Indian Maritime Security – Building Capacity and Partnerships

India’s progress in the next decades will be significantly influenced by the security and stability of the IOR. The waters surrounding India have become the playground for great power ambitions. Thus, New Delhi’s pursuit of economic and technological growth should be matched by measures to enhance our maritime influence and ability to project maritime power in the IOR

New Delhi: By adopting an inclusive approach, India has defined its maritime security as a term comprising a collection of all the issues pertaining to the seas, and has a bearing on its national security. Challenges to India’s maritime interests stem from two distinct front – geopolitical and governance.

While the first one emanates from adversaries both present and potential, the second is linked in public perception due to the common maritime domain – including trafficking, environment, fishing, and natural disasters.

The waters surrounding the 7,516 km-long Indian coastline are rife with hazards and uncertainties – much propelled by its prosperous adversary China. As Beijing continues to play the role of an uneasy neighbor, the all-weather Sino-Pakistan alliance, with its strong anti-Indian tide, also further complicates security problems for New Delhi.

Speaking at a webinar organized by the Central University of Jammu (CJU) on 2 June, defense experts and a retired senior Naval officer charted a two-point almanac to successfully deal with these challenges. While insisting building up of national capacity – including instruments of power and infrastructure, the panel also underlined the need to forge strong partnerships with other states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

In his opening remarks, Professor (Dr.) Utham Kumar Jamadhagni from the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, University of Madras canvassed four core issues to the nation’s maritime security, which include structural issues – maritime boundaries, conflicts; Functional issues – communication, sustainability, development, trade, shipping; Legal and Operational issues; and Transformational issues.

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“The government must be commended for its maritime vision and developing a stated maritime security strategy which was lacking for three decades. However, India needs to do more homework on establishing maritime relations with South Asian nations. Initiatives like the South Asian Regional Seas program and PM Modi’s vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) point towards an increased political understanding of the salience of the maritime medium. We need to work on them and secure them for our interests,” he said while stressing the need for New Delhi to augment its capacity-building programs.

Ruddering the discussion to understand the challenge posed by Beijing, Namrata Hasija, a research fellow at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, said that China has visibly set out to acquire the ability to control the maritime medium that connects Asian and African nations.

“China is challenging western global hegemony and is desirous of shaping the regional and global environment to its own advantage. Power seems to be the only principle China understands. The massive increase in PLA Navy is a pointer towards it being used to secure what it perceives to be its rights in disputes, both current and those that could be manufactured in the future,” Hasija said while citing that every PLA Navy captain has taken the tour of the Indian Ocean.

 “President Xi Jinping presented the ‘China Dream’ at the 18th and 19th Party Congresses. China dream – promises that by the CCP’s centenary in 2021 it will recovery the sovereignty over Chinese territories lost through the imposition of unequal treaties by hostile foreign powers. And to realize this dream, the PLA Navy will be instrumentalized,” she pointed while providing statistical data on China’s plan to induct 350 surface vessels and around 100 submarines by 2035.

Meanwhile, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies launched a scathing attack on the Indian Navy over its significant compatibility issues.

“Indian naval and air platforms subsystems cannot even talk with each other on the same vessel. This was exposed at a recent naval exercise as well. There is a limited data transfer and the system integration process is still a work in progress,” Mitra said, while drawing the vast difference in the economies of China and India, allowing Beijing to easily counter New Delhi’s naval aviation assets many times over.

“India can never enter into a ship-to-ship contest with China. One Chinese ship carried more missiles than the entire eastern fleet. If India wants to change the current situation, New Delhi must make hard political choices,” Mitra asserted.

Dismissing the observations made by Mitra on the Indian Navy’s potential and ability, former Vice Admiral Ramakant Pattanaik said that the Navy is ready to deal with China. “We can defend our region of interest. The navy is capable of escalating a gradual movement of response against any threat,” he responded while terming India’s relation with China as ‘delicate and complex’.

Pattanaik, who headed Navy’s foreign cooperation, said that China’s ambition of expansion has made its grand strategy an ocean-centric one. He outlined three pillars of Chinese expansion in IOR – firstly cooperation is the enforcement of maritime law, ocean observation operations, and navigation security.

The veteran naval commander with 40 years of operational assignments highlighted two issues grappling India’s dominance in the IOR – finance, and technology. “The main problem is finance. Look at this year’s defense budget, it is the lowest since 1962. We must promote capital acquisition. On the technology front, we need to accelerate research capabilities to reinforce maritime security,” he concluded.

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