The problem

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FOR Delhi, long weighed down by contested land borders with Pakistan and China, the oceans were not of major concern. If the maritime imperative had finally begun to register on Delhi over the last nearly quarter of a century, the government of Narendra Modi has signalled a new political will to take up the challenge. A renewed focus on maritime issues in Delhi was inevitable once India ended its inward orientation and embarked on a path of economic globalization in the 1990s. Trading nations also tend to be maritime nations. As trade began to constitute an ever larger share of India’s GDP – it is now close to 50 per cent and much of it flows across the seas – India had necessarily to devote more attention to securing its oceanic interests. The 1990s also saw India end its military isolationism and step up military exchanges with a large number of countries in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The idea that Delhi must reclaim its historic sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean seemed to gain ground in Delhi’s strategic discourse.

The new interest in the maritime domain did not, however, translate into a vigorous national strategy. Despite India’s growing economic reliance on the seas over the last quarter of a century, and a series of minor maritime initiatives by a number of government agencies, the top political leadership never had the time or inclination to lay out a clear set of national goals in the Indian Ocean and the maritime domains beyond. China, in contrast, has begun to replace its own tradition of continentalism over the last decade with a powerful emphasis on the nation’s maritime destiny and a vigorous assertion of its ‘maritime rights’. More recently it has unveiled a grand vision to build a maritime silk road between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

China’s rising profile in the Indian Ocean has compelled Delhi to take a fresh look at its maritime strategy. The UPA government took a number of new initiatives in the Indian Ocean. It sought to inject renewed dynamism into the moribund Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), set up in the 1990s to promote regional cooperation in the littoral. The UPA years also saw India launch the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) that brings together all the naval chiefs in the littoral for professional exchanges and engagement to promote maritime security. Delhi also initiated a trilateral security arrangement, coordinated at the level of national security advisers, between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives in 2011 to expand maritime security cooperation in a range of areas. All these initiatives were indeed significant. Yet, as in so many areas, the UPA government did not have the energy to pursue them with urgency or purpose. It is that gap between good ideas and their implementation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to three Indian Ocean islands – Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka – in March 2015 has promised to plug.

The visit saw Narendra Modi declare that engaging the Indian Ocean littoral was ‘at the top of our policy priorities’, a signal not just to India’s international partners, but also to Delhi’s bureaucratic establishment. In his remarks at the commissioning of the Indian-made offshore patrol vessel, Barracuda, at Port Louis, Mauritius, the prime minister laid out a comprehensive framework for India’s maritime engagement in the Indian Ocean littoral. His fivefold framework begins with the affirmation that Delhi will do everything to secure India’s mainland and island territories and defend its maritime interests. While the primary focus is on India’s own interests, the PM said, Delhi ‘will work to ensure a safe, secure and stable Indian Ocean Region that delivers us all to the shores of prosperity.’

The second dimension of the PM’s framework is about deepening security cooperation with India’s ‘friends in the region especially our maritime neighbours and island states.’ During his visit to the islands, he announced important agreements to develop infrastructure for connectivity in the Assumption Island (Seychelles) and Agaléga (Mauritius). These agreements are likely to strengthen the defence capabilities of the two republics and give India a valuable foothold at critical locations in south western Indian Ocean. The third level of the framework relates to building multilateral cooperative maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Modi said that India would help strengthen regional mechanisms for combatting terrorism and piracy and responding to natural disasters, and expressed the hope that Mauritius, Seychelles and other countries would join the trilateral security initiative it already has with Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Sustainable economic development for all, the PM said, is the fourth element of India’s maritime policy. In Seychelles, he announced the setting up a joint working group to expand cooperation on ‘blue economy’ that ‘will increase our understanding of marine ecology and resources. We will improve our ability to harness new possibilities of the ocean in a sustainable and balanced manner.’ In Mauritius, he remarked that the ‘blue chakra or wheel in India’s national flag represents the potential of the Blue Revolution or the Ocean Economy. That is how central the ocean economy is to us.’

Finally, the prime minister has discarded the long-standing Indian self-perception as a ‘lone ranger’ in the Indian Ocean. For decades, India made no secret of its reluctance to cooperate with other major powers in the Indian Ocean. Delhi constantly sought to differentiate between its legitimate role as a ‘native’ power and the intrusive presence of ‘extra-regional’ powers. Political opposition to the presence of extra-regional powers was central to India’s articulation of Indian Ocean policy during the 1970s and 1980s and has lingered on since. This opposition that was once focused on the western powers, whose presence was seen as a residual legacy of the colonial era, has easily been extended to China in the Indian strategic discourse on the Indian Ocean in recent years.

Narendra Modi, however, seems to have departed from this tradition to present a new and more sophisticated approach. While insisting that ‘those who live in the region have the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean,’ he recognizes that ‘there are other nations around the world, with strong interests and stakes in the region.’ He declared that ‘India is deeply engaged with other powers.’ ‘We do this through dialogue, visits, exercises, capacity building and economic partnership.’ The indirect reference here is quite clearly to the United States. Modi has made a decisive break from the ambivalence of the UPA government towards strategic cooperation with the United States. During his visit to India in January 2015, President Barack Obama and Modi surprised the world by signing a broad framework for expanding maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific. After decades of trying to keep America at arm’s length in the Indian Ocean, Delhi is now eager to improve its own standing in the littoral through constructing a productive partnership with the United States.

Narendra Modi’s five propositions for the Indian Ocean are unexceptionable. But a speech does not a policy make. While the PM has lent political will to India’s long-standing strategic aspirations in the Indian Ocean, he would need to devote much more energy in persuading Delhi to think like a maritime power. This issue of Seminar delves into specific factors – and players – that are reshaping the Indian Ocean littoral and the broader Indo-Pacific space. It examines the impact of internal push and external pull on Delhi to get its maritime act together. It analyzes the contemporary efforts, including those of India, to limit conflict in Asia’s waters through international cooperation.


* Most papers in this issue were presented at the ORF conferences: ‘Indian Ocean Dialogue’, supported by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (Cochin, September 2014) and the ‘Regional Integration in the Indo-Pacific: Prospects and Challenges’, supported by the Embassy of Japan, India (New Delhi, November 2014).