Enhancing India’s maritime footprint in the Indo-Pacific - Hindustan Times
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Enhancing India’s maritime footprint in the Indo-Pacific

ByHindustan Times
May 17, 2023 12:07 PM IST

Authored by Shrabana Barua, political analyst, New Delhi and Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.

From May 2-8, 2023, the maiden Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India Maritime Exercise (AIME) took place in the Indian Ocean. The harbour phase of the exercise began from Changi Naval Base in Singapore, which is located close to the strategic Malacca Strait. The sea phase took place in the South China Sea. The AIME-23 saw all 10 ASEAN member States participate, eight of which sent their naval ships, while Cambodia and Laos, which are under considerable Chinese influence, sent their delegates. On India’s part, INS Delhi, India’s first indigenously built guided missile destroyer and INS Satpura, indigenously built guided missile stealth frigate participated. As per reports, during the South China Sea phase of the AIME-23, China sent ships of maritime militia to an area where the exercises were being conducted. As the AIME-23 has now come to a successful end, activities under it need to be analysed in light of the steady progress India has made with ASEAN.

Indo-pacific region(Representative Image/AFP File Photo)
Indo-pacific region(Representative Image/AFP File Photo)

India’s ASEAN outreach began in 1992 when New Delhi was admitted as a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN; 2022 marked 30 years of this partnership, which was celebrated as India-ASEAN Friendship Year.

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Signalling the growing strategic relevance of each other in the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, the relationship has now been elevated to comprehensive strategic partnership. Over the years, the relationship has deepened across various sectors and has achieved new salience with the challenges presented by the rise of China. The AIME-23 is a good example of steady progress within the maritime domain.

The AIME-23 is a direct outcome of the informal meeting between the defence minsters of ASEAN and India held in November 2022 in Cambodia. It marks an area of convergence between India and ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s strategic footprint in the region has been steadily going up and AIME-23 builds on this. In 2019, India and ASEAN outlined their approaches towards the Indo-Pacific region, releasing the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) respectively. India considers ASEAN as the heart of its Indo-Pacific region. The common understanding that India and ASEAN share was reflected in a joint statement in 2021 which focused on maritime security. The objectives of the AIME-23 such as familiarising with each other’s navies, helping build trust, preparing for contingencies, working towards enabling seamless trade through the seas and securing the Indian Ocean from belligerent activities, is a result of a broad consensus between India and ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region.

For India, AIME-23 and the expanding naval footprint hold considerable strategic importance. India conducts bilateral military drills with some ASEAN members like Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. However, AIME-23 pointed out the willingness to widen the overall defence partnership with the region. ASEAN conducts similar exercises with three other countries, namely China, the United States, and Russia. However, AIME-23 is being lauded as the most participative among ASEAN’s maritime exercises. Maritime security has been a crucial part of ASEAN agenda. India has begun to engage with ASEAN to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific and regularise its naval presence in the region.

In the context of China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea, India-ASEAN defence partnership holds significance. AIME-23 and the consequently deepening ties between India and Southeast Asia will be critical from the economic point of view as well. In 2019, ASEAN leaders’ declaration on the blue economy was released where the role of oceans and seas as key drivers of economic growth was acknowledged. India is also focusing on developing its blue economy capabilities. In 2022, India became a founding member of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), which was joined by seven ASEAN member States. Perhaps, the next logical step is to increase the overall economic presence of India in the region. The growing military presence without the necessary economic content in the India-ASEAN relationship will make it difficult to sustain such engagements.

AIME-23 fits well with the evolving strategic priorities of India and ASEAN. AIME-23 is a good beginning. The next step will be to build on such engagements and make it a routine affair on the strategic calendar of the region.

Authored by Shrabana Barua, political analyst, New Delhi and Sankalp Gurjar, assistant professor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka.

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