The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 27, 2003

Analysing the evolution of regional navies
Sanjay Chaturvedi

Navies of South Asia
by K. R. Singh. Rupa, Delhi. Pages 459. Rs 500.

Navies of South AsiaBEFORE the European projection in the late 15th century, the maritime order in the Indian Ocean region was characterised by the regional self-sufficiency and autonomy. Indian Ocean communities were bonded by large-scale maritime trading systems while outside influences were minimal. This centuries-old well established order, in which South Asia had played a pivotal role, was slowly replaced by the colonial order, characterised by the economic and political control, which culminated in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Since World War II, the Indian Ocean region has witnessed tremendous geopolitical change as about every littoral state gained its independence and then saw its international relations subordinated by Cold War constraints, eventually seeking formal regional cooperation with neighbours.

This meticulously researched and cogently argued book reminds the reader of a critical distinction between maritime strategy and naval strategy. The former in its comprehensive sense is conditioned by factors such as physical location, historical experience, development of civilian facets of maritime affairs, and ‘development’ of the navy in the sense of not only a ‘wing’ of the armed forces but also as a component of the larger maritime security and welfare of the state. In other words, maritime strategy aims at the enabling the state not only to exploit maritime resources, but also to use the sea to reach beyond one’s frontiers for improving social, economic and political relations.


The evolution of the Indian Navy after Independence can be examined under four phases. The first phase (1947-1965), characterised by reliance upon British, was followed by the phase of transition from the British dependence to the exercise of Soviet option without really abandoning the British linkage. The third phase was impacted by the end of the Cold War and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, whereas the last and the current phase is marked by a search for more autonomous policy in an international environment dominated by the industrialised North and a steep rise in regional tensions, especially in the context of Pakistan—and more recently the crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas there is little doubt that India’s naval capability has steadily grown both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

A survey of Pakistan’s navy reveals, especially in the context of its ‘sea denial strategy,’ that unless Pakistan starts rebuilding its navy now, it is likely to face ‘block obsolescence’ in the times to come. The new naval base named after Jinnah, about 240 km west of Karachi, which is close to India’s maritime border as well as air space, is expected to provide a defence in depth to the navy from both naval as well as air attacks from India. Notwithstanding various constraints, Pakistan has not only continued to induce modern weapons like the modified Agosta-class submarines, but it has also initiated a modest shipbuilding project.

While commenting on Bangladesh, the author says each country tends to define its maritime strategy keeping in view its specific geo-strategic requirements, its geopolitical location and the resources. The maritime strategy of Bangladesh is aimed at the protection of national sovereignty, territorial integrity; maritime and riverine trade as well resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the continental shelf. As the pace of maritime regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal has gathered momentum since the 1990s, the threat perception vis-`E0-vis India appears to have subsided. Whereas the growing naval power of Myanmar, with which Bangladesh has an unresolved maritime boundary dispute, is likely to be the focus of maritime threat perception of Bangladesh in the years ahead.

Both Sri Lanka and Maldives appear to be unaffected by the changes in the global geopolitical environment. The threat perception of Maldives is typical of a micro mid-ocean island republic comprising widely separated islands. Besides the difficult task of patrolling its vast EEZ with the help of a Coast Guard (Maldives does not possess a navy), it continues to face the threat of a low intensity conflict. While Sri Lanka’s maritime strategy remains confined to the task of neutralising the threat of the maritime low-intensity conflict being waged for over two decades against the LTTE.

The book concludes by pointing out that even though most of the South Asian states are too small to evolve an effective autonomous maritime capability, the regional maritime cooperation can overcome some of the constraints. The concluding sentence of the book succinctly sums up the imperative for the regional and sub-regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean region and sets the tone and tenor for India’s ocean policy for the 21st century: "A divided South Asia will be a pawn in the hands of extra-regional powers. On the other hand, a unified South Asia will be a major actor in the Indian Ocean region."