Delhi: The Foreign Policy in the Indian context cannot be simply confined to New Delhi’s positioning on Pakistan and Kashmir or taking important calls on Indo-US and India-Russia ties. The Indian Ocean holds great strategic importance in more ways than one.
The Indian Ocean today sees about 60 per cent of the world trade passing through its waters.
In Manila, Philippines, on Nov 12, 2017, on the sidelines of the ASEAN meet, in a major diplomatic initiative, giving a new impetus to the emergence of a new quadrilateral structure – India, the United States, Australia and Japan had agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region would “serve the long-term interests of all countries” in the region and of the world at large.
Needless to say, even the German and European interests converge with that of India regarding the importance of the Indian Ocean. There are many other players. Hence, the ensuing G20 Summit to be hosted by New Delhi can be an excellent stage to highlight the significance of the Indian Ocean and the adjoining region.
There is also the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). It is a dynamic Inter-Governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the Indian Ocean region through its 23 Member States and 10 Dialogue Partners.
Notably, IORA also became an observer to the UN General Assembly and the African Union in 2015.
From its inception with 14 member states, the membership has expanded to 23 countries: India, Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, France, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
IORA has ten dialogue partners: China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US. It is based on the principles of Open Regionalism for strengthening Economic Cooperation, particularly in Trade Facilitation and Investment, promotion as well as Social Development of the region.
Sources in the Indian government said the countries have been trying to foster greater collaboration on maritime security and domain awareness, and disaster response capabilities. From time to time, countries interested in the affairs of the Indian Ocean also pledged to fight the scourge of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and stressed the need for enhanced cooperation on counter-terrorism.
Now at the level of the government headed by Narendra Modi, one would point out the SAGAR initiative. This has been a highly strategic move to guard India’s national interests. New Delhi enhancing its relations and bilateral ties with the Indian Ocean Region littoral states is a great step towards achieving maritime peace and cooperation.
PM Modi has made a clear stance on India’s priority in actively participating in the issues concerning the Indian Ocean Region. PM’s SAGAR Initiative – Security And Growth for All in the Region- is essentially
aimed at safeguarding the maritime interests of its mainland and islands.
The SAGAR initiative was first introduced during Modi’s visit to Mauritius in 2016. The move also highlights the importance of Coast Guard agencies of the littoral states to counter-piracy actions by non-state actors. Another crucial element of this initiative is to enhance collaboration in trade, tourism, and infrastructure. The climate change problems also get due attention.
Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral agreement are also important in this context.
India’s target to become a Net Security Provider in IOR officially started when India exported the first ‘Made in India warship to Mauritius. India has also sought to build Coastal Surveillance Networks in Seychelles,
Maldives, Mauritius, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. While India already has good defence and security relations with Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles, it wants to expand its reach to other countries in South-East Asia and Africa.
Historically the European conquest of South and South East Asia shows how strong can be the tentacles of sea power. This brings us to the importance of security in sea power and the Indian Ocean. Thus India will endeavour to lead and guide other allies and platforms, such as the G20, to emerge as a harbinger of international and regional maritime cooperation as well, and that too through a pragmatic approach.
There is also a need to rethink vis-a-vis ‘resource extraction’ in the Indian Ocean. The vast availability of minerals and other natural resources is an asset to economic development in the Indian Ocean Region.
However, the extractions have to be ‘mindful’ of the future. It ought to be understood that the IOR littoral states are rich in producing various raw materials, primarily oil, which is key to the development of major manufacturing industries.
As it is understood, along with India, even big players China and the United States give adequate importance to upholding smooth relations with ‘Island States’ to access logistics facilities on their territories. These island states include Sri Lanka and Maldives in South Asia, and also Mauritius, Comoros, Reunion and Seychelles.
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with NSA Ajit Doval (and incidentally then Foreign Secretary Dr S Jaishankar), visited Seychelles. He was the first Indian leader to do so in over three decades. The Prime Minister had said that India “attaches paramount importance to strengthening relations with this region, which is vital for India’s security and progress”. His reference was also to Mauritius and Sri Lanka.
The Small Island Developing States in the Indian Ocean have already become important as logistics facilities for Asian and non-Asian navies to sail and sustain themselves far away from their home ports. Perhaps, India has, over the years, realised the importance of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as a military platform for aero-naval surveillance over the Malacca Straits and South-East Asia.
In fact, under the Vajpayee government in 2001 itself, this island became India’s first tri-Services Command with the army, air force and navy, besides coast guard elements, to ensure maritime and territorial security.
India has signed agreements to permit Japan access to its logistics facilities at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has now ‘logistics facilities’ for the operational turnaround of Indian warships to refuel and get water in Singapore since 2017. Also, since 2018, India is the only other country, apart from a USNS Mercy, a hospital ship, to enjoy logistics facilities at Nha Trang on the Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
In the ultimate analysis, India’s national security concerns and great power ambitions manifest themselves in India’s engagement in the Indian Ocean region. Of course, the G20 will provide an excellent platform to ensure greater exploitation of its strategic ties with countries interested in maritime trade and security and also countries such as Mauritius and Seychelles. These hold the key to greater maritime strategic
influence in the region.
Being a maritime nation with considerable economic and military power, India has shown the ability to demonstrate its role as a significant security provider. New Delhi has, over the years, sought to develop a security presence and strengthen its position by capitalising on its historical ties with the littoral nations. Now in a futuristic sense, both short and long terms efforts should be directed at making the Indian influence more visible in the strategic affairs of the region.