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Speech by Foreign Secretary at National Maritime Foundation on “India as a Consensual Stakeholder in the Indian Ocean: Policy Contours”

November 19, 2010

Admiral Arun Prakash, Chairman NMF
Commodore C Udai Bhaskar, Director NMF
Ladies and Gentleman
  1. It is indeed a privilege for me to speak at the National Maritime Foundation which has made an invaluable contribution to raising maritime awareness and in promoting the concept of ‘Maritime India’- a task that Sardar KM Pannikar, India’s foremost naval historian, would have warmly applauded. I congratulate Admiral Arun Prakash and his team at the Foundation for their efforts. I thank them for the invitation to speak here today.
  2. India and the Indian Ocean are inseparable. In the midst of the third largest ocean in the world, India’s location is in many ways her destiny. That is not just a statement regarding a fact of geography but of deeper civilizational, historical, cultural, economic and political linkages that have been forged between India and the Ocean that bears its name. Throughout history, India’s wellbeing and prosperity was linked to its access to the Indian Ocean region. It is no coincidence that the decolonization of the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean region was catalyzed by India’s independence and emergence as a free nation. The Indian diaspora is a prominent presence in almost all countries of the region. Apart from the Monsoon, the India-link, in its broadest sense, is the single common thread that is visible in the Indian Ocean region.
  3. The organic unity of the Indian Ocean was fractured during the colonial period. Now, the winds of globalization are bringing a fresh bond of unity in the Indian Ocean region. Globalization is inseparable from its maritime dimension, as 90 % of global trade by weight and volume is carried by sea. India is a major stakeholder and beneficiary of globalization. As an emerging global economic and trading power, India has thus a vital stake in maritime security. India’s global mercantile trade has grown phenomenally and now constitutes 41% of our GDP. 77% of our trade by value, and over 90% by volume is carried by sea. India is now projected to become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2020, after China, Japan and the US. Our dependence on sea borne trade is expected to expand exponentially. The maritime dimension is also vital for our energy security. India’s oil consumption is expected to rise to 245 million tons annually by 2020, with the country likely to be the world’s single largest importer of oil by 2050. Our economic growth would continue to be critically depended upon the unhindered flow of oil. The Indian Ocean region is important for India in terms of trade and as a source of energy supplies. Trade with the littoral States of the Indian Ocean constitutes close to 40% of India’s total trade.
  4. The Indian Ocean is virtually a land-locked ocean. It is distinguished by a land rim on three sides; Asia to its north, Africa to its west and SE Asia and Australia to its East. Access to the region is only possible through seven established gateways or choke points. To the East, the Straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok connect the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. The congestion and the narrow width of these straits make them susceptible to possible terrorist attacks. The Malacca Straits are the primary route, through which more than 50,000 vessels transit annually. To the west, the world’s busiest shipping lanes pass through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. The Malacca Straits handle 40 % of world trade; the Straits of Hormuz handle 40 % of all traded crude oil. It is not hard to imagine the consequences to the global economy if these choke points are indeed choked. The Indian Ocean is also one of the world’s most important waterways, with 50% of the container traffic and more than 70% of crude and oil products being carried through it. The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based. The world thus has a vital stake in the stability of the archipelagic countries. It’s not just the use of waterways that is important, but access to them as well. Landlocked countries are now therefore gaining a new geopolitical significance, for transit roads and pipelines.
  5. It is a now a widely accepted truism that the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region is a microcosm of global geopolitical trends. There are countries which are developing rapidly; on the other hand, there are those which are on the brink of collapse. In between there are those which are emerging from conflict and show promise of making rapid strides in the future. There are a large number of democracies in the region but it cannot be said that democracy is a universal norm for the region. A number of countries suffer from weak governance and regime instability, vulnerable to non-state actors driven by extremist ideologies. Threats to stability in the region abound, ranging from terrorism, piracy, war-lordism, proliferation, smuggling and drug trafficking. The situation off the Horn of Africa is a source of particular concern. The situation in land-locked Afghanistan also impacts on the Indian Ocean region, as a substantial portion of the international military presence there is dependent on support from maritime assets and capabilities. The impact of climate change is of concern to several island states that face a threat to their very survival. But, the bright side is that parts of the Indian Ocean littoral are witnessing an unprecedented economic boom, driven by positive economic and demographic factors. The overall picture is therefore mixed and complicated, not lending itself to easy categorization or solutions. What is certain is that India stands out both in what it has achieved and the untapped potential that still lies ahead. In short, the future of the Indian Ocean region is unthinkable without India.
  6. By any objective criteria, India has very significant maritime stakes in the Indian Ocean. We have a coast line of over 7500 kms. Between the Lashwadeep and the Andaman and Nicobar chains we have over 600 islands, with the southernmost tip just 90 nautical miles from Indonesia and the northern most tip less than 10 nautical miles from Myanmar. In terms of maritime security terms these are significant assets. Our EEZ is more than 2.5 million square KMs. The mining areas of over 150,000 sq KMs allotted to India under UNCLOS are about 2000 kms from our southernmost tip. We have significant interests in Antarctica as well. For several decades, India was the only Asian country to possess an aircraft carrier. Our naval force posture in the coming years will require the necessary capabilities in terms of reach, sustaining power and sea control. Following the sea-borne terrorist attacks on 26/11 in Mumbai, concerted efforts have been undertaken for strengthening maritime and coastal security against threats from sea, with greater involvement of the Navy, the Coast Guard and all the coastal states.
  7. As India’s development is predicated on a stable geo-strategic environment, as a mature and responsible nation, it is in our interest that we play an active role in the architecture of maritime security based on the twin principles of shared security and shared prosperity. India is well poised to play a leadership role in this regard. We have friendly and productive bilateral relations with almost all the states in the Indian Ocean region. Our bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles, Oman, Madagascar, Kenya and others give us unprecedented access to a wide swathe of the Indian Ocean. Some of these are territorial neighbours but all are maritime neighbours. We have historical and civilisational ties with many of these countries. Some of these countries have large Indian communities. The broad spectrum of our ties with these countries has a strong economic and socio-cultural dimension. Maritime security thus gives us a new perspective to our bilateral relations with these countries. We are actively engaged with almost all regional bodies that are either based in or border the Indian Ocean region- ranging from SAARC, BIMSTEC, ARF, ASEAN, GCC, SADC to the AU. We are interested in building a web of cooperative relations that brings together all the stakeholders based on mutual interest and benefit. Our ‘soft power’ gives us advantages that few other countries can match in this region. There is almost universal acceptance of India’s credentials and recognition of the vital contribution that we can make for stability and prosperity of the entire region.
  8. Our economic growth acts as a driver for growth across the entire region. Our bilateral and multilateral assistance programmes are crucial for the security and development requirements of a number of countries. Drawing on its human resources and scientific expertise, India has been assisting traditionally in areas such as agriculture, health, education and IT, as also in capacity building in areas such as hydrography, oceanography, dealing with climate change, etc. It is true that optimizing our economic and technical assistance programmes, even while integrating them with our larger security and strategic interests would yield even greater benefits. This will require leveraging India’s soft power and technological strengths as also ensuring greater synergy amongst the various instruments that we can deploy - diplomacy, trade and economic factors and military assistance.
  9. We are proud of the fact that our Navy has emerged as a versatile and flexible diplomatic instrument to mark India’s presence in the region. The Ministry of External Affairs and the Navy have partnered together as maritime diplomats. There is hardly a port in the region where our ships are not welcome. We have the distinction of undertaking naval exercises in the Indian Ocean with all the major navies of the world. The prompt assistance provided by the Navy in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami was an eye-opener with regard to our capabilities for providing timely disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. The Navy did a commendable job in helping in the evacuation of over 2280 people from strife torn Lebanon under Operation Sukoon. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) initiative, launched by Indian Navy has provided a forward looking framework for constructive engagement among the navies of the region. This initiative has tremendous potential as an inclusive forum for all stakeholders, which have legitimate interests in the region. Under the ARF, India has contributed to discussions on maritime security. India has also contributed to regional efforts for safe navigation in the Malacca straits.
  10. While India is seen as a net security provider, we cannot carry the burden of regional security on our shoulders alone. There is no doubt that maintaining a favourable maritime balance will require development of a credible naval presence with adequate assets commensurate with our defence and security interests as well as those required to discharge the role and responsibility expected of India by the international community. The era of gun boat diplomacy is long over. A robust Indian naval presence is seen as a necessary contribution to a cooperative regional security order. The cooperative burden sharing of naval forces to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia is a case in point. Our navy has discharged its responsibilities with distinction and is viewed as an indispensible partner not just by regional states but by the UN, EU and NATO naval forces. India is engaged with other countries on capacity-building and consultations in the area of anti-piracy to devise measures for keeping open access points to avoid choking international trade. While we are addressing the immediate threats to maritime security, the international community must find ways of dealing with the failed or failing states where violence and institutional fragility are being exploited by non-State actors and others which have a presence of international terrorist groups on the Indian Ocean littoral which in fact radiate instability in the region as a whole. The recent global financial and economic crisis has aggravated the fragility of many littoral States, some of which are among LDCs.
  11. While addressing the threats posed by non-state actors is important, we would also require states themselves to abide by "rules of the road.” Maintaining free access to the sea is very much part of defending the ‘Global Commons’. This will require a common vision of maritime security and freedom of navigation in accordance with universally agreed principles of international law and peaceful settlement of maritime territorial disputes. The maritime balance in the Indian Ocean region is linked to developments in South East Asia, the Pacific Rim and the Mediterranean. It is unrealistic to presume that we would be able to insulate our region from instability elsewhere. Maritime Security cannot be sustained if there is an exclusive focus on the military dimension alone, for it has economic, political and social dimensions as well. It is also unrealistic to expect that any single power can presume for itself the role of a "sea-based balancer”. Lastly, cooperation on maritime security issues could provide the necessary trust and confidence to build a flexible and adaptable Pan Asian Security Order.
  12. A popular theme in the media is to project the Indian Ocean as the new theatre of big power conflict. A widely read analyst who has also published a book on the Indian Ocean recently spoke of India being a "global pivot state supreme”, in the so-called tussle between the United States and China. While this description is flattering, we do not make policy on the basis of ‘feel- good labels’. There is no inevitability of conflict. India views the emerging trends with realism-building a sustainable regional security will require a cooperative effort among all regional countries on the one hand and all users of the Indian Ocean. As the main resident power in the Indian Ocean region, we have a vital stake in the evolution of a stable, open, inclusive and balanced security and cooperation architecture in the region. By definition this would need to be a consensus based process, where all the stakeholders who have a legitimate presence in the region make their respective contributions to regional security. India stands for harnessing the forces of geo-politics for new forms of cooperation rather than it being used as an excuse for domination by any single country. That is the vision that we aspire to. And that is the vision we look forward to realizing our partnership with all countries of the Indian Ocean region.
  13. Before I conclude, let me briefly speak about the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) that came into existence in 1997. India was one of the 14 founding member States. Given the growing strategic significance of the Indian Ocean, this organisation is the only one which aims to create a web of cooperative relationships between the now 18 member countries spanning three continents and three water bodies: this provides the right balance in terms of developing the littoral countries, across the political and geo-political spectrum, in a direction where economic, trade, academic and cultural cooperation constitutes the core of these relationships. The political and the strategic subtext of this organisation's activities is very relevant in the current times. Although the organization has not been able to fulfil its stated potential as yet, it does provide us with a useful platform to articulate our inclusive non-polarising vision of the future of the Indian Ocean and its littoral.
  14. Let me conclude by commending the Maritime Foundation for their valuable contribution to the national discourse on maritime issues.
Thank you.
New Delhi
November 19, 2010
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