India on Thursday launched an initiative to forge working cooperation among navies of the Indian Ocean region, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying such ties were of "paramount importance" to tackle threats of terrorism from the seas.
He said high level of trade and economic growth was being witnessed in the region, which dictated the need to ensure safety and security of the sea-lanes.
Pointing that recent years had seen rise in crimes like terrorism, piracy and smuggling of narcotics and arms in the ocean region, the Prime Minister said there was need for cooperation among the navies of the littoral states to prevent these transnational crimes.
"The perpetrators of these crimes are well organised and well-funded transnational syndicates who take full advantage of the vastness of oceans.
"The need for cooperation among the navies of the region in preventing such transnational crimes is, therefore, of paramount importance," he said inaugurating the two-day Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which is being attended by chiefs of navies of almost all littoral states.
Iran, which had been invited, did not send a delegate. Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta said the initiative was not to aim at forging a military alliance but was an attempt to bring interoperability among navies of the region to tackle the growing menace of terrorism in sea and natural disasters.
"Though some nations have kept out for reasons, we have kept seats reserved for them," he said. Defence Minister AK Antony also addressed the inaugural session.
The symposium would be followed by a conclave of naval chiefs from 27 countries. Seeking heightened cooperation among the navies of the Indian Ocean littoral states, the Defence Minister cautioned the participants against "seeking extra-regional solutions".
Antony said regionally sensitive solutions needed to be found for problems faced by the states of the region. In his address, the Prime Minister said the Indian Ocean, spanning 28 million sq kms, was a host to a third of the world population and accounted for 40 per cent of the energy sources.
"These are all the reasons why we must pool our resources and knowledge and act for the common good of all," Singh said.
He said the presence of representatives of navies of littoral states was testimony to the need for cooperative action.
Singh said the sea-lanes of the region had emerged as one of the most important lines of communication in the world with container handling at the ports of Colombo, Mumbai, Chittagong, Bangkok and Malaysia's Port Klan, registering double-digit growth.
"A growing percentage of the world's large merchant ships and bulk carrier ships fly an Asian flag and this expansion in trade and economic growth dictates the need to ensure the safety and security of the sea lanes," he said.
Along with rapid economic growth, the Prime Minister said regrettably, the Indian Ocean region also accounted for 70 per cent of the world's natural disasters.
The Prime Minister said terrorism, smuggling and piracy "not only pose a threat to our growing naval commerce but also affect innocent fishermen and tourists. In addition, there is the abominable practice of trafficking in human beings."
"We look upon our navies to protect our citizens from natural disasters. We must have robust capabilities to deal with environmental emergencies."
He said India fully backed the United Nations Convention of the Law of Seas and its legal framework should guide all activities in the ocean and the seas around it.
He also said the meeting should address the issues relating to navigation, conservation and management of sea resources and in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
"The concept of maritime security needs to be viewed in the above background. It should ensure freedom from threats arising either in or from the sea," he said and asked the naval officials present to develop "a comprehensive cooperative framework of maritime security."
He said such an effort would require "a consensus-based approach, with a focus on pooling of resources and capacity building, information exchanges and development of interoperability in doctrinal and operational terms."
India was committed to an Indian Ocean region that was stable and peaceful, the Prime Minister asserted and said, "we would like to cooperate with all like-minded countries so as to ensure the freedom of the seas for all nations and to deepen trade and economic linkages between the Indian Ocean Rim countries."