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Vital for India to realise maritime potential

National policy is still a work in progress, while SAGAR remains an aspirational vision

Vital for India to realise maritime potential

PRIORITY: The ‘Milan’ engagement will focus on navy-to-navy contact and nurturing professional camaraderie. PTI



C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

MARITIME matters are the flavour of the month both for India and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). ‘Milan 2024’ kicks off today in Visakhapatnam, headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command. Over 50 navies will take part in a nine-day-long series of activities — both in harbour and at sea. While 20 navies will send their ships for multilateral exercises seeking to enhance camaraderie and show-the-flag bonhomie, other nations will participate in the ‘milan’ (meeting) ashore.

The government that will assume office in mid-2024 would be well-advised to review the maritime domain in a holistic manner.

The seventh Indian Ocean Conference was held in Perth, Australia on February 9-10. Its theme was ‘Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean’. The keynote addresses were delivered by India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Australian counterpart Penny Wong.

The recent attacks on merchant shipping in the north Arabian Sea by Yemen-based Houthis, a non-state rebel group, and a mini resurgence of piracy off the east coast of Africa have again drawn attention to the centrality of a safe and stable maritime environment for global trade and commerce. While there was disruption to merchant shipping using the Suez canal route from Europe, the Indian Navy, despite its modest profile, was able to provide timely assistance to endangered merchant ships in the western Indian Ocean.

On the politico-diplomatic front, the Maldives has emerged as an important island nation in the Indian Ocean amid the India-China competition. Successive governments in Male have been India-friendly, but the current one is leaning towards Beijing. Consequently, New Delhi will have to factor in the Chinese presence in its strategic assessment of the IOR.

The spectrum of challenges for India and the littoral nations of the IOR were succinctly highlighted by Jaishankar in Perth. He noted: “As we gaze at the Indian Ocean, the challenges besetting the world are on full display there. At one extremity, we see conflict, threats to maritime traffic, piracy and terrorism. At the other, there are challenges to international law, concerns about freedom of navigation and overflights, and of safeguarding of sovereignty and of independence. Any disregard for arduously negotiated regimes like UNCLOS 1982 is naturally disturbing.”

The deliberations in Perth reflected the concerns of the governments about the Indian Ocean — a vital maritime space — and many of the themes addressed old and seemingly intractable challenges. The central thread is that the vast oceanic spaces are critical not only for trade, commerce and connectivity (the economic pillar), but also for strategic compulsions (the security pillar), for harnessing sea-based resources, including fishing (the human security pillar) and for dealing with climate change and pollution and the criticality of oceans (the complex and layered environmental vertical).

These inter-linked baskets are differently threatened by state, non-state and societal actions. What is generically described as the ‘global commons’ is really a vast ungoverned maritime space where both untrammelled freedom to navigate and harness the oceans is leavened with intense geopolitical competition — leading to inter-state war on occasion.

In the post-World War II period, the US has played the role of the global maritime cop and ensured a code of conduct, whose origins go back to the advent of the transoceanic sailing ships. Over the decades, a body of laws was adopted under the UN's aegis - the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Paradoxically, while the US is generally compliant with the provisions of the UNCLOS, it remains a non-signatory.

The current major power discord is over what is seen as China's revisionist approach to maritime issues — particularly in the South China Sea — and Beijing's peremptory rejection of any UNCLOS provision that goes against its actions. The international tribunal award in the Philippines-China case is illustrative of this aspect.

The Perth conference dwelt on the China challenge without actually naming it. How to ensure Beijing’s compliance remains a moot point. Reference to a ‘rules-based order’ at sea and the need to respect this in both letter and spirit remain contested and most smaller nations are uneasy with China’s assertive maritime claims.

The ‘Milan’ engagement in Visakhapatnam may not dwell on these complex geopolitical issues. The focus will be more on navy-to-navy contact and nurturing professional camaraderie. While it is encouraging that India is perceived as a credible maritime partner by many big and small nations, New Delhi needs to comprehensively review both its existing maritime capability and policy architecture.

The Navy and the Coast Guard have a specific security and policing focus but they do not account for the entirety of the national maritime capability. Ship-building and design, port infrastructure, coastal shipping and harnessing the blue economy potential in a sustainable manner are some of the primary elements of this holistic capability. The Indian capability is lean and modest.

While the Navy, the smallest of the three armed forces, still receives the least allocation of the defence budget, its trans-border relevance in the decades ahead will be critical for India to realise its aspirations. And on other indicators, it is a matter of shame that for a nation seeking to become the world’s third largest economy, India still does not have a major port among the top 20 ports of the world. The national maritime policy is still a work in progress; despite PM Modi outlining his vision of SAGAR (security and growth for all in the Indian Ocean Region) in 2015, it remains an aspirational vision. The policy lattice elucidating Centre-state objectives and sectoral responsibility is yet to become a national priority.

The government that will assume office in mid-2024 would be well-advised to review the maritime domain in a holistic manner, address the policy lacunae and allocate appropriate resources so that India can realise its untapped maritime potential. ‘Milan 2024’ can serve as a catalyst for achieving this goal.


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