India’s challenge of securing the seas

Three recent events underline India’s efforts to highlight its growing maritime interests and ambitions in order to secure them unilaterally and in partnership with others. The first was the quiet release of the Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS) titled Ensuring Secure Seas in October. The second was the holding of the combined senior commanders’ conference, with top officers from all three services, on board INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy’s latest aircraft carrier and its largest platform, in December. The last and most recent was India’s hosting of its second International Fleet Review (IFR) at Visakhapatnam in early February.

While the pomp and circumstance as well as the photo-ops of the IFR, which attracted naval vessels from 50 countries, predictably, created the biggest splash, its significance is best understood in tandem with the 185-page IMSS-2015. Although the document is simultaneously comprehensive, conservative and cautious, it conveys one key message: India is now willing to provide “net maritime security” either by itself or in cooperation with other navies in its primary and secondary areas of interest, which now extend from the west coast of Africa to the south-east Indian Ocean, “including sea routes to the Pacific Ocean”. One instance of this cooperation was the IBSAMAR V exercise conducted with Brazilian and South African ships off the coast of Goa just after the IFR.

Although IMSS-2015 stresses that the principal threat “would be from states with a history of aggression against India”, it shies away from naming them; concerns vis-à-vis China’s growing role in the Indian Ocean are not mentioned. Instead, recognizing the complexity of an interconnected world, it cautions that even countries with “divergent national interests can be significant trade partners today (read China)” while there may be divergent security perceptions “with nations that may be traditional friends (read United States)”.

Similarly, the document is also coy about the role of India’s sea-based nuclear deterrence against other nuclear-armed states. It merely notes that the primary objective of the nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear-tipped missiles is to convey “credibility, effectiveness and survivability” of India’s nuclear arsenal to its nuclear-armed adversaries.

In addition to the traditional threats from states, IMSS-2015 also stresses a number of non-traditional maritime threats that now confront India, ranging from terrorism, piracy and organized crime to climate change and natural disasters. In fact, since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Indian Navy has been increasingly involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, most recently in 2014 when cyclone Hudhud ravaged Visakhapatnam and other parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Moreover, following the turmoil in West Asia, naval ships have been involved in the evacuation of Indian and other nationals from Libya and Yemen. Such operations are likely to continue until a modicum of stability is restored in the region.

While the document dutifully records the various maritime initiatives annou-nced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including Project Mausam, Blue Chakra (from the Ashoka chakra on the Indian flag) and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), it does not explain how they relate to each other or how they would be operationalized.

Curiously, in his uncharacteristically lacklustre speech on the occasion of the IFR, Modi recited the Blue Chakra and SAGAR mantra but made no mention of the IMSS-2015, which could tie these various initiatives together. Instead, he announced the decision to host the first Global Maritime Summit in April without elaboration.

Clearly, despite articulating its intentions and working with several other nations, India faces formidable internal and external challenges in securing its interests at sea. While the IMSS-2015, despite its limitations, is a good beginning, it will come to naught unless there is buy-in and coordination at the highest level to ensure its implementation.

This article was originally published in LiveMint on February 15, 2016

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Feb 15, 2016
WPS Sidhu
China, East Asia, South Asia, India