Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's maritime diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific in pursuit of its national objectives

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Yogendra Kumar
    Venue: Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Dharwad
    Date: October 18, 2019

· Salutations. Delighted to be here at this prestigious institution at the forefront of India’s educational and technological revolution – based on public-private partnership model and recognised as an institution of national importance. I wish to thank the Director, Prof Kavi Mahesh, and especially, Prof Channappa Akki, Head of the Department Of Computer Science and Engineering, to make this talk possible for me. I also wish to thank my erstwhile parent ministry, Ministry of External Affairs, and its External Publicity Division for this privilege. More importantly, I am looking forward to engaging with one of our brightest group of young people.

· Scope of the topic. Broadly speaking for any country, the national objectives are to secure a conducive external environment for its citizens to develop their natural talent and potential consonant with their civilisational values; for this, not only is external security and imperative necessity but also the nurturing of international relations facilitating those pursuits, be they economic, cultural, intellectual or professional. The pursuit of these rather complex tasks – in terms of managing a country’s international relations – is the stuff of diplomacy.

For India, these tasks are particularly challenging. India lives in a difficult neighbourhood with an exposure to the full spectrum of these challenges, ranging from political instability, cross-border terrorism, illegal migrations and trans-national crime, military tension involving nuclear armed neighbours, and the entire array of climate change-related impacts in the country and the South Asian region. Because of the active external big power interest and intervention in South Asian affairs, India has to leverage its regional and wider international standing in the ongoing global balance-of-power dynamics; it also involves developing judicious bilateral relations with its neighbours with most of whom it does not share a natural border. On a positive side, it has to build its bilateral and multilateral relations in such a way as to provide to its citizens the maximum advantage in today’s globalising economy whilst protecting them, at the same time, against external shocks. As it pursues its expanding interests, farther beyond the region and at the global level, it has to be nimble footed in an increasingly unpredictable and volatile global situation.

As a country with a huge coastline of 7500 km, having 1200 islands, and an Exclusive Economic Zone of about 2,000,000 km², India’s maritime interface constitutes a significant component of its strategic interests; the Mahabharata calls it Jambudwipa – ‘Island of the Jamun (Indian blackberry) tree’. The maritime dimension of India’s regional and global diplomacy has assumed even greater salience with the onset of globalisation, since the end of the Cold War in 1991, as the seaborne commerce has become a critical component of this process. This has meant attention not only to the general state of the oceans but also the freedom of navigation and overflight across narrow oceanic chokepoints, safety and security of sea lines of communications, illegal exploitation of the resources of maritime zones, security threats from the seas, naval rivalry between powers big and small, and the efficacy of governance mechanisms for the seas to meet and wider challenges such as the negative impact of climate change, sustainable use of marine resources and the overall health of the oceans.

· Evolving maritime geopolitics of ‘Indo-Pacific‘. The global strategic and diplomatic discourse, essentially, revolves around the governance of oceanic waters for the management of threats arising from them as well as for the exploitation of their resources for the economic development of the countries capable of it; nature of the threats, constraining the exploitation of opportunities, has expanded in recent decades from the ‘traditional’, based on hard-core power imbalances, to the ‘non-traditional’, such as climate change, piracy and other trans-national crime, illegal fishing et cetera. Whilst there is a plethora of international law concerning the use of the oceans, the actual task of creation of a maritime governance system to cope with this entire spectrum of challenges is, in effect, a function of the strategic interests of the countries involved. And, this is where the geopolitics comes in.

Ø The evolving geopolitical construct of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. There have been different geopolitical constructs in terms of the geographies of the two oceans, namely, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. And, the issue for further exploration is the type of governance mechanism inhering in such constructions.

Þ The Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Formally, The International Hydrographic Organisation defines the geographical boundaries of the various oceans and seas in the world. However, the kind of governance structures, which come up in different oceans and seas, depends upon the interests and the power relationships amongst the countries involved. There have not been pan-Indian Ocean or pan-Pacific Ocean structures in recent times because of the international power play prevailing at a particular time. Moreover, whatever structures have come up have been devised to cope with a specific requirement. For the purposes of meeting the vast array of our current threats – as well as opportunities – most of these structures in these two oceans come far short which, by itself, is both a function of the prevailing geopolitics as well as the requisite institutional capacities in circumstances of rapidly shortening time-horizons for many of them. The challenge of creating such structures inheres in changing balance-of-power relationships, strategic distrust amongst big powers, state fragility, timelines about climate change mitigation targets, lack of financial and institutional capacities et cetera.

Þ The geopolitical construct of ‘Asia-Pacific‘. The familiar expression, until a few years ago, was that of ‘Asia-Pacific’. This is more derived from the US narrative where Asia is described as the area, including land mass, comprising south-east Asia and East Asia, including Japan and China. Combined with the Pacific Ocean, this entire geopolitical construct represented, particularly during the Cold War period, a US-led security architecture to, initially, contain the Soviet Union and, post-Cold War, China. Working on the hub-and-spoke configuration, it was based on the US territories, including the three ‘compact’ Pacific Island countries (Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands), as well as its major troops deployments in Japan and South Korea, supported further by alliance relationships with other countries in this region, including Australia and New Zealand. Post-Cold War, there was lack of US interest in south-east Asian region although its force postures were retained in respect of the Far East. It is in the early years of this decade that the US ‘pivot’ to Asia – later called ‘rebalance’ – was conceived under US President Obama to pay attention to the balance-of-power situation in the South China Sea. It may be added that the US attention to the Indian Ocean, especially during the Cold War but also thereafter, was to configure such a force posture as to maintain, through the deployment of its Navy and armed forces, the post-Second World War political order in the Arabian Peninsula under pressure from the land-based Soviet forces.

Þ The geopolitical construct of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. During the period of the US lack of interest in the South China Sea, the geopolitical conditions underwent a significant change. The growing economic and military power of China, especially accentuated following the 2008 global economic and financial crisis, in this region was manifest, not only in terms of its greater economic integration with the Chinese economy but also in its military assertiveness causing regional tensions and negatively impacting on the cohesion of ASEAN which had emerged, post-Cold War, as an organisation to fill in the recent power vacuum. This circumstance also led to growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region with the potential to disrupt the power balance there as well in the absence of any significant pan-Indian Ocean organisation. The growing international role of India, following its economic liberalisation and expanding economic and political relationships, also manifested in its strategic interests as evident in the erstwhile ‘Look East Policy’ which has, now, acquired the title of ‘Act East Policy’ under our current prime minister. The proposition, as articulated by different powers, is that strategic developments in one ocean influence the developments in the other; the focus, in this proposition, is oceanic waters and not the land mass unlike the other constructs. This proposition, however, leads to a few related issues on which different geopolitical perspectives rest and provide an understanding of the international diplomacy around it.

à How are the geographical areas of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean to be defined?

à What are the concrete manifestations of the geopolitical nexus between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean?

à What kind of institutional structure can be thought of to contain the negative ramifications of this geopolitical nexus?

· Divergent geopolitical perspectives on ‘Indo-Pacific’. As stated earlier, this geopolitical construct has been in the air since the time of the speech of Japanese Prime Minister Abe (2007), to the Indian Parliament, where he talked about the two oceans "bringing about a dynamic coupling of the seas of freedom and prosperity”. The first formal use of this coinage was by US President Trump at the recent APEC summit in Vietnam in 2017, and the renaming of the erstwhile US Navy’s Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command, or USINDOPACOM, in 2018. As a result of the US moves, this expression has assumed a new geopolitical reality triggering developments and resulting in policy responses from other stakeholders. Yet, the divergent interpretations of the expression ‘Indo-Pacific’ have triggered a unique geopolitical dynamics.

As a continuation of strategic trends arising even earlier, this development was presaged in a certain coordination, in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, between India, US, Japan, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the UN. This also provided the opportunity for the Indian Navy to showcase its capabilities; the subsequent changes in the nature of the Malabar series of India-US naval exercises, starting in 1992, also assume significance in this context. The Indian participation, as a function of its expanding geopolitical interests in the strategic equilibrium in the adjacent waters, represents its changing strategic outlook which also impinges on its broader relations with China.

Ø US perspective. For the US, the expression ‘Indo-Pacific’ is co-terminus with the area of responsibility of the USINDOPACOM which stretches from the western Pacific coast of the US to the west of the peninsular India along with the imaginary India-Pakistan maritime boundary line; the US commentators and officials prefer to call this area as stretching from ‘Hollywood to Bollywood’. The rest of the Indian Ocean region is divided, under the US theatre command system, between Central Command, The Africa Command, and the Europe Command. The latest US Department of Defence strategy paper (June, 2019) states that the major challenge to the existing international maritime order is originating from China. Not only is its rising military capabilities threatening stability in the western Pacific, East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea, its flagship Belt-and-Road-Initiative (BRI) also has the same effect due to its debt trap consequences. The Chinese aggressiveness resulting in heightened tensions with Japan over its dispute about Senkaku/Diaoyu island, imposition of a unique form of ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone) in the East China Sea, and excessive militarisation of the islands in the Spratlys and the Paracels and its illegal maritime claims expressed in the ‘nine-dash-lines’ in the South China Sea; these activities also impede the freedom of navigation and overflights in the oceanic commons as a result. The US advocates a ‘free and open’ maritime system and its approach is to strengthen its military alliance system, and a network of naval and maritime relationships with other countries to prevent the changing of geo-strategic circumstances negatively. This entire approach is applicable to the area of responsibility of the USINDOPACOM.

Ø Chinese approach. China uses the earlier expression, namely, ‘Asia-Pacific’ which covers the Eurasian landmass (minus area west of South Asia) to the Pacific Ocean which includes the South China Sea. Chinese criticism of the US is along similar lines. In its latest national defence paper (July, 2019), it states that the western Pacific, including the South China Sea, is largely stable except for US provocations. It speaks of China’s network of cooperative relationships, both bilateral as well as ASEAN-related, and of its avowed objective of resolving disputes bilaterally without any extra-regional interference. US Navy’s ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols are a major source of regional tension whilst stating that a ‘balanced, stable, open and inclusive Asian security architecture’ is continuing to develop. The paper asserts Chinese sovereignty to build infrastructure and to deploy ‘necessary defensive capabilities’ on the islands and reefs in South China Sea as also its declared intention to continue patrols in the waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Ø ASEAN approach. In a recent ‘Outlook’ statement on the Indo-Pacific (June, 2019), the ASEAN, indulging in a diplomatic tightrope walk, equivocates between the ‘Asia-Pacific’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ constructs recognising the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean as two separate water bodies having a certain geopolitical linkage. Describing itself as situated in the centre of the two regions, the document states that it is in the ASEAN’s interest to lead the shaping of ‘their economic and security architecture’ although it disavows any intention to create a separate mechanism or to replace any existing one but to act as ‘an honest broker within the strategic environment of competing interests’. Underlining ASEAN-centrality, one of its related organisations, namely, the East Asia Summit (EAS) would play an important role since it comprises not only the 10 ASEAN members but also China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, US and Russia. Through dialogue partnerships with other organisations, it states that the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia (TAC) provides the basis for such an architecture.

Ø Japanese approach. Japanese Prime Minister Abe, in his 2007 speech at the Indian Parliament, first articulated his vision of the ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’. Its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ (FOIP) encompasses both the Indian and Pacific oceans with the objective of promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific based on rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful settlement of disputes, and promotion of free trade. Underlining ASEAN-centrality, its three policy pillars are promotion of rule of law including free trade, pursuit of economic prosperity through improving connectivity and economic partnerships, and commitment for peace and capacity building on maritime law enforcement as well as cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. It is supported the US Indo-Pacific vision.

Ø Australian approach. The Australian Indo-Pacific construct is co-terminus with that of the US INDOPACOM. Its 2013 Defence White Paper recognises such trends as China’s rise as a global power, increasing strategic weight of East Asia, and emergence of India "over time as a global power” which are shaping the Indo-Pacific as "a strategic arc”. Its priority strategic focus remains the sea lines of communication which are critical for this region’s prosperity.

Ø Russian approach. Russia, like China, considers ‘Asia-Pacific’ as a natural region encompassing the Asian land mass and the Pacific region. It considers the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as being aimed at the containment of China and finds no strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. It is developing its own pivot towards the Far East economically but, also, militarily by relocating its air, army and naval assets to build a strong strategic relationship with China.

· Indian approach. The Indian approach reflects its expanding strategic interests commensurate with its growing regional and wider international role. Not only does it have to consider its strategic stakes in the preservation of power equilibrium in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, it also has to factor in strategic lineups emerging over the entire discourse on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ wherein its important bilateral relationships with the major powers come into play; these powers also want to leverage their individual relationships in casting India’s role in the region. Although it finds considerable strategic convergence with the US, it follows quite a nuanced policy. This policy is fleshed out in two seminal articulations by the Indian Prime Minister.

Ø Prime Minister Modi’s Shangri-La dialogue speech (2018). The Indian approach to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is similar to Japan’s and the ASEAN’s in that the geographical space stretches from the western Pacific coast of the US to the eastern coast of Africa where the two oceans are joined by a strategic nexus. He advocated ‘free, inclusive and open’ in the entire Indo-Pacific region; the difference with the US position here is not just in the difference in the geographical configuration of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ but also reference to the inclusiveness of the maritime order whereas the US talks about inclusive institutions in the region but of a ‘free and open’ maritime order. Whilst there is stress on preservation of existing strategic equilibrium, he also talks about the various connectivity projects being implemented transparently and in a viable manner. He stressed upon the significance of free trade, freedom of navigation and overflight, rules-based international order, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, good governance, adherence to international law, and the resolution of disputes without recourse to force. He laid stress on promotion of the democratic and rules-based international order, ‘in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign’. Indian friendships with countries are not ‘alliances of containment’ and India’s open-minded about cooperation in the region ‘individually or in formats of three or more, for a stable and peaceful region’. He also recognised the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific architecture, pointing at the East Asia Summit and the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) which cover the wider geography.

Ø Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR speech (2015). An earlier speech, given in Mauritius, outlined his vision of the maritime order in the Indian Ocean. The geopolitical construct, ‘SAGAR’, an acronym of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’, posits the security of the Indian Ocean region being responsibility of the littoral countries even as the legitimate interests of all non-littoral countries are recognised based on transparency, mutual trust, and rules-based international order. The vision is one of collective cooperation for natural disasters and search and rescue in multilateral and bilateral arrangements, and regional integration through promotion of blue economy. Like any other country, India exercises its the national sovereignty over its territory, including the islands, and for the defence of its national interests. He spoke in favour of strengthening the role of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) as the only pan- Indian Ocean organisations which can create a stable, holistic maritime system capable of addressing the maritime challenges of the 21st century.

· India’s maritime diplomacy. The Indian maritime diplomacy takes a varied approach calibrating it to the strategic scenarios in different sub-regions of the entire Indo-Pacific space as defined by it. In this pursuit, it takes into account the diplomatic objectives of the other countries of concern to it. The recent establishment of the Indo-Pacific division in the Ministry of External Affairs reflects the government’s intention to bring a holistic Indo-Pacific perspective towards India’s maritime diplomacy in conformity with the speech by Prime Minister at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore last year.

Ø Region covered by USINDOPACOM. This region covers the whole of the Pacific Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the western coast of India as well as the Maldives. There is considerable strategic convergence in regard to Indian objectives with those of the US, Japan, as well as Australia in terms of the different sets of strategic dialogues taking place amongst them. This concern extends to the maintenance of strategic equilibrium as it prevails presently. Its salience is manifest in the Malabar series of exercises involving India, US, and Japan which are held alternately between the Bay of Bengal and the Western Pacific; these exercises have been held with incremental sophistication to achieve interoperability between the three navies and the Chinese watch these very closely, often sending their intelligence ships to monitor them. Another diplomatic initiative, started in 2017, is the quadrilateral dialogue between India, US, Japan, and Australia about sharing their perspectives on the Indo-Pacific – in the Indian conception – covering issues such as infrastructure connectivities, economic cooperation, and broader security issues concerning regional security including counter-terrorism, HADR, maritime cooperation and cyber security, aimed at, in the words of the Indian government, "free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region based on shared values and principles”; this dialogue is conducted with considerable delicacy, in terms of political signalling, as there has been no joint statement so far even though it met on the side lines of this year’s UNGA, for the first time, at the level of the foreign ministers. Whilst China is conscious of these developments, so are the four participants in this quadrilateral dialogue about the impact of these developments on their respective bilateral relations with China. India is also conscious of the ASEAN sensitivities about the impact of various developments on the prevailing strategic equilibrium in the South China Sea for likely negative ramifications on its centrality in the security architecture there; India does not want any confrontation between US and China either even as it was supportive of the UN Tribunal’s award on the South China Sea. India follows a policy of active engagement with the ASEAN and the regional countries for developing extensive cooperation in all areas of activity, including security and military. It is a member of several ASEAN-related organisations, including EAS, and has an annual summit level interaction. It is also thinking of having joint naval exercise with ASEAN along the lines of China and the US. It is currently in negotiations for RCEP. It has held two summit-level dialogues with the PIF. It needs bearing in mind that India’s Act East Policy encompasses Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and China with whom extensive dialogue processes are ongoing.

Ø The Indian Ocean. India remains highly sensitive to the balance-of-power situation because of its direct impact on its security – which has been the case throughout its history. Because of the larger strategic convergence with the US, it feels that it can shape the maritime system in the Indian Ocean quite substantively; the US National Security Strategy document (December, 2017) recognises – and, aims to bolster – the leadership role of the Indian Navy. Although it aims to develop capacities as the ‘net provider of security’ in the Indian Ocean region, as mentioned in its latest (2015) articulation of its maritime security doctrine, its capacities, despite being the strongest Navy after US, still remain somewhat limited. Moreover, its strategic convergence with the US in the western Indian Ocean region, as evident in respect of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, is not foursquare although this cooperation with the US CENTCOM is growing. Yet, the segmented nature of the US theatre commands in the Indian Ocean, essentially, means that a pan-Indian Ocean maritime system does not exist unlike the security architecture prevailing in the Pacific region. Different navies carry out different tasks but there is no effective national or multinational activity to maintain ‘good order at sea’ on the pan-Indian Ocean basis. There are equilibrium threats in the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa regions whilst the Chinese naval activities are not yet seen as supportive of the maintenance of the current equilibrium. In the absence of a holistic maritime system, the other disruptive challenges like climate change, state fragility especially at the oceanic chokepoints, trans-national crimes like piracy, terrorism, human trafficking, illegal fishing cannot be effectively met and, hence, not generate enough stakes amongst many littoral and island states in the creation of such a system. At the same time, it may be recognised that the level of naval rivalry is not as system threatening as it is in the East China Sea and the South China Sea; however, if the determined efforts are not made, the existing equilibrium, such as it is, can be undermined under multiple challenges such as Chinese Navy’s expanding footprint and climate change.

à Multilateral efforts. India is playing an active role in strengthening the different charter missions of IORA, including maritime safety and security. It is also contributing to geographically enlarging the area covered under maritime domain awareness with the operationalisation of the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) outside Delhi, since December 2018. This capacity helps different countries to monitor illegal activity in the wider oceanic space. It is also actively engaged in IONS, a conclave of chiefs of littoral navies and dialogue partners, to develop interoperability issues of maritime safety and security, including HADR. Indian also very actively involved in the BIMSTEC organisation developing cooperation amongst the Bay of Bengal littorals as well as Bhutan and Nepal. India has a dialogue relationship with multilateral organisations like GCC, and those on the eastern seaboard of Africa, the African Union, East Asia Community, And the Southern African Development Community.

à Bilateral/multilateral initiatives. India has an active cooperation programme with a large number of littoral and island countries in the Indian Ocean region, including high level visits, consultation mechanisms, as well as maritime cooperation activities, involving the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard. There are Indian naval patrols in the EEZs of several countries to enable them to better secure their resources and to check illegal activities. Indian Navy also carries out coordinated patrols with various friendly navies along the international maritime boundary lines. It presents accurate hydrographic maps to partner countries for better husbanding of their marine resources. Apart from training and transfer of naval platforms, the Indian Navy also has agreements for port calls and sharing of logistics to enhance its patrolling area for maritime security. It is also helping friendly countries in setting up coastal radar installations for better domain awareness for them. It has been in a lead role in anti-piracy missions and in evacuation of stranded civilians from conflict zones. The Navy’s flagship MILAN series brings together a large number of friendly navies as also the Chief of Naval Staff’s Goa Conclave of Navy Chiefs are part of India’s maritime diplomacy. In terms of its own efforts for maintaining good order at sea, Indian Navy’s ships and aircraft are deployed along critical sea lanes and chokepoints. Apart from the Navy, another significant contribution is that of the Ministry of Earth Sciences in developing partner countries’ capacities in operational oceanography, in forecasting extreme weather events and in helping in climate change proofing of their vital infrastructure.

· Concluding remarks. The positing of an Indo-Pacific perspective is recognition of the rapidly changing geopolitics in the entire region stretching from the western coast of US to the eastern coast of Africa where India’s vital interests are involved. Indian approach is reflective of its stakes in the existing balance-of-power situation where the equations with key powers, including global, have to be taken into account in pursuit of its national interests. These are multifarious and it would be wrong, in my opinion, to view the Indian perspective in purely balanced-of-power terms since challenges to regional/sub- regional stability and security go far beyond that. The current trend is for developments in one Ocean to affect the other which necessitates creation of suitable institutional infrastructure, which presently does not exist or is grossly inadequate, to seamlessly address these challenges. There are challenges of lack of strategic trust, institutional inadequacies, and the sheer scale of system destabilisation threats ranging from climate change, state fragility, inward -looking outlook of national leaders, revolution in military affairs and technological change empowering individuals vis-a-vis the state, and shortening time-horizons to mount an effective response. India’s maritime diplomacy has to navigate these challenges through judicious collaboration with other powers as well as to draw upon its own capacities and goodwill that it enjoys in large part of this vast region.