Maritime challenges impact our national security and, therefore, must be addressed with all sincerity. India needs to re-evaluate its security concerns to march towards being a major power
While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is one of the important oceanic areas; to India, it is a vital sea, its lifelines are concentrated in that area and its freedom is dependent on the freedom of that water surface”, said KM Pannikar.
The continuation of ongoing global hegemonic developments, coupled with recent activities in and around have made the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) the epicentre of geo-political arena, having direct bearing on 21 Littorals in general, and India in particular, whose security and economic interests are directly linked to keep the Indian Ocean (IO) free from military activities of the super/regional powers. Before proceeding further, it is pertinent to mention an incidental literary development, which subsequently became a precursor to the politico-strategic tool, to impose hegemony over others. In 1990, Joseph Nye of the Harvard University coined a term called ‘soft power’ in his book, Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power, where he stated, “Soft power is the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power), which is using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction”.
Taking cue, it was China who took the lead to strategise this thought into the ‘soft power doctrine’ and launched it in the IOR, that culminated into virtually dominating and chocking the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) by setting up the String of Pearls (SOP), stretching from the Coco Islands in the east up to Djibouti in the west and further buttressed by dolling economic aid of $1.1 billion to Sri Lanka; free trade agreement with Maldives; and the $10 billion oil pipeline project in Kyauk Pyu Port in Myanmar. Further, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) worth one trillion dollar and its sister project One Belt-One Road (OBOR) have not only tilted the regional equation but have also thrown fresh security challenges to us.
Meanwhile, the United States has been supporting the South China Sea (SCS) littorals’ claim and is also seeking effective and greater role by India. Above all, enlarging the regional geo political template from erstwhile Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific region provide us a window of opportunity to not only reassert our global role but also effectively counter the Chinese regional expansionism. In a tectonic shift, the US has put direct onus on Pakistan of supporting regional terrorism and stopping $255 million. This indicates a foreseeable Indo-US strategic cooperation in the coming years.
Under these fast changing and unpredictable geo-political environs, we need to re-evaluate our maritime concerns to ensure that we not only meet these challenges successfully, but also safeguard our national interests. I believe that our maritime security must be a cumulative manifestation of: One, protection of Exclusive Economic Zone and the merchant fleet. Two, security of offshore installations. Three, defence of island territories. And most importantly, project our strategic influence in the IOR, extending from Thailand, Indonesia, Mauritius to the Gulf of Aden. In order to achieve this, we need to exercise both the soft power and military options. Foremost, the Indo-Pacific Region is of strategic importance to our economic growth and can play a vital role to kick start our recently launched ‘Blue Economy Initiatives’ (use of marine resources for sustainable economic development). We must, therefore, tap its potential to catalyse the Niti Aayog’s vision to achieve the $10 trillion economy target by 2032.
In the meantime, our sustained initiatives launched during the last couple of years have yielded crucial inroads in the IOR; inauguration of the first phase of Chabahar Port in Iran, concluding a defence contract in close vicinity of Chinese sponsored Hambantota Port in Srilanka and the historic detente in the Indo-Maldives relations with the latter putting ‘India First’ in its diplomatic priorities are cases in point.
Similarly, our efforts must also focus to neutralise Chinese influence in the far-East. The ‘India-Africa Forum Summit’ with 14 African countries launched in 2008, is an ideal forum to enhance our economic-military strides and must be vigorously pursued to consolidate our initiatives.
Another aspect that we have somehow failed to encash is Naval diplomacy — it is a well-known reality that the Indian Navy has been extending timely and crucial political and economic support/help in our neighbourhood, which must continue to expand our regional influence.
Rechristening of the erstwhile ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East Policy’ albeit, a belated step, is making steady inroads. The year 2017 was a landmark year when we celebrated 25 years of dialogue; 15 years of summit level meetings; and five years of strategic partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Overall improvement and regional grouping, leading to the free trade agreement with Asean, is the direct outcome of active pursuance of our Act East Policy, which has culminated to their Heads being the combined state guests this Republic Day. Further, in order to check the Chinese expansionist manoeuvre, both in the South and the East China Seas, we must not restrict to just extending the overt support to the sovereignty of the Littoral states but also enhance sustained diplomatic, exploratory and military cooperation.
Recently, an international study concluded that the next decade would see India along with Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and Philippines, emerging as the prominent military powers in the regional horizon. Conversely, if we look at the present status and snail’s mentality in modernisation of our Armed Forces, there is lot to be done to justify this prediction. Also, there is gross mismatch in our perceived aim and existing capabilities, which are woefully inadequate.
Truly speaking, we need to sail many knots to claim the ‘Blue Water’ capability. Let us analyse our current status in the IOR. Strategically, we just have notional military presence in the form of three Listening Posts (LPs). However, the recent acquisition of an island on lease from Mauritius and now Seychelles allowing India to establish military infrastructures, will improve our woeful presence to some extent. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to dominate the entire stretch of SLOC. We must promote all-weather regional military cooperation among the Indo Pacific nations. Additionally, in a step-up development, the historic quadrilateral New Delhi conclave of Naval chiefs from India, US, Australia and Japan, on January 18, pushed for a new regional security architecture to face up to China’s aggressive designs.
We must plan the re-organisation of our fleet but definitely not repeating the folly of prematurely aborting the ‘Revolution of Naval Affairs Project’ in 2010. We must redux our reorganisation efforts to achieve the ‘Blue Water punch’ in the next decade. In order to fully counter the anti access/area denial capabilities of our adversaries as also to play envisioned role in the Indo-Pacific region, apart from complete overhauling our sub-sea capabilities, we must strive to acquire four aircraft carrier Battle Groups ie, one each for the three fleets and a backup for strategic missions. Maritime challenges abundantly impact our national security, which must be addressed with all sincerity. I must add that the current asymmetric equation has the potential of being ‘Kargil in Sea.
(The writer is a retired Infantry Officer with vast operational experien