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India's evolving maritime security outlook

  • Security
  • 1 Years ago
  • 8 min read
India,  Indian ocean,  security


Karambir Singh
Karambir Singh - Chairman, National Maritime Foundation

This year, 2023, has begun on a buoyant note for India. As the Economic Survey 2022-23 notes, India’s economy has "nearly 'recouped' what was lost, 'renewed' what had paused, and 're-energised' what had slowed during the pandemic and since the conflict in Europe”. Having successfully navigated the vagaries of the global economic slowdown, resulting from the three challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, and unprecedented global inflation, India’s growth is forecasted to exceed other major economies.

"India’s security and growth are intrinsically and inextricably linked with the sea."

Yet, even as Europe is expected to narrowly avoid a recession, and China opens international travel after a three-year hiatus, several global security challenges remain. The Russia-Ukraine war has entered its second year without any signs of resolution. Great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, somewhat attenuated for the time being by the crisis in Europe, is likely to present an ever-increasing challenge in the region. Climate change concerns remain largely unaddressed, as the verdict on the success of COP-26 negotiations in Sharm-el-Sheikh last year is not very encouraging. And then there is the rising trend of de-globalisation, after years of ‘slowbalisation’ in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008; implying that governments and global companies are increasingly seeking security and resilience over the benefits of global value chains. This protectionist approach was accelerated initially by the COVID-19 induced disruption, and now by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Concurrently, there is also evidence of depleting trust in international institutions, which has been further accentuated by the threat to the international rules-based order.

Closer, in the neighbourhood, the year gone by was marked by political upheavals, natural disasters, and financial distress. India’s security concerns, which are increasingly linked with the global security trends, were consequently impacted by these developments. There are, of course, more visible and immediate security concerns for India, the foremost of which is China, and to a lesser degree, Pakistan. Since Galwan, India’s relations with China are contingent upon the latter’s acceptance of India’s stance on border issues. Similarly, relations with Pakistan, post-Pulwama, are unlikely to improve unless it ceases its policy of state-sponsored terrorism. The recent outburst of Pakistan’s foreign minister at the UN has not helped much to ease the situation.

These security trends and concerns mirror in the maritime domain as well. India’s security and growth are intrinsically and inextricably linked with the sea. For a country that depends on the sea for more than 95 per cent of her trade by volume, India’s maritime security serves as the lynchpin of her economic well-being. More specifically, these depend upon India’s ability to legitimately use the sea for trade and connectivity with the world, the exploration and use of oceanic resources within her maritime zones, and the protection of her territory and people from threats arising in-, through- or from the sea. Any interference with the peaceful use of the sea, or weakening of the rules-based order in the maritime domain, or a direct threat to maritime security would therefore constitute India’s core maritime security concerns.

China’s aggressive behaviour continues to manifest against India, Taiwan, and in the South China Sea, even as the Philippines President had called out Beijing’s illegitimate territorial claims at the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos. India’s maritime linkages, which now extend globally and even more significantly in East Asia, are consequently under stress. The use of grey zone tactics and hybrid threats by China to intimidate its neighbours has resulted in a push back, and this also has a dimension of Great Power competition. Obviously, India wishes to avoid getting embroiled in this strategic rivalry between great powers and therefore looks at a ‘multi-aligned policy’ to seek pragmatic solutions to global security concerns.

But it is not merely State-versus-State friction that impacts maritime security. The other non-traditional dimensions of security are equally important and more immediate. A cursory glance at the reports of the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) reveals a plethora of maritime security challenges across the IOR – from smuggling and illegal migration to marine pollution and cyber threats. These incidents impact maritime security, sometimes quite dramatically. For example, the stranding of the container-ship Ever Given in March 2021 held up US$10 billion of trade for every day of the week it blocked the Suez Canal. And there are other less spectacular, but more invidious, incidents of large-scale narcotic and arms smuggling and human trafficking that have a much greater and long-term impact on national security. In view of the wide-spread and near ubiquitous presence of non-traditional challenges – both natural and man-made – it is obvious that these can best be addressed through a cooperative approach.

It is in this context that India must continue to contextualise her maritime security to the more broad-based and comprehensive conceptual framework of the Indo-Pacific. Within this concept, several ‘gears-within-gears’ are to work. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) is an apt representation of this complex concept and allows India and other like-minded partners to focus on specific lines-of-effort that would ultimately reinforce security in a holistic way, not only for India, but also others in the region, thereby translating the policy statement of SAGAR to tangible actions.  

"India has adequate bandwidth for one-to-one engagement in her extended maritime neighbourhood. Indeed, the Indian Navy’s outreach in the region as a ‘Preferred Security Partner’ has burnished India’s reputation as a dependable partner and friend."

India also participates in several multilateral, minilateral and bilateral forums that operate within these complex security frameworks.  While each of these is focussed on specific areas of maritime security, the challenge would be to harmonise these efforts towards common policy objectives. Of particular note among these is the Quad.  As a quadrilateral group of like-minded and influential democracies, the Quad has immense potential to galvanise maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.  India will need to pull its weight in order to make this group more dynamic and action-oriented. While most of the Quad-led initiatives have a non-military dimension, it might be worthwhile to examine how institutionalised military cooperation among its members can contribute to regional peace and security. Additionally, India must also enhance its maritime security cooperation in the neighbourhood through dialogues such as the Colombo Security Conclave whilst simultaneously stepping up operational-level interaction between maritime security agencies.  

India must also engage proactively in maritime security operations in the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR). The spike in attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea prompted the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) to create a specialised task force last year - the Combined Task Force 153 - whose mission is to focus on international maritime security and capacity building efforts in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. As a net provider of security in the region, India must take cognisance of the evolving security dynamics and engage with multinational forces operating in the Indian Ocean in order to streamline collective response to maritime security threats. Accordingly, it could also consider elevating its current status as an associate partner in the CMF to a full-fledged member. A similar initiative, by the EU, is the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) – a concept that aims to strengthen the EU’s maritime security engagement around the world. The CMP for the North Western Indian Ocean was initiated in February 2022 and both the EU and India would benefit from engagement through this mechanism. 

Apart from cooperative mechanisms, India has adequate bandwidth for one-to-one engagement in her extended maritime neighbourhood. Indeed, the Indian Navy’s outreach in the region as a ‘Preferred Security Partner’ has burnished India’s reputation as a dependable partner and friend. While the Indian Navy has been the first responder in several regional calamities, it should also continue mission-oriented deployments such as ‘Mission SAGAR’ in 2020-21 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the SAGAR MAITRI mission undertaken by INS Sagardhwani under the aegis of the DRDO in 2019 to promote cooperation in socio-economic aspects as well as greater scientific interaction in ocean research among IOR countries.    

"With increasing frequency of Chinese nuclear submarines in the IOR, it would be imperative to focus surveillance and monitoring efforts in the undersea dimension."

At the core are India’s vital interests. In a neighbourhood afflicted by historical antagonism and territorial aspirations, India has naturally tilted towards a continental approach to security in the past. However, it is apparent that adopting an equally robust maritime approach to security is advantageous in two ways. First, it allows the freedom to use the seas for own purposes, and secondly, it can potentially present a counter to land-based threats. The Indian Navy’s doctrinal underpinnings and its strategy recognise these advantages of sea power and seek to develop a balanced and future-ready force structure. In the near future, the Navy would need to focus on unmanned technologies and artificial intelligence to bolster its capabilities, particularly in augmenting what is called Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Other emerging technologies like hybrid propulsion, nano-systems, quantum computing, hypersonic weapons and smart sensors would also be required to be integrated on existing as well as next generation platforms. 

Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is also an area of increasing importance to naval warfare. With increasing frequency of Chinese nuclear submarines in the IOR, it would be imperative to focus surveillance and monitoring efforts in the undersea dimension. The spectacular growth of the Chinese Navy – in numbers as well as in technology – and the more modest, yet noticeable, modernisation of the Pakistan Navy would need to be monitored in order to fine-tune future acquisitions by the Indian Navy as also to develop novel concepts and strategies to counter these emerging challenges.  

India has also instituted far-reaching military reforms, specifically, the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and the creation of the Department of Military Affairs in the MoD, which seek to transform the way defence matters are managed at the apex level in the country. These reforms would need to be followed through to ensure swifter responsiveness and cohesive decision-making at the national-strategic level. Coupled with the proposed theaterisation of combat forces, these reforms are expected to introduce new concepts in warfighting.  In the maritime domain, the Integrated Maritime Theatre Command is expected to amalgamate the existing Eastern and Western Naval Commands.  With the induction of INS Vikrant last year, the Indian Navy would be operating two aircraft carrier groups in near future. This would require effective carrier air wings on these carriers as well as conceptual and doctrinal guidance in application of large naval forces – singly, and in coordination with other Services.

In conclusion, India would need to adopt a balanced approach to maritime security. On one hand, India would need to be prepared to address her immediate security concerns, especially the conventional threats in her neighbourhood. The Indian Navy can deter conventional threats through presence, posturing, and deployments in its areas of maritime interest. The Navy can also present credible options in the maritime domain to counter land-based threats by leveraging the advantage of India’s strategic location in the IOR. 

On the other hand, as a significant regional power, India would need to contribute to holistic maritime security – primarily involving non-traditional challenges – in the IOR and the wider Indo-Pacific, while progressing security cooperation with friendly countries. India’s cooperative approach must be to galvanise regional action along the seven thrust-lines of the IPOI, namely, Maritime Security, Maritime Ecology, Maritime Resources, Disaster Risk-reduction and Management, Trade-Connectivity and Maritime Transport, Capacity-building and Resource-Sharing, and Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation.  

As India assumes leadership of the G-20 this year, it would need to expand her perspective of security holistically – both in the semantic as well as in the geographic sense of the word.  For a group that represents around 85 per cent of the global GDP, over 75 per cent of the global trade, and about two-thirds of the world population, the perception of security cannot be defined narrowly. It would encompass all aspects of security that would allow human beings – as individuals, and collectively as societies and nations – to live in peace and prosperity. Therefore, the theme of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or “One Earth, One Family, One Future”,chosen by India for this year aptly sums up the ‘holistic’ nature of security. This is also reflected in the identified priority areas which focus on sustainable development, resilient growth, climate change, and multilateral institutions. Essentially, it is an exhortation to move towards greater global connectivity and integration. The Indian view of maritime security would, therefore, continue to evolve along a post-modern paradigm which emphasises preservation and sustainment of global public goods, while at the same time, not losing sight of potential threats at close quarters.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


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