From the periphery to the centre, India’s maritime moment has arrived

As India takes its Indo-Pacific engagements forward, Delhi must continue to build on its maritime moment, leveraging opportunities and partnerships in addressing its concerns and challenges.
Today, maritime security has become a critical pillar of India’s foreign policy engagements, institutionalising a foreign policy shift adopted by the government faced with dramatic developments in its immediate neighbourhood and strategic space (PTI) PREMIUM
Today, maritime security has become a critical pillar of India’s foreign policy engagements, institutionalising a foreign policy shift adopted by the government faced with dramatic developments in its immediate neighbourhood and strategic space (PTI)
Updated on Sep 29, 2021 06:37 PM IST
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ByDarshana M Baruah

India’s decision to hold an open debate on maritime security, during its Presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the month of August 2021, was significant and historic in many ways. Delhi has traditionally limited its engagements in the maritime domain, with little political interest in maritime security and collaborations. The UNSC debate on maritime security underscores the way maritime security has gone from the periphery to the center of Delhi’s foreign policy priorities.

Today, maritime security has become a critical pillar of India’s foreign policy engagements, institutionalising a foreign policy shift adopted by the government faced with dramatic developments in its immediate neighbourhood and strategic space. This shift in Delhi’s maritime reckoning underlines both the importance of maritime security in India’s foreign policy engagements as well as the potential of the domain in promoting Delhi’s foreign policy ambitions.

The maritime domain has often provided Delhi with opportunities to increase its strategic, military and political profile across the Indian Ocean. While, historically, the land border in the north has occupied India’s security resources and priorities, Delhi’s maritime geography and the nature of the domain has allowed the Indian Navy to deliver far above the meagre defence budget (approx. 14%) that it receives. Despite the capital and resource constraints while being ignored by the political class, the Indian Navy was able to establish itself as a key player and an important maritime partner for much of the Indian Ocean littorals and islands.

India’s role in responding to humanitarian disasters in the region, whether it was the 2004 Tsunami or evacuation missions from the Gulf, awarded Delhi an opportunity to establish itself as a reliable player. Although India has its own share of political differences with its maritime neighbours such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, the current government has taken a number of steps to institutionalise its maritime initiatives.

One of the key steps forward was creating the Indian Ocean division within the Ministry of External Affairs in 2016 allowing Delhi to streamline its efforts with the Indian Ocean islands of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Comoros. While India still has much to do to cement its presence and engagements in the western Indian Ocean, Delhi today fully recognises the importance of the region for its strategic ambitions. India has also done well in formalising ad-hoc roles in the Indian Ocean through agreements such as White Shipping and creating the Information Fusion Centre — a much needed regional platform for the Indian Ocean.

Through these initiatives, Delhi has slowly but gradually implemented its shift toward a more active maritime foreign policy. These agreements and forums allow India to situate itself as a key regional security provider by investing resources and building capacity to address shared concerns and threats with its partners.

Going beyond its immediate maritime neighbours and island states, Delhi has also leveraged the Indo-Pacific framework to its advantage. Although hesitant initially, India since 2018 has been more welcoming of the opportunities in the maritime domain. The first in-person Quad summit in September 2021 reflects Delhi’s growing political will, institutionalising frameworks that promotes India’s role in a new security architecture.

It is only natural that, today, Delhi finally recognises the advantages of its maritime interactions in establishing itself as key security partner and regional player across the Indo-Pacific. While the Quad seeks to play a role in providing solutions to regional challenges across different domains, its maritime role will always be a critical factor, whether it be for addressing non-traditional security challenges such as illegal fishing and the climate crisis or in promoting shared interests such as the blue economy. Moreover, the Quad nations remain some of the most critical partners for the Indian Navy, who also come together through Malabar exercises.

Throughout history, naval competition has played decisive roles in shaping great power competition and it is no different today. As the United States (US) and China, as well as India and China, engage and balance each other in stabilising an increasingly competitive strategic narrative, the maritime domain will take center stage in shaping this competition. After all, to be a global power, Beijing will not only have to secure its own communication routes at sea but also provide security to its key partners, bringing China all to close and present in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

India’s new maritime collaborations are also a reflection of the challenges Delhi faces at sea and the unraveling competition with China. Delhi has gradually elevated its long-standing naval exercises with its key partners such as US, France, Japan, Australia, Singapore while forging new ties with European and Southeast and East Asia nations such as Germany, the European Union, Indonesia and South Korea. Further, Delhi’s logistics facilities agreements with France, US, Australia and Japan among others provide the Indian Navy access to facilities in sustaining its presence across the Indo-Pacific.

Given the strategic location of India’s maritime partners, such agreements provide the Indian Navy access to critical locations such as Guam, La Reunion and Okinawa. These agreements also hold future possibilities for access to and missions from islands such as Diego Garcia, and Cocos Keeling, which, along with its own Andaman and Nicobar Islands, stand to provide critical geographic advantages to Delhi’s anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness missions.

As India takes its Indo-Pacific engagements forward, Delhi must continue to build on its maritime moment, leveraging opportunities and partnerships in addressing its concerns and challenges.

Darshana M Baruah is an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, where she heads the Indian Ocean initiative

The views expressed are personal

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Saturday, December 04, 2021