(Talking points of Former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan at the Seminar at Pondicherry University on December 9, 2014)
A few million Indians have never seen the snow. Many more have not seen the sea. One reason why maritime security has not received much attention is that policy is made in land locked Delhi by those who have not seen the sea, or at least not lived on the seashore. Only those who live near the sea can fully comprehend the vulnerabilities as well as the strengths of the sea. A Defense Minister of India is believed to have stated that he would deploy the navy in Jammu and Kashmir, if necessary.
Another reason for neglecting maritime security is the historical fact that most of the invaders, marauders and plunderers came by land. Though the arrivals from the sea have been equally game changing for India, they did not meet resistance because they used soft power to penetrate into India. They used trade, religion and philanthropy to gain influence and power. Therefore, the threat from the west and the north is more palpable and appears more urgent. It was only the Maharaja of Travancore, who chose to fight the Dutch and defeat them, the only case of India beating a European power at sea. Interestingly, the defeated Dutch commander became the commander of the Travancore navy. Sardar K.M.Panikkar, another Keralite, had sounded a clear warning in 1945: “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the oceanic areas, to India, it is the vital sea. Her future is dependenton the freedom of its waters.”Needless to say, there has been a sea change in the way we look at the sea today, particularly after the focus shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The accentuating rivalry between the US and China has compelled us to give greater attention to the Indian Ocean. According to Admiral Arun Prakash, there are not many navies, worldwide, which have seen, in recent years, or are likely to see such significant accretions to their order-of-battle. “This force build-up, once complete, will not only enhance the Navy’s combat capability by an order of magnitude, but would also alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.” But he goes on to say that expansion of the navy alone does not ensure maritime security. Equally important are industry, trade, indigenization of weapons based on a vast defense technology and industrial base.
The other speakers must have touched upon the various aspects of maritime security. My voice is one from the past, having been out of touch with policy making for nearly ten years. To make a contribution to this debate I thought I needed to share some relevant experience. An opportunity presented itself when I heard some talk of India revisiting the UN General Assembly Resolution 2832 (XXVI) declaring the Indian Ocean as Zone of Peace (IOZOP), which called upon great powers not to allow escalation and expansion of military presence in the Indian Ocean. The expectation is that it can be used as a device to prevent China from holding sway in the Indian Ocean.
Having been a member of the UN Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean for six years during and after the cold war I would like to refer to the problems India faced on account of the resolution and the UN Adhoc Committee. Sri Lanka, our comrade in arms in the IOZOP initiative had played games with us even in the happier days in India-Sri Lanka relations and when China was not in the picture. The new narrative in the Indo-Pacific may not be congenial to depending on Sri Lanka or any other neighbor to deliver on the IOZOP in accordance with our interests.
Instead of reviving the IOZOP concept, a strategy of enhancing cooperation between the littoral and hinterland states and external powers may have a greater chance of success. India has special strengths in combating piracy, alleviating natural disasters and trafficking.
China has already taken note of India’s inclinations in Asia Pacific and offered cooperation to avoid the “Asia Pivot” and to adopt an alternative Chinese vision. An opportunity exists for us to develop a third plan of engagement between the regional countries and external forces for fruitful cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
The importance of maritime security has come to focus, but much more remains to be done for India to be a leader than a follower of competing interests.