Modi’s Oceanic Challenges
As I write this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a three-nation Indian Ocean tour. He is visiting Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, with all of whom India has civilisational linkages, strong people-to-people bonds and important economic and commercial ties. As foreign secretary S Jaishankar says, “When we look at them, in one sense at least conceptually we look at them as Ocean Economies which, therefore, offer new possibilities of cooperation even as we kind of consolidate the earlier areas we used to work together in.” And here, two important features of the Indian policy happen to be maritime security and development cooperation, evident from the types of agreements Modi has concluded with Seychelles and Mauritius during his visit.
Historically speaking, India was a great power in terms of wealth and influence as long as it was a great maritime nation. If India’s decline as a major world power started in the medieval period, it was essentially because the then rulers of India—the Mughals—turned their attention from “Seas” and focused on land power. And if India wants to regain its lost glory and power, it has to restore the importance due to the Indian Ocean in its scheme of things. Let me concentrate on this theme in the column this week.
The Indian Ocean region contains about a third of the world’s population, 25 per cent of the global landmass, and about 40 per cent of the world’s oil and gas resources. India is arguably the most important constituent of this region. If history is any indication, then it is a fact that whoever controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself. India has a coast line of over 7500 kms; the Lakshwadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar chains stretch over 600 islands, with southernmost tip just 90 nautical miles from Indonesia and the northern most tip less than 10 nautical miles from Myanmar. India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is more than 2.5 million square Kms. The mining areas of over 150,000 sq Kms allotted to India under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Laws of Seas) are about 2000 Kms from its southernmost tip. India has significant interests in Antarctica as well.
Going by Admiral Arun Prakash, a former Chief of the Indian Navy, four factors in recent years have been behind the changing mindset of India on the importance of the maritime power. One is globalisation. Free trade is propelled by the sea, and sea-based commerce requires maritime security. A second factor is the imperative of coastal security, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai—which were carried out by terrorists arriving in Mumbai via the sea. Third, with China’s “adversarial” relationship with India, the Indian Ocean has become a “decisive arena” in the rivalry. And finally, India’s economic growth has given the country the financial capacity to pursue its expanded naval plans.
Talking of Indian Ocean, four vital interests of India may be highlighted. First, major sea lanes of the world are crucially important for India, particularly those that ensure the free flow of oil and commerce from the Gulf of Aden to the Asia-Pacific region. Here, the security of the so-called choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra and Malaysia, the Sunda Strait between the Indian Ocean and Borneo and the Lombok Strait between the Indian Ocean and the Sulawesi are significant.
It may be mentioned here that the Indian Ocean is getting increasingly integrated with the Western Pacific. We now have the concept of “Indo-Pacific” as greater integration between Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean through the involvement of India. After all, India’s global mercantile trade has grown phenomenally and now constitutes 41per cent of its GDP. As much as 77 per cent of India’s trade by value, and over 90 per cent by volume is carried by sea.
Secondly, the maritime dimension is also vital for India’s energy security. Today India imports over 70 per cent of its oil requirements and it is estimated that by 2050 India will be the largest importer of oil in the world. India’s economic growth would continue to be critically depended upon unhindered flow of oil. India also imports coal from ten countries, (including Mozambique, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia), many of which are Indian Ocean littorals. This is also true of its LNG imports (from Qatar, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa). A new development of late has been India’s acquisition of oil and gas fields across the globe. Today Indian companies operate tank farms in Trincomalee (Sri Lanka) and oil and gas fields in the Sakhalin Islands(Russia), Vietnam, Myanmar, Egypt and Sudan. In fact, in December 2006, the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta had expanded the conceptual construct of India’s “greater strategic neighbourhood” to include potential sources of oil and gas imports located across the globe—from Venezuela to the Sakhalin Islands.
Thirdly, India’s maritime interests also include the safety and wellbeing of almost 5 million Indians workers in the Gulf and West Asia and the significance of the remittances they send home cannot be underestimated. Besides, populations of Indian origin are scattered through the littoral states of the Indian Ocean.
Last, but not least, is that facet of the Indian Ocean which presents the prospect of wealth and prosperity, and yet contains the seeds of future conflict – undersea resources. India has a mineral rich EEZ currently extending over 2 (two) million sq km, and the successful exploitation of these could lift the country from economic backwardness. The country has exclusive control over the oil, gas and other living and non-living sources in this area. In fact, a substantial part of India’s economic and industrial activities is located in this area. The offshore oil and natural gas extraction activities are growing in India’s eastern as well as western coasts.
In other words, India has a vital interest in ensuring that there is free flow of trade, including import of energy resources, through the protection of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and of coastal infrastructure from seaborne attack. Threats to these here emanate from terrorism, smuggling and piracy etc. that have all come true in India’s case over the last few years. India has been countering these challenges both individually by strengthening its military prowess on the one hand and by working multilaterally through forums such as the Indian oceans Rim Association for regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). The IOR-ARC is a pan Indian Ocean economic forum with 20 full members and six dialogue partners. The volume of trade among the IOR-ARC countries is worth about $ 4 trillion and their combined GDP is expected to cross US $ 9 trillion by 2016. But then the fact remains that its true potential has been not realised, because there is simply no proper synergy among the member states. The African members are relatively dormant. However, of late, India, Australia and Indonesia have shown active interests towards the idea and are favourably poised to indentify convergent issues in bilateral and multilateral engagements. They have expressed their desire to articulate geostrategic convergences and develop joint action plans in sector specific areas.
On its own, India has been pursuing what is called the twin principles of “shared prosperity” and “shared security”, both bilaterally and regionally. It is actively engaged with almost all regional bodies that are either based in or border the Indian Ocean region- ranging from Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asean Regional Forum(ARF), ASEAN, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the Southern African development Community (SADC) . Drawing on its human resources and scientific expertise, India has been assisting traditionally in areas such as agriculture, health, education and IT, as also in capacity building in areas such as hydrography, oceanography, dealing with climate change, etc.
Equally importantly, the Indian Navy is playing a great role by undertaking naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with all the major navies of the world (with France VARUNA exercises since 2001, with Russia—INDRA exercises since 2003, with Britain-KONKAN exercises since 2004, with Brazil and South Africa – IBSA exercises commencing 2008, and with the US-MALABAR exercises since 1992). Then there have been MILAN exercises since 1995, organised from India’s FENC – Far Eastern Naval Command at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. These exercises in the Bay of Bengal initially involved five nations: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. The numbers of navies participating in the MILAN exercises have gradually increased over the years and included Australia and New Zealand. The Indian Navy has also a proud record in disaster-reliefs to countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Lebanon. Likewise, India has undertaken frequent “Presence-cum-Surveillance Missions” to many African countries, including South Africa. In fact, majority of the countries in the region are seeing India now as a “net security provider” and not grudging its Navy’s presence in their adjoining waters, convinced, as they are that India is a benign naval power.
However, China, which has also a vital stakes in the Indian Ocean, has not exactly appreciated the Indian role in the region. While India appreciates China’s legitimate quests for building a powerful Navy to safeguard her vital energy lifelines from the Persian Gulf, what is disconcerting is that in her determined bid for regional preponderance, and ultimately, for superpower status, China has created many defence partnerships in the Indian Ocean Region through its strategy of “string of pearls”, now rebranded as “21st century maritime silk road”.
It is believed that Modi’s ongoing visits are components of his government’s proposed “Project Mausam”, a transnational initiative meant to revive its ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with countries in the Indian Ocean region, thus being a counter to China’s maritime Silk Road concept. It may be noted that Indian maritime traders in the past used the natural monsoon (mausam) winds for navigation.
In other words, we have now a race between India and China to exercise influence in the Indian Ocean. But given its history and geography, this race is more vital to India than China. India just cannot afford to be the loser.
By Prakash Nanda