Is India At 75 Doing Enough In The Maritime Domain?

In the days to come, India’s forward movement as a global power and force is going to be inextricably linked to the sea. While unlocking huge opportunities, there will be a mountain of challenges that India will have overcome. But it can begin by creating an effective maritime ecosystem

Special Feature

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Retd)

Year 2021 marks an important milestone in India’s journey towards fulfilling its ‘tryst with destiny’ which began at the stroke of midnight on the night of 14/15 August 1947 when India awoke while the world slept. As India celebrates its 75th year as an independent nation, it has much to be proud of but at the same time, has a long way to go towards fulfilling the prophecy of its founding fathers.

2021 also marks 50 years of India’s finest hour when its armed forces, fighting on two fronts, liberated a nation in 16 days, took 93,000 prisoners of war and decimated the war-waging potential of the enemy, a feat unparalleled in the annals of military warfare.

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These 75 years have seen India experience many ups and downs. The country’s territorial integrity has been repeatedly threatened and its economic rise has often faced headwinds. Internally, the country has been tackling many challenges on multiple fronts.

However, the resilience of the country and its people has been a beacon of hope and is the main reason India remains a robust democracy where human values have trumped attempts to undermine this from within and without.

Plundered by a colonial power and ravaged by partition three quarters of a century ago, the country is poised on the cusp of a transformation that will propel India into the big league, provided we can prove equal to the task.

From a maritime perspective, India has established itself as a major naval power but remains a long way from being considered a maritime power. This is despite India’s dependence on the sea for its security, economic well-being and future sustenance. The ability of the country to harness the sea and to create an effective maritime eco system, both ashore and afloat, is therefore a national imperative requiring immediate attention.

From a maritime perspective, India has established itself as a major naval power but remains a long way from being considered a maritime power

India is blessed with impeccable maritime credentials. Located in the centre of the Indian Ocean with its peninsular tip jutting almost a thousand miles into the sea, it has a long coastline extending up to 7,516 km with the sea washing the shores of nine states and four Union territories. About 200 million people live close to the coast and are dependent on the sea directly or indirectly for their livelihoods and sustenance.

The country has a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering more than 2.03 million sq km and is also one of the few countries in the world to have been granted a pioneering investor status in the central Indian Ocean for exploration of poly metallic nodules extending over 75,000 sq km. Both these, the EEZ and this area are rich in natural and mineral resources but India has barely scratched the surface of exploring and utilising this rich resource.

India’s two island territories, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east and the Lakshadweep group on the west are not only strategically important but also have tremendous economic potential and could become hubs for marine tourism.

More than 90 percent of India’s’ trade by volume and over 74 percent by value travels over the sea and is serviced by 12 major ports and more than 200 non-major ports. More than 80 percent of India’s energy requirements are met from the sea, a large portion of which is sourced from different parts of the world and transits over the sea. Most of the India’s indigenous sources are also located offshore on the eastern and western seaboards.

The country has a large Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering more than 2.03 million sq km and is also one of the few countries in the world to have been granted a pioneering investor status in the central Indian Ocean

In 2010, the government had promulgated the ‘Maritime Agenda 2010-2020 which had set ambitious targets to enhance India’s global standing as a maritime power. Many of these targets were revised and incorporated in the Sagarmala Programme, the present government’s impressive port-led maritime infrastructure development initiative which widened the scope of the agenda to include industrial clusters, inland water transportation etc. and is a work in progress.

However, at the end of 2020, India had fallen far short of the targets outlined in 2010. Earlier this year, India hosted an international Maritime Summit where the Prime Minister unveiled the ‘Maritime Vision 2030’ to catapult India into the big league as a maritime power. It is hoped, for India’s sake that this vision will translate into action and achieve its intended objectives if India has to emerge as an economic powerhouse in this decade.

The Indian Ocean region and the larger oceanic space of the Indo-Pacific which is critical to India’s maritime interests is going to be the epicentre of the global Great Game in the 21st century with a rising power challenging the existing status quo.

China has made no secret of its intention to supersede the US as a global superpower by 2049 which also marks the centenary year of the Cultural Revolution. It’s ‘Mahanian’ approach of achieving this through maritime domination is manifesting itself in a number of ways. In less than three decades, it has become a comprehensive maritime power—seven of the ten largest ports in the world are in China; it has the world’s largest shipping fleet and the world’s largest fishing fleet.

The PLA Navy is numerically the largest navy in the world and while it may lag the US Navy in capability, it is sparing no effort to narrow this asymmetry. It has the largest Coast Guard in the world, which is better armed than many navies and it also has the world’s largest maritime militia comprising armed fishing vessels which it effectively uses in its Grey Zone operations to intimidate its smaller maritime neighbours when plundering their resources in their EEZ.

China has set its sights on re-shaping the existing rules-based international order at sea into one with ‘Chinese characteristics’ with its strategically driven economic programme called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by gaining economic and political leverage through its ‘debt trap’ diplomacy. It has shown scant regard for laid down international conventions like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite being a signatory itself and cares little for the sovereign sensitivities of others.

It has already established its ownership over the South China Sea located within the 9-Dash line, is establishing its dominance in the East China Sea and as its navy grows, is expanding its footprint westwards into the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this year, India hosted an international Maritime Summit where the Prime Minister unveiled the ‘Maritime Vision 2030’ to catapult India into the big league as a maritime power

It already has a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean which the Indian Navy views with concern. It has established a naval base at Djibouti located at the western extremity of the Indo-Pacific and is in de facto control of the Pakistani deep water port of Gwadar which is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which offers China a land-based route to its mainland from the Arabian Sea thus circumventing its Malacca Dilemma.

It is also arming Pakistan with eight AIP submarines and four guided missile frigates within the next decade. It is firmly entrenched in the countries along the entire African East Coast and is establishing the capability to monitor the Mozambique Channel. It has a 99-year lease on the Hambantota port and is developing the Colombo port city project in Sri Lanka. It has made deep inroads into the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar where it is developing the deep water port at Kyaukpyu and has a considerable economic presence in that country. It has given Bangladesh two Ming class submarines ; the vintage of these submarines may not offer much war fighting capability to Bangladesh but it has definitely gained China political and military leverage in that country. Reports indicate that China is also constructing a submarine base off Chittagong.

China justifies its naval presence in the Indian Ocean as essential to protect its energy and trade, a large part of which transits by sea through the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Similarly, so does that of other nations in that region, all of whom are deeply concerned at China’s maritime belligerence, its aggressive posturing and its ability to disrupt the rules-based order thus jeopardising the safe and secure passage of trade over the global commons, as the high seas are known.

China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean presents a clear and present danger to India’s interests in the region. Intense competition between these two leading Asian maritime powers is inevitable as China will seek to dominate these waters. Confrontation in the future is a distinct possibility and even a conflict cannot be ruled out.

Therefore, India not only has to guard its maritime frontiers against aggression but also, as the leading naval power in the Indian Ocean that is seen by most as a stabilising force in the region, has to address the multitude of sub-conventional, non-traditional and transnational security challenges that abound in this region.

This will require not only the building of a robust Blue Economy architecture in our waters and in our maritime neighbourhood as well but a robust maritime security architecture as well

As India progresses economically with its ambitious multi-trillion GDP targets over the next decade or so, its dependence on the sea as the source of its future economic sustenance is also set to rise exponentially. In a globalised and interconnected world, the larger the economy grows, more will be the volume and value of India’s sea borne trade. Ensuring the resilience of its supply chains across geographies will be integral to India’s economic progress.

A growing economy will also demand an increase in energy requirements, most of which will be sourced from overseas and will lead to India going further afield than its present sources to meet this demand. Ensuring the safety of this energy from disruption in an adversarial scenario will be a major security challenge that India will have to guard against.

Exploiting the sea for its resources will have to be carefully calibrated with a sustainable development model and an effective regulatory framework. This will require not only the building of a robust Blue Economy architecture in our waters and in our maritime neighbourhood as well but a robust maritime security architecture as well.

India has made some impressive strides in its capacity building efforts towards strengthening regional maritime security over a large expanse of the Indian Ocean through an inclusive and cooperative framework highlighted by its SAGAR doctrine which is an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region.

The Indian Navy, as the principal custodian of India’s maritime security, has been maintaining an unprecedented operational tempo in recent years. Besides honing its war fighting skills, it has also focussed its attention on enhancing maritime domain awareness in the entire Indian Ocean and has been at the forefront as a net security provider in the region.

However, building a navy takes time, resolve and commitment. India has done well in its shipbuilding efforts and is justifiably proud that all ships and submarines on order are now being built at Indian shipyards. However, ship-building capacity in the country remains abysmal and budgetary commitment grossly inadequate. The civilian bureaucracy, steeped in its procedural obduracy has little or no understanding of naval capabilities or the maritime security imperatives. As a result, these seem to play second-fiddle to its other priorities while critical capability gaps are staring the Indian Navy in the face.

Navies are instruments of state policy and therefore the Indian Navy projects its requirements not on what it ‘wants’ but what it ‘needs’ based on what the government wants it to do

The Indian navy has earned global respect as a professional force that punches well above its weight. However, the slow pace of shipbuilding, the delays in decision-making in the MoD, the procedural bottlenecks have led to a situation where the force is ageing and replacements are not keeping pace. As a consequence, the Navy is being forced to revise its force level requirements downwards while the opposite should be the case. If India wants a navy that can ensure its primacy in the Indian Ocean over the next decade and a half, a number of ship building programmes which should have been underway but are instead lying buried in the labyrinth of the MoD, need to be revived and processed with the urgency they merit.

It is unfortunate that the narrative emanating from the government often suggests that the Navy ‘wants’ a capability, for example, the case of a third aircraft carrier. Navies are instruments of state policy and therefore the Indian Navy projects its requirements not on what it ‘wants’ but what it ‘needs’ based on what the government wants it to do.

If India indeed wants to be a major global power, an economic powerhouse and aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the Indian Navy has to be structured accordingly. However, regrettably, such does not seem to be the case at present.

As India celebrates this momentous occasion, will the country fulfill its ‘tryst with destiny’ in the maritime domain? In the next decade or so, India’s progress is going to be inextricably linked to the sea. It is going to present India with numerous opportunities and a multitude of challenges. If India is to prove itself equal to the task and establish itself as maritime power of reckoning with the ability to shape the outcomes, it will need to do a lot more than it is doing at present in the maritime domain or risk being shaped by the outcomes that will emerge over the next decade or so in the global power game.

-The writer is Vice-President, Indian Maritime Foundation. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda