Three Years of the Modi Government

Maritime Issues: Proactive Initiatives

27 Jun, 2017    ·   5308

Dr Vijay Sakhuja argues that over the past three years, India’s focus on 'matters maritime' have become more proactive and comprehensive

During the last three years since the incumbent government led by Indian Prime Minister (PM) 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 undertaken a 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 several competing political priorities, rising economic interests and India’s changing security dynamics vis-à-vis the international order. Among these, at least three issues merit attention:

 Maritime security
 International relations
 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. 

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 and joint statements with friendly nations, and are actively promoted by the Indian 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, PM 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 a robust coastal security apparatus. 

Likewise, sea piracy off the Somali coast has been an issue of international concern and the Modi government has exhibited 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, numerous maritime challenges confront India – the changing balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 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 the 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’. India 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, New Delhi has encouraged the Indian Navy and other maritime agencies such as the Coast Guard to build ‘bridges’ with friendly nations, and develop norms for cooperation with the aim of working together with like-minded 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 (such as the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka) that lack necessary military wherewithal and therefore remain vulnerable to threats and challenges. New Delhi has proactively engaged major and smaller maritime powers and India has emerged as a formidable and reliable maritime partner. New Delhi has signed several bilateral maritime cooperation agreements for capacity building, including MoUs that entail joint patrolling and conducting surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zones of smaller nations and supporting their need for maritime domain awareness through information sharing. Additionally, India 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 
PM Modi also announced his vision for the seas through 'Security and Growth for All in the Region' (SAGAR) which means sea, in Hindi. In this context, blue economy has resonated with the government and PM Modi sees the oceans as a 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 India’s maritime prowess to the world and its commitment to support a rule based order on the oceans that has the potential to unite the international community.