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Posts Tagged ‘Asia-pacific’


The last two decades have seen a remarkable shift in India’s security dialogue. From almost nowhere, issues in the maritime sector have begun to acquire increasing focus. Terms such as Sagar Mala (development of ports), Mausam (promoting inter-connectivity with littorals in the waters around us) and Blue Economy have entered the discourse even as efforts to build a stronger Navy and Coast Guard to safeguard the nation’s interests at sea and to act as a Net Security Provider have come to the forefront. At every strategic discussion maritime security gets mentioned at the very start of the debate.

Despite its two-coast configuration, dozens of ports on both sides and access to open seas, India has always been a continental country. There were kingdoms which did take our culture to distant lands across the seas but not our power. All invaders, those who came and went and those who stayed to rule, came from across the land borders in the north. The Europeans did come in their ships but had to fight no great battles at sea; they only required a few limited skirmishes on land as kingdoms, big and small, were added one by one to the fold that ultimately became India. In independent India, power at sea was never seriously in the consciousness of our political leadership till as late as the war of 1971 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi first saw its potential. Rajiv Gandhi gave it further meaning in the mid-1980s. From a paltry 4.7 per cent of the Defence Budget in the mid-1960s, the figure reached 13 per cent two decades later and close to 18 per cent by the turn of the century. This is positive movement but we are far from having become a maritime nation.

America has consistently advocated an Indo-Pacific role for us with joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, most recently during the visit of US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter where for joint petrol India instantly rejected any possibility. This is largely because for the US, the Indo-Pacific only seems to start from our eastern seaboard extending into waters of the western Pacific; it does not see major roles for our country westwards and it will provoke china too. But, we ourselves have begun to adopt a profile which is veering to ‘Act East’ from ‘Look East’. For example, Indian warships now routinely deploy in the South and East China Seas and visit ports in those regions, exercising with littoral navies.

Moving in to western waters should be cautious step because, even though half of our overseas trade now transits the South China Sea and tranquillity in those waters is important, confrontation with China will not ensure it. We must protest any actions in those waters which could jeopardise safety of commerce and freedom of navigation but actions such as joint patrols with others should not be part of the menu. An Asia-Pacific profile will also not have credibility, at least in the foreseeable future; it can await better days. On the other hand, an Indian Ocean Region (IOR) role is both credible and commensurate with our valid interests that stretch across the Indian Ocean. India in IOR has also proved its worth by successfully leading The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and fighting piracy in the region. In this space, India’s interests and responsibilities must be those of the major littoral power able to reach places of its choosing and operate credibly for as long as it needs to. We are also better placed than the Chinese to deal with issues in the IOR than in waters farther away and can dominate its entries and exits. This will need maritime forces significantly more than are presently there but not a level that we cannot reach if we plan for it systematically. Interestingly, given clear political direction, these goals are achievable with a less than 20 per cent share of the Defence Budget and predominantly through the ‘Make in India’ route. This approach will also contribute to development of maritime infrastructure in the country, a necessity now recognised at the highest levels.

In short, to develop credible maritime assets and capabilities, India should structure itself essentially as an Indian Ocean Region player, rather than seek a broader Asia-Pacific profile. Without compromising on our long-term interests we must clearly identify our core area and that must be the IOR. This expands our operating space sufficiently without compromising any vital concerns. Such a posture will, in the next two decades or so, result in maritime assets and capabilities which will be credible and commensurate with what we will need.

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