For a region that has been historically seafaring, India in the modern era has been bafflingly inward-looking. It is therefore welcome to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi say, as he did at the >Maritime India Summit in Mumbai on Thursday, that “the maritime agenda will complement the ambitious infrastructure plan for the hinterland which is going on in parallel”. India has for long been slow, and ad hoc, in developing infrastructure to reap the economic opportunity its seaboards naturally provide. And having been Chief Minister of Gujarat, a State that stands out in port development, Mr. Modi has a keener sense of this untapped potential. As he said in Mumbai, apart from the length of the coastline, 7,500 km, “India’s maritime potential also lies in its strategic location on all major shipping highways.” There has been an increasing emphasis on maritime infrastructure, and his government has added weight to it. The ambitious Sagarmala programme intends to promote port-led development, improve the coastal economy, modernise ports and integrate them with special economic zones, and create port-based smart cities, industrial parks, warehouses, logistics parks and transport corridors. India has also begun to collaborate with neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar in building waterways and port infrastructure. This is essential as ultimately it’s economics that provides the necessary push to take forward strategic overtures.
On the strategic side too, >India needs to firm up its maritime strategy . Speaking at the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam in February, Mr. Modi had observed that the ability to reap economic benefits from the oceans rests on the country’s capacity to respond to the challenges in the maritime domain. Last year before embarking on a tour of Indian Ocean littorals he remarked that the visit to the three Indian Ocean island countries reflected “our foreign policy priorities in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood”. In fact, the Indian Navy played a pivotal role in containing piracy on the high seas and is positioning itself as the “net security provider” in the broader Indian Ocean region with capacity building, joint exercises and increased multilateral exchanges. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are the new area for building bridges, and the Indian Navy’s quick response to the 2004 tsunami reflected an enhanced preparedness. The new emphasis is two-sided — securing energy and trade routes to sustain economic growth and keeping a check on increasing forays by other countries into India’s backyard. Indian strategic interests in the larger Indian Ocean are converging with the U.S., reflected in the joint statement at the end of American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit. It reaffirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, “including in the South China Sea”. It is also indicative of a change in India’s posturing which has traditionally been defensive. But it must also invite the caution that it is not in India’s interest to pick fights that do not draw from its own national interest.