The recent India-Asean heads of government meeting held in New Delhi was one of the more successful of such gatherings. There was noticeable progress in formulating more mutually advantageous trade relationships — progress that also manifested itself in the growing numbers for trade. At present, trade between India and Asean stands at $80 billion and might easily cross $100 billion next year, a huge improvement over $35 billion in 2007. There was also agreement on further enhancing the relationship — which could see greater involvement of India in Southeast Asia, something entirely consistent with the country’s Look East policy.
This orientation, which started in the early 1990s, has begun to see concrete results on the ground, or rather at sea because no other linkage has brought these nations as close as it has. It is true that many Southeast Asian countries – principally Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand – have been influenced by Indian religion and culture taken across the seas during the Satavahana, Chola and Pandya periods, but that remained the sum and substance of the interface. It is only now that geopolitical content is coming to the forefront.
It is in this context that the desire of all participating countries to enhance maritime security co-operation should be seen. India has comprehensive defence co-operation with the air forces, armies and navies of some countries — for example with Singapore and, to a lesser degree, with Vietnam. But its engagement with Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar is also taking shape, each in its own way — some for training, some for supply of hardware or its maintenance, some for co-ordinated patrols of waters susceptible to piracy and so on. But not until now have all participating nations, together, stressed the need for, and desirability of, closer security co-operation at sea.
Since most of the Asean countries are not Indian Ocean littorals, the implication clearly is that they want India to step out of its essentially Indian Ocean profile into areas beyond — the South China Sea, which is their environment and, of course, that of China. The United States is not littoral, but it has been present in the waters of the West Pacific – the East and South China Seas – for decades. Recent American rhetoric to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific is just that, because the US has always maintained both bases and forces in the region and two of its closest military allies – Japan and South Korea – are located here with a formidable presence of all three wings of armed forces.
The US’ need to reiterate this policy stems from the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese both in the north (versus Japan) and in the south (targeting Vietnam and the Philippines). For all these countries, China is or has been their largest trading partner and, in almost all, Chinese investments carry a weight of their own. Yet, across the board, especially among those with any kind of sea space, there is apprehension, if not fear, of what the assertive postures of the China might lead to. This is not to say that prospects of military conflict between the Chinese and any of them are high, but there is potential for some form of confrontation that can result in instability in their surroundings. They sense that India’s involvement could balance things and America is, no doubt, there, but many might not feel comfortable siding with it and becoming party to the disputes — hence this nuanced change in engagement with India.
For India, being the pre-eminent regional maritime power in the Indian Ocean is almost non-negotiable. Most of its core interests and concerns lie here, and its geographic advantages are such that few others can ever hope to equal them. Its strategies must treat this as a first charge. At the same time, India is also on the way to becoming a major player in the Asia-Pacific, or the Indo-Pacific, as the region is beginning to be called — most recently by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the India-Asean meet. While maritime boundary disputes between different West Pacific littorals should be resolved among themselves through mutual agreement, there can be no compromise on freedom of navigation and adherence to the international laws of the sea. Claims of “historic sovereignty”, as are being made by China, are all very well but they cannot be unilateral and must pass this test.
India also has economic interests, assisting littorals in offshore exploration and exploitation of energy through joint commercial ventures, as it is doing in Vietnam today and may well do elsewhere later. This may be followed, in time, by assistance in deep sea mining and recovery of seabed resources. There is no reason why these activities should not be allowed to be progressed unhindered so long as the territorial sovereignty of any other country is not being violated according to international law.
As a major Indo-Pacific player and one of the few countries with credible maritime capabilities, India is also responsible for providing safety of passage for innocent traffic across the ocean trade routes around it and through important channels and exits. The Indian navy is charged with safeguarding the nation’s interests at sea and discharging responsibilities if, when and where necessary, subject to the government’s direction.
Expansion of maritime security co-operation between India and Asean should be viewed in this perspective. To start with, this co-operation is not directed against any other country; it is not a military alliance in any sense but is devoted to safeguarding the commons, or what might be termed the public goods. There is no talk of multilateral co-operation such as the erstwhile alliances of western and eastern Europe. The kind of relationship that is being mooted will be essentially bilateral, viz between India and each of the states. Indeed, such engagement already exists institutionally between India and most of the Asean countries; it is also in place with Japan and South Korea; it also exists with quite a few non-littoral states, principally the US, the UK, Russia, Australia and France. These relations should be enhanced. In time, we should also develop a similar interface with China, and the maritime domain is the best place to begin.
The message being sent by the recent meeting of the heads of state is that while their lands may be separated geographically, the seas are not. To go beyond the Indian Ocean is as much the navy’s charter as it is to operate in it.
The writer is a former Commander-in-Chief of Eastern Naval Command. He has also been member of the National Security Advisory Board