Restive Indian Ocean calls for a new vision - Hindustan Times
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Restive Indian Ocean calls for a new vision

Feb 05, 2024 10:00 PM IST

Strategists and diplomats need to craft policies that boost India’s maritime power and also foster a favourable “sphere of influence” for its employment

The sudden instigation of maritime terrorism by Houthi rebels, as well as the revival of piracy around the Horn of Africa, has cast the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) into a state of ferment. While the Indian Navy (IN)’s bold interventions have invited well-deserved applause, the implications of this crisis require New Delhi to undertake not only a review of the strategic environment but also a reappraisal of its neighbourhood policies through the twin prisms of diplomacy and strategy.

Union defence minister Rajnath Singh, Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde along with officers on INS Imphal, during its commissioning ceremony into the Indian Navy at Mumbai naval base (Bhushan Koyande/ HT)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Union defence minister Rajnath Singh, Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde along with officers on INS Imphal, during its commissioning ceremony into the Indian Navy at Mumbai naval base (Bhushan Koyande/ HT)(HT_PRINT)

In the winter of 1964, I was a cadet on board the training ship, INS Tir when it entered the palm-fringed Malé harbour. In accordance with naval custom, Tir fired a 21-gun salute and broke the Maldivian flag at the masthead — the first foreign warship to render this honour to the newly independent Republic of Maldives. In the 60 years since, the Maldives has occupied a prominent position in the IN’s maritime calculus. Our Navy has been the first responder in the Maldives’ crises, ranging from the attempted 1988 coup d’etat to the 2004 tsunami and other, lesser emergencies. It is hoped that good neighbourly relations will be resumed once the diplomatic storm dies down.

I mention the Maldives because it happens to be in the news. But the IN has, for over two decades, had in place a low-profile but comprehensive plan for discharging its “diplomatic role,” the second of four roles mandated by its maritime doctrine. Eschewing the term, “naval diplomacy” to avoid ruffled feathers in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), the Navy has been pursuing a programme titled, “foreign cooperation,” under whose ambit, it has extended training as well as hydrographic surveillance and other facilities, besides gifting hardware, including ships, aircraft and helicopters to IOR neighbours such as Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar to bolster their maritime security.

Our naval diplomacy has attained in full measure the objectives laid down by the maritime doctrine vis-à-vis “...the strengthening of goodwill, political relations and defence cooperation… in consonance with the nation’s foreign policy and security objectives”. Diplomats may worry about the armed forces seeking a role that goes beyond “security and defence”. However, naval diplomacy only aims to support our accredited representatives in the effective conduct of foreign policy. Here, a closer look at our neighbourhood diplomacy is warranted.

The nosedive in India-Maldives relations has neither been sudden nor should it have taken the MEA by surprise. The first ominous signs emerged in 2012 when Maldives cancelled a major airport modernisation contract with an Indian firm in favour of a Chinese company. Over the following decade, local politicians, incited/provoked by Pakistan and China, have transformed the “India First” catchphrase into an “India Out” campaign, culminating in a demand for the withdrawal of “Indian troops”. Adroit diplomacy could have swiftly eliminated this putative irritant by having the Navy’s aircraft replaced with civil “air ambulances”, flown and maintained by a civilian crew.

Even as we see Maldivian politics descending into a phase of instability, there is little reassurance to be drawn from the state of India’s relationships with its other immediate neighbours — Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Each of them harbours its own set of grouses that sour relations and expose India to the risk of becoming ensnared in a “South Asia trap”, imperilling its great power aspirations.

A question that should exercise the minds of our decision makers and foreign policy practitioners is: Why India, having abjured all thought of an Indian “Monroe Doctrine”, is still perceived as a regional “big brother/bully”? Is it because we grudge the right of our smaller neighbours to exercise the “strategic autonomy” that we so cherish ourselves? Is it because our representatives display a condescending attitude towards hosts, laying excessive emphasis on their “ancient Indian legacy” and India’s “superior” culture? And lastly, are we ignoring the impact in neighbouring capitals of India’s domestic policies, especially where they are seen as affecting religious minorities?

This brings us to recent diplomatic rows with Sri Lanka, and now, the Maldives, caused by Chinese vessels putting into their ports. Here, it is important to understand that China, being the world’s largest manufacturing/trading nation, is overwhelmingly dependent on the uninterrupted passage of seaborne trade and energy, making the Indian Ocean sea lanes its Achilles heel, which it will protect at all costs.

We must reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) establishing, in due course, a permanent presence in the IOR. Chinese “spy ships” — actually, research ships and hydrographic vessels — represent the vanguard of the PLAN, collecting hydrographic and hydrological data and mapping the sea floor, information that will facilitate efficient warship and submarine operations in the IOR. We will see them with increasing frequency in proximate waters.

Such vessels are permitted by the 1982 UN Law of the Sea, the unfettered freedom of navigation on the high seas, and even in the 200-mile exclusive economic zones, provided they are undertaking “innocent passage”. Entry for warships into foreign ports requires prior host consent, but given their cordial relationship and economic dependence on China, our IOR neighbours would find it difficult to deny entry to Chinese ships. Therefore, India must show diplomatic forbearance when smaller neighbours, occasionally, kowtow to Beijing.

Even those, so far, oblivious to the criticality of the maritime domain must now realise the profound dependence of national prosperity on the security of sea lanes that carry the world’s trade in raw materials, finished goods and energy. The maritime turbulence off the Yemeni and Somali coasts demonstrates that the maintenance of “good order” at sea is an international commitment that requires the widest participation by navies.

This wisdom having dawned on China a couple of decades ago, Beijing methodically put in place all the building blocks, including a grand strategy that makes it a “maritime Great Power” today. Even as India steadily builds its economic heft and upgrades technological competencies, now is the time for strategists and diplomats to craft a maritime vision that will not only provide a boost to India’s maritime power, including the Navy, but also foster a favourable “sphere of influence,” for its employment.

Arun Prakash is a former Navy chief. The views expressed are personal

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