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The Admiral Ak Chatterjee Memorial Lecture by the Hon’ble External Affairs Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee

June 30, 2007


President, Navy Foundation, Kolkata, Rear Admiral Parlikar,
Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Mehta,
Distinguished Officers of the Armed Forces,
Ladies and gentlemen:

It is always a pleasure to be here in Kolkata, a city that has a long and well-deserved tradition of being the intellectual capital of India. Speaking for myself, it is, naturally, always good to be on home ground. However, I am especially pleased to be here today to speak on a subject that is not only of academic or intellectual interest, but also one that is vital to India’s security and the sustenance of her economic development.

I am also particularly gratified at having the opportunity of delivering this lecture in the memory of the late Admiral A.K. Chatterjee. The state of affairs today with regard to the Indian maritime scenario in general and the capabilities of the Indian Navy in particular would have been a source of great joy and pride for someone like Admiral Chatterjee, who was so closely associated with many firsts in the Indian Navy.

As has been noted, Admiral Chatterjee was the first 4-star Admiral of the Indian Navy, an honour he was bestowed with following the induction into the Navy of India's first Aircraft Carrier, the INS Vikrant, which happened during his tenure as the Flag Officer Commanding Indian Fleet. He was also involved with the preparation of plans for both Naval Aviation as well as the Navy's submarine capability. In particular, he played a key role in the creation of the Navy's submarine arm and was closely associated with the induction of the INS Kalvari, India's first submarine, into the fleet. Indeed, on the day of INS Kalvari's arrival in Vishakhapatnam port on 6 July, 1968, Admiral Chatterjee was on hand to welcome it. On the same day, he also laid the foundation of the submarine base building in Vishakhapatnam. The institution of this lecture series in his memory is, therefore, a befitting tribute to a great leader, planner and hero of the Indian Navy.

The simple geographical fact that two thirds of the surface of our planet is covered with water gives rise to a peculiarly intimate relationship between international relations and maritime affairs. Yet, for far too many centuries of our history has India either neglected or devoted insufficient attention to this relationship. Fortunately, after almost a millennia of inward and landward focus, we are once again turning our gaze outwards and seawards, which is the natural direction of view for a nation seeking to re-establish itself not simply as a continental power, but even more so as a ‘maritime’ power — and, consequently, as one that is of significance upon the global stage.

Modern India is fortunate to have inherited a maritime heritage that is rich and diverse, dating back to 3,500 BC. It is a matter of simple and incontestable historical record that, as a civilisational entity, ancient India enjoyed active trade-links with Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, the empires of ancient Persia, Greece, Rome, and China, and a number of kingdoms in Southeast Asia, including present-day Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Then — as now — the wide-ranging nature of this seaborne trade required the assurance of a complex and well-developed maritime strategy. Indeed, from antiquity up to the end of the 12th Century, several Indian kingdoms — especially those in the peninsula — possessed significant sea-going navies of their own.

And yet, although the maritime tradition of India certainly did manifest itself as an overseas presence, this was not a ‘Territorial’ but rather, a ‘Cultural’ and ‘Civilisational’ presence. This historical tradition survives to this very day. It underscores our oft-stated assertion that India has no territorial ambitions and no desire to establish any form of regional or extra-regional hegemony. However, the absence of hegemonistic intent ought not to imply any neglect of security, for it was only when the Indian ruling elites forgot the imperatives of maritime security that ancient and medieval India’s dominance of world trade was lost.

The realisation that this gross neglect of maritime security eventually led to the colonisation of the sub-continent and the consequent loss of India’s very independence for nearly three centuries should make a repetition of this strategic error utterly unaffordable. These harsh lessons of history are not lost upon the modern, independent republic that is India.

‘Maritime power’, in its true sense, is military, political, and economic power, exerted through an ability to use the sea or deny its use to others. It has traditionally been employed to control ‘use-of-the-sea’ activities undertaken by States for their general economic welfare and, often, even for their very survival. Maritime power and naval power are not synonymous, the latter being a sub-set of the former. Indeed, India’s maritime power includes a host of factors that are external to the navy, such as :- (i) the degree of our dependence upon the sea for our economic well-being; (ii) the maritime bent of mind of the government and of the people; (iii) the size and enterprise of the sea-faring population; (iv) our ship-building capability; (v) the size, age, and condition of our merchant fleet – both coastal, and foreign-going; (vi) the percentage of our imports and exports being carried by ships flying our national flag — as opposed to foreign flags, or flags of convenience; (vii) the number, types, and functional efficiency of our major and minor ports (viii) the infrastructure for multi-modal transport of sea-borne goods; and (ix) the state, size, and technological advancement of the coastal and deep-sea fishing fleets — and their geographic spread.

Lest you are led by this argument to assume that our Navy is peripheral to our maritime strategy, I must point out that within the larger maritime canvas, it is our nation’s military maritime power —as embodied by the Indian Navy, supported by the Indian Coast Guard, — that is the enabling instrument that allows all the other components of maritime power to be exercised. It is these ‘enabling’ functions that provide centrality to the Indian Navy within the country’s overall maritime strategy and allow it to act as a versatile and effective instrument of our foreign policy.

It is axiomatic that our maritime strategy can only be conceived in a ‘maritime environment’, which differs in a number of ways from the more familiar ‘land environment’. In the first instance, the natural geo-political condition of the land is to be politically controlled. With the significant exception of Antarctica, nearly all the landmasses of the world today have been politically organised by sovereign States. In sharp contrast, the natural condition of the sea is to be politically uncontrolled. Unlike the case with land, nation-states seek to ‘use’ the sea only for a specific purpose and only for a finite period of time. Consequently, armies most often have ‘occupation’ or ‘eviction’ goals, while Navies have ‘use’ or ‘denial-of-use’ goals.

Secondly, just as a coherent land-based strategy must maintain a close relationship to national laws and regulations, an effective maritime strategy must recognise and retain the intimacy and comprehensiveness of its relationship with International Law. This is because the oceans are an international highway, where ships of all nations ply. Thus, International Law makes it perfectly legal for ships to close the coast of another nation to as little as 12 nautical miles, which is the maximum breadth of any nation’s territorial waters. Even within this 12 nautical mile belt, all ships enjoy rights of ‘Innocent Passage’ as long as their movement and activities are not prejudicial to the interests of the State whose waters they are traversing.

Thirdly, maritime strategy forces us to re-think the nuances of geo-politically fundamental terms such as ‘borders’. In fact, for the ‘land strategist’, there is no border between India and, say, Oman. For the ‘maritime strategist’, however, there very much is, because the medium of the sea transforms every nation which has a coast-line into a "neighbouring” or a "bordering” country!

In this context, let me give a brief overview of the characteristics of our maritime environment. India’s geographical location — at the natural junction of the busy International Shipping Lanes that criss-cross the Indian Ocean — has a major impact upon the formulation of her maritime strategy in support of the pursuit of her national interests. You are, doubtless, aware that in terms of shipping density, the sea area around India is one of the busiest waterways of the world, with over one-hundred-thousand ships transiting the International Shipping Lanes of this region every year. The Straits of Malacca alone account for some sixty-thousand ships annually. India itself has a 7,516 kilometre-long coastline and several far flung island territories. These include the 27 islands of the Lakshadweep chain on our western seaboard and the 572 islands of the Andaman & Nicobar chain to the east. It is of note that the southernmost island of Great Nicobar is only 90 nautical miles from Indonesia, while the northernmost tip of the Andaman is less than 9 nautical miles from Myanmar.

The 13 major and 185 minor ports that mark our coastline constitute the landward-ends of the country’s sea-lines of communication. The development of additional ports is a high-priority activity and is taking place all along the western and eastern seaboards of the country. The decade that is now upon us will see a mega change in the pace of development of Indian ports and harbours and add further value to what is already a critical national maritime interest. In fact, in the furtherance of this interest, India was one of only two countries of the Indian Ocean Region that became fully compliant with the provisions of the International Ship and Port Security Code by the stipulated deadline of 01 July 2004, the other being Singapore. Flowing from and to these ports is the country’s maritime trade and the merchantmen that embody it. Though India’s share of global trade is still quite small, it is growing steadily. We have a modest, but rapidly-growing, merchant-shipping fleet, presently comprising 756 ships and totalling 8.6 million ‘Gross Registered Tonnes’, with an average age of around 17 years as compared to the global average of 20 years.

In terms of foreign trade, as much as 90% by volume and 77% by value transits over the seas. Ensuring the safety and freedom of this seaborne trade of ours is, consequently, a major strategic maritime imperative. More and more of our trade is now with the dynamic economies of the Indian Ocean Region and East Asia. In fact, there have been significant changes in India’s direction of external trade over the past decade-and-a-half. The UAE is today India’s largest export partner. China is emerging as among India’s largest trading partners and trade with South Africa, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, too, is extremely significant. In fact, our trade with the countries to our East is now vital to our economic well-being and this, among other things, underscores the growing centrality of the Straits of Malacca.

After trade, the next strategic maritime imperative is energy security. Of all the cargo that moves along the international shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, perhaps the most critical is energy, as defined by petroleum and petroleum-products. Almost 1,000 million tonnes of oil from West Asia passes close to our shores annually. Some part of this is, of course, destined for our own ports, to feed the increasing demand for energy to fuel our current economic growth. A much greater proportion, however, is destined for the oil-intensive economies of the USA, China and Japan. Today, in fact, almost 45% of all new world oil demand is attributable to the rising energy-needs of China. Over 70% of China’s oil imports come from West Asia and Africa and all of this is transported by sea. We see the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard as major stabilising forces in this great movement of energy across the Indian Ocean, not just for India, but for the world at large.

Our Exclusive Economic Zone, which is set to increase to 2.54 million sq km shortly, is a repository of abundant living and non-living resources. It has enabled India to mitigate, to some extent, her dependence upon foreign sources of energy by way of crude oil, natural gas, and liquid petroleum gas, with about 20% of India’s overall petroleum demand being met by offshore production. Upstream activities, such as exploration and production, are now being undertaken in ever deeper waters, and efforts are underway to exploit fairly promising discoveries in the vicinity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Any disruption of these activities would impose a cost on our economy that would be adverse in the extreme, and consequently, our foreign and security policy has to ensure that such disruptions are not allowed to occur.

Another major national maritime interest that shapes our maritime strategy including its international law dimension is under-sea mineral resources. At present, India imports nearly all its needs of cobalt and nickel and some 60% of its requirements of copper. Consequently, the plentiful under-sea resources of these scarce minerals in the form of polymetallic nodules form an important national interest. India has been recognised by the United Nations as a pioneer investor in deep sea mining and has been allotted a mining area of some 150,000 square kilometres in the central Indian Ocean. She thus keeps company with such technologically advanced nations as the USA, France and Japan. It is important to note that this mining site is well outside our EEZ. In fact, it is over 1,000 nautical miles — that is, some 1,850 kilometres — from the southern-most tip of the Indian mainland. If we consider Mumbai to be the main port of India, then we are talking about distances in excess of 3,000 kilometres. It would be readily appreciated that our maritime force levels need to be structured accordingly to provide sustained-reach, sea-keeping ability, passage-endurance and staying power.

Because it is so far away and a subject of much romanticism, the importance of Antarctica as a major maritime interest of India is very often underestimated by policy-makers. In actual fact, not only is Antarctica vitally important for the environment, it is a treasure house of potential mineral resources, including petroleum. Moreover, it is an enormous marine storehouse of the foundation of the human food chain, thanks to its abundant holdings of krill. Finally, and this is of the most immediate and continuing importance to India: Antarctica determines, in significant measure, the Indian monsoon — upon which our agriculture, and hence our economy, depends. In this context, we were privileged to host the 30th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Mechanism meeting in New Delhi recently and we continue to be actively engaged in international cooperative activities on preserving Antarctica as a unique and common heritage of mankind.

It would, by now, be obvious that the primary area of Indian maritime interest ranges from the Persian Gulf in the north, to Antarctica in the South, and from the Cape of Good Hope and the East Coast of Africa in the west, to the Straits of Malacca and the archipelagos of Malaysia and Indonesia in the east. It would be equally obvious that as India’s economy and her international role grows, the area of this benign but active engagement will also grow. You only have to look at the investments ONGC Videsh is making in extra-regional but energy-rich areas such as Sakhalin, Sudan, Nigeria and Venezuela to realize how our maritime interests are growing and defining gradually an area beyond the primary one.

I have given you a broad overview of the strategic imperatives that are shaping India’s maritime perspective. If there is one word that defines our current approach to the international dimension of this perspective, it is "engagement”, an engagement that is both active and constructive. We are engaged with a number of nations, including major maritime powers such as US, Russia, France, UK and Japan, in addressing the complex maritime security challenges of the day. Our maritime diplomacy, like our broader diplomatic effort, radiates out in expanding circles of engagement, starting with India’s immediate maritime neighbourhood. As a mature and responsible maritime power, we are contributing actively to capacity building and operational coordination to address threats from non-state actors, disaster relief, support to UN peacekeeping and rescue and extrication missions. To quote an example, in April last year, the Indian Navy undertook Op SUKOON to evacuate 2,280 persons from Lebanon. They included not only Indian nationals but also nationals of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Lebanon, and even the odd Greek! Even while Op SUKOON was at its peak, other ships of our Navy were simultaneously providing help and succour to the earthquake-stricken victims of Indonesia. This simultaneity and comprehensiveness of each of these operations, widely dispersed in geographical terms, demonstrate our maritime reach and versatility.

An important aspect of our maritime engagement is the creation and sustenance of international cooperation for the speedy, effective and humane application of maritime power for regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations. It took the terrible Tsunami of 2004 to drive this home with such telling effect. With the more recent example of the Yogyakarta earthquake in Indonesia, the criticality of working towards multilateral interoperability at every stage bears no repetition. This is the aim of some of the recent multinational and bilateral exercises that the navy has undertaken, including the exercise in the Sea of Japan with the US and Japan. In fact, maritime diplomacy is now an essential component of our ‘Look East’ policy. We have concluded bilateral arrangements with Thailand and Indonesia for joint coordinated patrols by the three navies in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Malacca Straits. We are also ready to contribute to capacity building of the Littoral States in maritime security. Southeast Asian navies participate in the bi-annual MILAN exercises. Our cross border development projects with our ASEAN neighbours also have a maritime dimension. For example, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility envisages connectivity between Indian ports on the eastern seaboard and Sittwe Port in Myanmar, thereby providing an alternate route for transport of goods to North-East India.

At the multilateral level and within the maritime domain, we have launched a series of initiatives to provide an inclusive and mutually-consultative forum in which the navies and maritime security agencies of the region — whether large or small — can meet and discuss common issues that bear upon international security. Amongst these initiatives is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium — IONS — which is being nurtured under the aegis of the Indian Navy and which will be formally launched through an international seminar planned in New Delhi in February 2008. The dialogue in the ASEAN Regional Forum, of which India has been a member since 1996, now includes regular discussions on maritime security issues.

Having elaborated our national maritime strategic interests and their international dimensions, I want to touch on a longer-term shift before concluding. The huge energy-resources of the Indian Ocean Region, the economic and demographic dynamism of countries such as India, China and Vietnam as well as their growing economic importance to the established Asia-Pacific maritime powers, such as the US and Japan, are driving particularly strong maritime connectivities between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. Indeed the conventional limits of geographic regions are getting increasingly blurred. For example, until recently, East Asia essentially consisted of the Pacific littoral of mainland Asia and the islands of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. Post-Cold War, as a ‘strategic’ construct, more than a ‘political’ or ‘economic’ one, ASEAN countries were incorporated into the ‘definition’ of East Asia. In April 2005, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers invited India, Australia and New Zealand to attend the inaugural East Asia Summit, thus widening the ambit of this strategic construct.

India is fully alive to this shift and the need to manage it not only in a non-disruptive manner, but in a synergistic one as well. Pessimists would look for seeds of conflict or at least balance of power scenarios in this oceanic shift. I for one see it as a potential stabilizer, an enabler of greater prosperity, and as another keystone in the edifice of global interdependence. India, with its growing capabilities and confidence, and its history of benign and active international engagement, is ready to contribute its maritime might to ensure such a positive outcome.

Thank you for your attention.


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