In the Indian Ocean region, India enjoys the advantage of a cultural connect and an ideal geographical location to build a cooperative network with states apprehensive of both traditional and non-traditional threats. A India-led Maritime Cooperative Security Architecture (MCSA) will be as much a security as a confidence building mechanism.
By Rahul K Bhonsle*
The visit of Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March 2015 has resulted in increased attention on India’s Indian Ocean strategy. Given importance of the sea lines of communications (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean for the country’s energy and economic security, the maritime sphere assumes importance.
There are two principal concerns for India’s maritime security. First, the challenge posed by China in these waters in tandem with a resident state Pakistan. Second, nontraditional threats arising from piracy and crime as well as natural disasters. China has already taken the lead by proposing the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) details of which were outlined by President Xi Jinping in the Boao Forum in March 2015. Pakistan is consistently upgrading its naval capability building asymmetric capabilities through acquisition of eight submarines from China and has the ambitions of fielding an undersea nuclear tipped ballistic missile. The threats arising from piracy and maritime crime in the waters of Somalia in northern Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has led to deployment of a UN mandated counter piracy mission since 2007.
For India building naval capabilities is a sine qua non which is being undertaken with vigour. The strength of the Indian Navy is expected to increase from the 140 ships and submarines today to approximately 200 in the decades ahead, which will retain the balance of maritime forces in the IOR in India’s favour in the foreseeable future. Yet security of the Oceans, which are a global commons cannot be achieved only by adopting a realist perspective of power politics. Small states in the IOR have traditionally felt threatened by the presence of larger powers in the region. The United States’ “Pivot to Asia”, and China’s MSR have raised fears of a “great game” in the Ocean. Building a common security network engaging countries in the region, thus, assumes importance.
Prime Minister Modi has outlined the contours of a Maritime Cooperative Security Architecture (MCSA) in various speeches and statements during the March visit. One part of the MCSA is multilateral in the form of groupings of states in the IOR. First of these is the renamed Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) established in 1995 and formally launched in 1997, by Australia, India, Mauritius, Oman, Singapore and South Africa. The IORA now has 20 members spread across the Ocean. Maritime safety and security and disaster risk management are the two areas of relevance for the MSCA. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) founded by India in 2008 is the other multilateral security oriented forum in the IOR. It has 35 countries participating in various activities mainly focused on confidence building and sharing of best practices of navies in the region divided in sub-regional littorals. India is also a founder member of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) created on January 14, 2009 pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1851. The Indian Navy has contributed to this forum resulting in the reduction of piracy related incidents off the coast of Somalia in the past half a decade and more.
At the trilateral level is the Maritime Security Cooperation between Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India. This is focused on Enhancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through, “access to systems run under the aegis of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), such as Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services and sharing of Automatic Identification System (AIS) data. Training and capacity building initiatives in areas of MDA, Search and Rescue, and Oil Pollution Response; and joint activities including trilateral exercises, maintaining lines of communication between illegal maritime activities and formulation of marine oil pollution response contingency plans and cooperation in legal and policy issues related to piracy are other issues”. Each year a meet is held at the level of National Security Advisers to coordinate activities. It is now proposed to include Seychelles and Mauritius in this framework. At the bilateral level Mr Modi’s visit to Seychelles and Mauritius underlined issues such as Coastal Surveillance Radar System (CSRS), maritime security capacity building through support in infrastructure and platforms as patrol vessels/surveillance aircraft. Reports indicate that France is keen to join the CSRS thus possibly expanding the network to the Reunion Islands.
Multilateral and bilateral maritime operational activities such as coordinated patrols (CORPAT) with South East Asian navies and MILAN exercise which includes 17 regional navies now adds to interoperability and promotes cooperation to effectively respond to the crisis. The International Fleet Review planned in 2016 is another measure that will add to the MCSA. The overall objective of the MSCA is, “to promote increased cooperation in trade, tourism and investment, infrastructure development, marine science and technology, sustainable fisheries and protection of the marine environment”. By successful implementation of MCSA, India will be able to wrest the lead from China’s MSR a softer version of the, “String of Pearls,” a necklace of ports acquired in the Indian Ocean which could in the future be turned into forward bases for the PLA Navy.
India enjoys the advantage of a cultural connect in the IOR and of the most ideal geographical location to build a cooperative network with states apprehensive of both traditional and non-traditional threats. An MCSA led by India will be as much a security as a confidence building mechanism.
*Rahul K Bhonsle is an Adviser to Mantraya.