to their respective military facilities for logistic support. This agreement would be most relevant to the two Navies. We have also signed a Maritime Domain Awareness agreement with the US.

The LEMOA was a major departure from our past policies of shying away from any arrangement that could be misconstrued as edging towards a military alliance. India has been declared  a Major Defence Partner of the United States by Congressional legislation. The Pentagon initiated Defence Trade and Technology Agreement (DTTI) continues to examine joint development  and production projects with easier transfer of technology to India, amongst which some advanced naval technologies are involved, including aircraft carrier design.

Even before this all-round progress in India-United States ties, the Indian Navy had begun to open the doors of a positive engagement with the United States at sea with the commencement of the Malabar exercise in 1992. At that time the new challenges that are today emerging in the Indian Ocean had not appeared, and the concept of the Indo-Pacific had not been even imagined.

The Malabar exercise, as I see it, was more in the nature of confidence building at bilateral level, to overcome the legacy of the past- the entry of the USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal in 1971, for example- besides, for us, the learning process involved at the operational level by exercising with the world’s most advanced naval power. For the United States the consideration would also have been to gain political acceptance as an Indian Ocean power and be able to make a continuing assessment of the growing capabilities of our Navy.

The Malabar exercise was suspended after our 1998 nuclear tests, resumed in 2002 and has been held regularly since. The scope of this exercise has been progressively enlarged over the years covering, amongst others, anti-submarine warfare tactics and “war at sea” simulation, and has involved warships, submarines, aircraft carriers, guided missile frigates, destroyers, amphibious ships, carrier-launched aircraft, helicopters, maritime surveillance aircraft, Coast Guard vessels and so on. In 2007, the exercise was held for the first time outside the Indian Ocean, off Okinawa.

The declared purpose of the Malabar exercise is to enhance interoperability for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, as well as issues of maritime security and piracy. Maritime security would include the vital responsibility of safeguarding the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean whose geo-strategic importance cannot be over-emphasised. Its four key choke-points- the Strait of Hormuz,  the Straits of Malacca, and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal- if closed for any reason can play havoc with global trade and energy flows.

The shipping activity across the Indian Ocean is enormous. According to an Indian Maritime Foundation paper, nearly 100,000 vessels transit through it carrying bulk cargo, oil and gas, grain and containers. Nearly 120,000 ships pass through the Straits of Malacca annually. Over 17,000 ships transited through the Suez Canal in 2015. In 2013, the Strait of Hormuz recorded an oil flow of 17 million barrels per day, which is nearly 30 per cent of all seaborne-traded oil. The Persian Gulf is estimated to contain about 40 per cent of global oil and 35 per cent of global gas.  Five major Asian economies- Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea- are dependent on the Persian Gulf and Africa for meeting their energy needs, and a large part is carried in tankers through the Indian Ocean. China is the second largest oil consumer in the world, primarily sourced from the Persian Gulf region. 84% of Japan fossil fuel needs are sourced from the Persian Gulf and so is the case with South Korea. India relies on the Persian Gulf for nearly 58 per cent of its energy imports.

The development of a robust defence relationship with the United States and the practice of holding an elaborate joint naval exercise with that country set the stage for an India-United States Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions announced during former president Obama’s visit to India in January 2015. For India to accept a security linkage between these two regions constituted a huge jump in geo-strategic thinking.

We have, of course, important political and economic interests in East and Southeast Asia. Our Look East Policy encompasses this region, though China looks askance at any Indian activism within it. China is very active in India’s maritime space but takes a different view when it comes to the South China Sea. If Japan is against the South China Sea becoming a “Beijing Lake”, India, as well as the international community in general, would not want it to become a Chinese lake either.

China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea based on past history have no legal basis. Its nine-dash line has been judged without any legal foundation by the Permanent Arbitration Tribunal set up under the UN Convention on the the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In this context, India has repeatedly supported freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the UNCLOS and international law. India and others have to take cognisance of the fact that China has reclaimed seven islands in the South China Sea and militarised them without opposition other than verbal and freedom of navigation operations by the US.

The Malacca Straits connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, and it is through these Straits that over 40% of our sea-borne trade passes. ASEAN is one of India’s largest trade partners, with the total two way trade valued at $ 71 billion in 2016-17. India has energy interests in this region as signified by its involvement in oil exploration in the South China Sea in off-shore blocks in Vietnam’s EEZ, which one of our former naval chiefs expressed readiness to defend against any threat.

The presence of all the Heads of ASEAN countries at our 2018 R-Day celebrations testifies to the deepening of India-ASEAN ties. It is no secret that the ASEAN countries want India to play a larger role in Southeast Asia in order to balance the increasing weight of China. Apart from the political and economic instruments in India’s hands to strengthen ties with ASEAN, there is also the military dimension, and this includes the Indian Navy not only for building maritime bridges through joint naval exercises with these countries but also to protect the sea lanes as well as India’s assets in this broad region. The location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Malacca Straits devolves on the Indian Navy a vital strategic role in the maritime domain.

Having noted India’s major interest in the western Pacific, it should be underlined that India is primarily an Indian Ocean power, with enormous responsibilities for safeguarding its long coast line, its island territories, its off-shore economic assets and its EEZ. The two vital choke points in the Indian Ocean region- the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca- which are critical for unimpeded international energy and trade flows are of operational concern to the Indian Navy. We have had experience of sea-borne terrorist threats which requires our coast guard and our navy to remain geared up to address them. Piracy has surfaced as a serious threat to commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and though controlled as of now it still requires continued attention. Merchant vessels of many countries passing through piracy infested waters in the western Indian Ocean have Indian sea men and rescuing them becomes a task for the India Navy.

The Indian Ocean has its share of natural disasters, as was saw in the case of the tsunami in 2004, and we have seen how rapid and effective the Indian Navy has been in HADR operations. The consequences of Climate Change are likely to increase the frequency and size of such disasters, with that much more responsibility devolving on our Navy. The role of the Indian Navy in evacuating Indian and other nationals from conflict zones far and near has earned plaudits in recent operations. Unfortunately, with conflicts still raging in West Asia and the likelihood of their worsening could put a lot of burden on the Indian Navy by way of such operations in the future. Last but not least, illegal fishing in our waters is a serious issue that our maritime forces have to tackle.

There is much talk of India as a net security provider and of burden sharing, overlooking the fact that the Indian Navy has been playing this role, as partly outlined above, flowing from its own responsibilities and not in response to demands from outside powers. India, to my mind, has an independent responsibility in the maritime domain and will continue to do so in its own interests and as situations develop.

When Mozambique hosted the African Union summit in 2003 and the World Economic Forum meeting in 2004, Indian warships provided coastal security. In 2011 India and Mozambique agreed at the level of Defence Ministers to work together to improve maritime security in the Indian Ocean. India began anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel in 2012. During the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, our Navy kept a watch on the flow of arms to the LTTE by sea. We have maritime security arrangements with Maldives, though the present government there is seeking to whittle away at them contrary to the interests of both countries.

More recently, we have  sought to expand our security responsibilities in the Indian Ocean area by jointly developing maritime security facilities in islands belonging to Seychelles and Mauritius, though the agreement with Seychelles has run into difficulty because of internal politics there. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March 2015 was timely and multi-dimensional. In Mauritius, Modi signed an agreement on the development of Agalega Island. He also attended the commissioning of the Barracuda, a 1300 tonne Indian-built patrol vessel ship for the country’s National Coast Guard, with more such vessels to follow. His visit signified heightened attention to our critical interests in the Indian Ocean area.

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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

Kanwal Sibal

is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

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