Though three recent developments in the region including piracy and terrorism are major challenges, New Delhi's conception of a suitable politico-strategic environment is fairly clear.

Recent developments in the Indian Ocean region demand attention. Look at a sample collection: Somali pirates, operating in waters off the Horn of Africa with impunity, are now coming closer to our coast; China has commissioned its first aircraft carrier; an Indian company's hydrocarbon exploration activity in Vietnam's waters is being contested by China; a former Japanese Prime Minister visiting Delhi calls for closer cooperation among “maritime democracies,” and every move by Beijing to cement its ties with our immediate neighbours is seen as vindication of the “string of pearls” theory.

India's ‘sea-blindness?'

These developments may seem baffling to northern India's land-centric view. Here, the combined legacy of Alexander and subsequent invaders who crossed the Himalayas is far more important than the rich history of the subcontinent's interaction, through the ocean route, with a vast region stretching from Aden to Bali. While a majority of people in the north have never seen a beach, people living south of the Vindhyas, especially in the southern States and on the east and west coasts, regard the Indian Ocean as a defining element of their destiny.

Having experienced India's centrality in the Indian Ocean region through visits to the Cape of Good Hope, Durban and Mombasa; Port Louis, Colombo and Gan — the southernmost island of Maldives; cities on Myanmar's southwestern flank and the coasts of Java and Bali, I am convinced that there can be no place for “sea-blindness” in our policymaking. Considerable scope, however, exists for developing a holistic approach if India wishes to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

In order to fully appreciate the magnitude of our challenges, identifying recent trends in different subregions may be helpful.

The stakes in the area

In the western section of the Indian Ocean, three key developments, all negative from our viewpoint, are: piracy, terrorism, and the Chinese Navy's growing presence as part of the broader trend of China's expanding profile in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Piracy has attracted much attention and action. The Indian Navy has deservedly received considerable appreciation for its role in ensuring countermeasures. However, the expert opinion is that, in view of the expanding arc of piracy, much more needs to be done — on land, sea and elsewhere. On land, i.e. in Somalia — the epicentre of forces that gave birth to piracy — the Africans themselves have to resolve the issues, with more assistance from richer and deeply concerned member-states of the U.N. Action on the sea, ensuring the safety of maritime transport on which depends trade and energy security of so many countries, has to be taken by legitimate stakeholders. Action ‘elsewhere' should include measures that effectively reduce the attractiveness and sustainability of piracy as a flourishing industry.

Terrorism through the sea came knocking on India's doors on 26/11. Developments since then have augmented concern, not confidence. Experts worry about the security of our coastal cities, and offshore oil and gas installations. As regards Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean, they are no longer a subject of debate among think tanks. Governments have been factoring in the increased presence of the Chinese Navy. China's assertive approach in Africa contributed, at least partially, to renewed dynamism reflected in two India-Africa Forum Summits in three years.

Regarding India's immediate periphery, two key trends are now obvious. On the one hand, India's endeavour to promote cooperative bilateralism has begun to show positive results. On the other, Beijing continues to be ultra active in deepening its relations with principal South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, besides Pakistan — all located in the Indian Ocean region. These countries are happy playing both the ‘China card' and the ‘India card' to leverage their gains, but they need to promote the interests of South Asia as a whole too. In the eastern theatre of the Indian Ocean, the situation is becoming progressively complex and dangerous as a result of reverberations of China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea. While piracy and terrorism are manageable there, the critical question facing the subregion is: will China and its immediate neighbours ranging from Japan to Thailand chart a pattern of relations marked by cooperation or conflict? India has obviously immense stakes in the answer, and in contributing to the region's collective hopes for peace and stability. Fortunately, this subregion has an elaborate ASEAN-centric institutional architecture for dialogue and cooperation. Much hope is placed on the capability of these institutions to deliver effective results.

New Delhi's approach

New Delhi's conception of a suitable politico-strategic environment in the Indian Ocean is fairly clear. India wants neither a new cold war nor domination of the region by a single country. South Block rejects the view that an outside power is needed as “a sea-balancer” for the area. It envisages a region where stability and cooperation prevail, marked by maritime security for all and a collective ability to deal with sources of non-traditional security threats. Besides, India is set to enhance its hard power and also deploy soft power assets to deepen its links with littoral states.

In this context, several points are noteworthy. First, in the Indian Ocean's western region, India's effort has been to strengthen defence cooperation with island states — Mauritius, Madagascar and Seychelles, besides Maldives. This exercise, still in an early phase, could do with acceleration. Second, under the overall umbrella of the IBSA Dialogue Forum, cooperation among the navies of the three member-states — India, Brazil and South Africa — through joint exercises, training and strategising has been gaining momentum. The two previous trilateral exercises took place in Cape Town and Durban. The resultant synergy should guide these countries to engage other interested parties by holding more exercises on the eastern seaboard of Africa.

Third, since the western segment of the Indian Ocean has limited institutional arrangements for dialogue and cooperation compared to the eastern theatre, many believe it is time to reinvigorate the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Bold words were uttered by the Ministry of External Affairs at a seminar in Delhi in May. They need to be matched by action with India as chair of this underutilised organisation.

Fourth, India's bilateral cooperation on strategic issues needs to be strengthened with seven countries in the eastern theatre — Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Australia. Some may term them a ‘potential necklace of diamonds.' However, the proposed cooperation among “maritime democracies” will merit consideration only if it is not a proxy for an anti-China alliance. For cementing collective endeavours to make the Indian Ocean and its periphery safe, India's preference should be to utilise the existing institutions, especially the East Asia Summit.

The way ahead

Diplomacy can help a country achieve its goals when if it is backed by strength. This time-tested dictum and a dispassionate study of the strategic environment drive India to provide the necessary resources for the modernisation of the Indian Navy. Admiral Vishnu Prakash, a retired Navy Chief, has made a persuasive case for this viewpoint, in a recent policy paper by the National Maritime Foundation. He urges India to develop and articulate “a maritime vision for itself and the neighbourhood.” His wise conclusion is: “The time has come for India to craft a new balance of power equation in order to safeguard its core interests and values.”

(The author is a former Ambassador.)

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