Navy,Raisina Files

India's Indigenously built OPV INS Sunayna

Indian Navy

Navies, and the competitions between them, are shaped by their strategic context, but have an important role in shaping that context too. Discussing the issue of how best to manage maritime competition in the Indian Ocean therefore requires a look at that strategic context and the way it affects navies, together with analysis of how the challenges it poses might be managed.

The Overall Context

When speaking of the Indian Ocean region (IOR), analysts sometimes use the word ‘copetition’ to denote the fact that maritime engagement in the IOR clearly has both cooperative and competitive connotations, the former conducive to peace, the latter potentially leading to conflict. The peace and prosperity of the region demands that cooperative maritime engagement be encouraged and competitive engagement be managed and discouraged.

One vision of the future implies a recreation of the ancient pre-colonial past. Broadly,[1] the Indian Ocean area was the an ‘uncommanded’ sea, an area that was once largely free of great power naval rivalry and was instead the scene of a sea-based trading system that united the peoples of the whole area, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Southern China, in common commercial and cultural endeavour, and in which India, simply as a function of its geography, was the natural centre. At least at first glance, the general peacefulness of this maritime system seems to confirm the ideas of the Manchester School that free trade was and is a universal good in that the more nations trade, the more they prosper and the less they fight.

This is also the idea behind such visions as SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) as first outlined by Prime Minister Modi in Mauritius in March 2015.[2] In this speech and subsequently, Modi called for regional cooperation in developing the ‘blue economy’, for the harmonisation of maritime interests and for the cooperative defence of maritime security by the IOR countries. The interests of extra-regional powers would be recognised and accommodated through a climate of trust and transparency and adherence to the disciplines of a rules-based order. This achieved, maritime disputes would be resolved and prosperity and peace would follow.

In turn, this would confirm the sea in its role as a strategic enabler, something that joins nations rather than a fence or a barrier that divides them. But, conversely, if that blue economy and sea-based trade is threatened by instabilities of various sorts the sea could well become an arena for increased maritime competition, disorder at sea and international tension. Instability, both ashore and at sea, can threaten trade and, importantly, the conditions for trade, whether it does so directly by threatening the good order at sea on which the safe passage of merchant ships depend, or indirectly by undermining the legal, social and economic conditions ashore that allow trade deals to be struck in the first place and then executed. There seem to be three main sources of instability that could have this effect:

  • Challenges to free trade
  • Chaos in the littorals
  • Inter-state competition

Each source of instability will be discussed in turn, together with a review on how each might best be handled. It will be seen that each has significant consequences for the region’s navies and that naval development and behaviour are part of the problem, but part of the solution too.

Challenges to free trade

Globalisation was supposed by its advocates to usher in an age of peace and prosperity by giving everyone a stake in success and interest in the efficiency and security of the world trading system, whether as consumers looking for reduced costs of living, commodity suppliers, or makers of components used in distributed international manufacturing processes. Further, this meant the world’s navies had to work together to defend the trading system against such threats as piracy and other forms of transnational crimes at sea, instability and natural disasters ashore, and inter-state conflict. Navies, it was argued, were now entering a new era of cooperation at sea.

The South Korean shipping firm Hanjin, however, based its plans on the widespread assumption that international trade would keep on growing and had to file for bankruptcy when it became clear that trade was not in fact expanding. In the second quarter of 2016 it, in fact, fell by 0.8 percent, amidst lower consumption and investment. As a result, many of the world’s 20 million containers and the ships to transport them were not needed.[3] Free trade seems to be in trouble, as the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round talks failed, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership flounders. China, like other major economies, is now making more of what it consumes and consumes more of what it makes. New restrictions are being put into place. The asymmetric effect of these restrictions will increase tension between states.[4] There is likely to be increased competition for resources and even serious talk of trade wars.

Many have lost of faith in the very idea of globalisation. Neo-liberalism has benefitted capital much more than labour and so has led to greater social inequality.[5] In turn, this has sparked a rise in populist anti-globalisation sentiment from Donald Trump in the United States, to Jeremy Corbyn and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. In the 2016 US presidential election even Hillary Clinton, the principal architect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was forced to back away from the project.[6] The addition to this of a xenophobic nationalism empowered by the social media makes for a toxic mixture.

An additional problem for the IOR is that much of the trade in the area simply passes through it, perhaps with some trans-shipment in ports such as Colombo South to add value. Regional trade is only some 20 percent of the whole and much of that is between India and Australia.

In their doctrines, most navies emphasise the importance of the defence of sea-based trade against piracy, other illicit activities at sea and the possibility of an adversary seeking to interfere with it. But increasing doubts about the long-term future of free trade could well have the effect of reducing the incentives for navies to cooperate in defence of the system against the many things that threaten it, a requirement which has done much to improve inter-state relations since the Second World War. The less they enter into partnerships to defend the sea-based trading system, the more likely would maritime competition seem to be.

Solutions to the challenges of free trade?

It follows from this that there are two channels by which free trade and the cooperative maritime regime that is associated with it might be defended against the many challenges that confront it. The first is the very general response of greater efforts in tackling the rise of protectionist sentiment around the world. The second is to focus on the development of economic interdependency in the IOR. The first response is to defend globalisation; the second to develop what some have called ‘glocalisation.’

The fact that much of India’s energy requirement is sourced in the Gulf and Middle East and that perhaps half of India’s merchandise, and a third of its overall trade passes through Southeast Asian waters gives India major interests in the stability of that area and explains why the country takes a leading place in the discourse on, and defence of, good order at sea. In the future this interest is likely to extend further into the Western Pacific in support of the country’s Look and Act East narrative. To a lesser extent these considerations apply to most of the other major economies of the region as well.

Accordingly, they all have an interest in the defence of globalisation against the tide of protectionism that seems to be threatening it. Much of how such campaigns to ‘hold the line’ in defending the global sea-based trading system is beyond the limits of this paper, but the development and effective communication of an inclusive trade agenda that delivers opportunities for sections of the community who have hitherto suffered the consequences of change would certainly seem to be an important part of it.

In other respects, the requirement would seem to be for Indian Ocean states to do their utmost to retain and/or develop open trading relationships with the rest of the world as much as they can. Historically India has taken something of a lead here. India’s Look East Policy was initiated by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s as part of the country’s economic reform package. Its immediate aim was to promote India’s economic linkages with ASEAN and Indian-ASEAN trade has since greatly expanded. In 2014, Modi extended this to an Act East Policy, which deepened the linkages strategically and extended them to South Korea, Japan, Australia and the Pacific Island countries. At the Indian Ocean Conference 2016, India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar summarised it thus: “For the Indian Ocean to attain its true potential, it is imperative that India, which is the centre of gravity, should be a facilitator rather than an obstruction. That requires a smoother movement of goods and people within India but also to its immediate neighborhood and beyond.”[7]

This inevitably raises the question of how local states should react to the ambitious One Belt, One Road project currently being advanced by the Chinese. If the resultant economic dependencies really do go both ways in a manner which prevents China from using them as a form of strategic leverage, and if the detailed projects make economic sense when appraised objectively, there is much to be said for a policy of cautious engagement and for seeing this project as an opportunity for increased trade and reduced tension rather than a threat, but the caveats are nonetheless important. They no doubt help explain the existence of alternative visions of Asian integration, not least India’s ‘Project Mausam.’

Part and parcel of this is the need to develop economic cooperation within the IOR—so-called ‘glocalisation.’ Such measures might include campaigns to improve the ‘Ease-of-Doing Business’ scores that local countries have; the creation of production networks between countries that are drawn together through their association with the different parts of the manufacture and assembly of products; and improvements in physical connectivity and logistic systems. The cooperative development of the generally comparatively neglected ‘blue’ sections of the economies of Indian Ocean states would clearly be central to any such campaign.

To the degree they were successful, both campaigns would have the consequence of extending and developing the opportunity for navies to partner in defence of sea-based trading, an activity which encourages multilateral naval cooperation and which reduces the prospects of competition.

Chaos in the littorals

‘Chaos in the littorals’ was a term invented in order to denote situations of instability ashore in which criminal activity and international terrorism could flourish, leaching out onto the open sea in ways which could undermine the good order at sea on which sea-based trade and regional peace and prosperity depends. The collapse of legitimate authority in Somalia has had that effect for some years in the growth of piracy at sea and of Al-Shabaab ashore. The currently growing problems in the Sulu and Celebes seas where the navies of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are struggling to cope with the activities of the ruthless Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, Sabah insurgents and widespread criminal activity at sea are another example, and the unfolding tragedy in the Yemen provides a third. They all have pronounced implications for good order at sea in general and navies in particular. In the latter case, for example, missiles have been fired at merchant ships and US warships and Saudi Arabia has taken control of the strategically sensitive Perim Island lest it fall into the hands of the Houthi rebels. This case also illustrates the point that local disorders of this sort can easily suck in contending countries (in this case Saudi Arabia and Iran) in a way which increases tension and naval competition.

Climate change and natural disasters in a region at once traditionally prone to them and acutely vulnerable because of its many island communities and densely populated, often low-lying, coastal regions can also be a major source of instability ashore and present a radical challenge to the oceanic order. The health of the Indian Ocean itself is at serious risk in ways which also threaten regional security.

Solutions to instability ashore?

The first, main and obvious response to the challenge of actual or potential local instability is sufficient economic development to head off social tensions or environmental disasters before they have a major destabilising effect. Addressing the haphazard urbanisation and defective infrastructure of so much of the Indian Ocean coastline should arguably be the first priority.

But navies have a major role to play here too, especially if they are able to cooperate in defence of the maritime order much like the way they have in the counter-insurgency and counter-drugs operations taking place off the coast of Somalia and in the Arabian Sea. In this sense navies and coastguards too, act as ‘security providers.’  The 2015 naval strategy publication ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’[8] reveals an emphasis on the safety and security of seaborne trade and energy routes, on ensuring the freedom of navigation and on helping to maintain the law of the sea. All this requires cooperation with other navies in dealing with common threats at sea, humanitarian disasters, and the need where necessary to evacuate non-combatants from conflict areas. In conjunction with the coastguard, the navy contributes to search and rescue operations and, in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attack, to anti-terrorist operations. In these operations the accent is on maritime partnerships with others rather than competition. This is a common theme of navies throughout the region. Developing this kind of multilateral naval cooperation not only meets a clear operational need, but also contributes to the maintenance of the maritime order by mitigating naval competition.

Briefly to reverse the title of this paper, here the problem is rather ‘big pond, small navies.’ Effectively, it is where the level of naval effort is insufficient to maintain authority over the sea that problems arise, such as off Somalia and in the Sulu/Celebes seas. In consequence, the Indian and other major navies of the region together with external naval powers devote particular effort to capacity-building, which, by providing local navies with the tools to control their littorals, helps reduce the instabilities which can so easily lead to international rivalries and tensions.

Inter-state competition

Finally, it would be naïve to ignore the future possibility of dangerously increasing tensions between India and Pakistan, between the United States and China, between China and India, Saudi-Arabia and Iran and so on. In such a maritime area as the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, it is hardly surprising that many of these issues should themselves be maritime. For this reason, naval planners throughout the region feel they have a duty to ‘engage’ in worst case analysis, and to produce as strong a force as they can in order to minimise strategic risk. Inevitably this produces security dilemmas where one country’s defensive measures seem to justify its neighbour’s responses in an endless chain of action and reaction. This leads to a retreat from collaborative engagement and a slide into heightened tensions and de-stabilising arms-racing. Concern about the arrival of China into the Indian Ocean, and its possible implications for India given its tensions with Pakistan, provides a clear example of this, especially given the close interest in the matter taken by the United States, Japan and Australia.

An open debate about the legitimacy, intentions and role of ‘outsiders’ in local seas (whether it be the United States and India in the East and South China Seas or China in the Indian Ocean) could well usefully shine a torch in such dark places. Thus, India, generally concerned about China’s growing naval presence in the Indian ocean area and alarmed about the surprise appearance of a PLA Navy SSN in a Chinese operated section of a Sri Lankan port, has specifically warned: “What we are beginning to see is the unfolding of China’s desire to be a maritime power…If a submarine docks in a port where a submarine has never docked before from that country, it cannot be a development without repercussions.” [9] In a similar vein, the announcement in November 2016 that China intends to create a ‘naval base’ in Djibouti re-awakened fears that China was indeed in the process of setting up its much-discussed ‘string of pearls’ across the Indian Ocean in defence of its general trading interests in and across the area. Given that for years China has roundly condemned the establishment of such foreign bases as inherently aggressive, this reversal of view has, rightly or wrongly, caused some alarm in Delhi and elsewhere, and has been at least partly responsible for India’s development of closer naval relations with the United States, Japan and Australia. [10]

Continuing uncertainties about the likely role of the United States under President Trump add to the complexity of this issue.

Inter-state maritime competition: Solutions?

Many of the issues dividing regional countries seem intractable and so, unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Experience from the wider Indo-Pacific area, however, suggests that there are behavioural and institutional means by which their maritime consequences can to some extent be managed.

Perhaps oddly, the first recommendation here is that the maritime nations of the IOR maintain a level of naval and coastguard capability that is consistent with their maritime interests, which many do not. It is in the imbalance between commitments and resources that gaps exist which may be exploited by the malign in ways that destabilise relationships. India’s naval construction programme and its new doctrine aim to deal with this, and other nations are following suit. Ensuring Secure Seas does this by establishing clear naval aims that are consistent with the foreign policy objectives of the government in a manner which helps identify their military-technical requirements in terms of platforms, weapons and sensors. The final stage in this process is to assemble these requirements into a coherent and affordable construction programme designed to deliver the necessary capabilities in good time. This sounds obvious and easy, but is neither. Other IOR countries, well aware of the security consequences of mismatching resources and commitments, are endeavouring to take the same path.[11]

This may of course result in close encounters at sea between prospective adversaries. Events in the South and East China Seas, however, point up the value of agreed ways of handling potential incidents at sea. Tactical actions at sea which endanger life and violate the basic rules of the road have a high risk of being counter-productive. It may be better to direct high pressure water at the bridge and communications equipment of the other side in some stand-off at sea than to shoot at them, but it is still inherently dangerous. It could easily result in the victim, either at sea or ashore, losing control of the situation and doing something escalatory. It will often poison relationships afterwards as well, affecting the perceptions and assumptions that the parties have of each other. In perilous situations (as potentially all situations at sea are) control and restraint should be at a premium and competition in risk-taking frowned upon. Accordingly, continuous and unconditional participation in professional discussions to avoid and manage incidents at sea seems wise.

Likewise, full-scale, unconditional naval engagement even of possible adversaries in the whole gamut of naval interaction—ranging from ship visits, staff college exchanges through to participation in shared exercises at sea—do much to lessen tension, to develop greater transparency and to compensate for the perhaps inevitable requirement of naval planners to cater for the worst case.

The provision of a variety of neutral arenas in which the protagonists can ventilate and discuss their differences seems advisable too. There is of course the often-heard criticism that the Indo-Pacific region as a whole has too many such institutions, producing an alphabet soup of acronyms for talking shops which achieve very little. But this misses the point that a plurality of sea-related institutions provides for a wider range of options, allows for the breadth of issues that are now embraced within the apparently limitless concept of maritime security to be dealt with, and more opportunities for the smaller powers to participate. Finally, as Churchill once said, for all its faults, “jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” One of the key differences between the situation now when compared to that before the First and Second World Wars, which were likewise periods of economic strain in which the international order was changing with some countries rising and others falling, was that today’s processes take place within a constellation of debate and discourse about maritime cooperation. This kind of constructive maritime engagement, in short, has its undoubted limitations but it is still infinitely preferable to the alternative.

None of these recommendations will of course end maritime competition, but they should at least do something to mitigate its destabilising potential.

This article was originally published in ‘Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century


[1] There are exceptions to this vision. The maritime career of Zhneg He remains contested despite the best efforts of the Chinese. Geoff Wade, “The Pre-Modern East Asian Maritime Realm” in The Sea, Identity and History: From the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea, eds. Satish Chandra and Humanshu Prabha Ray (Singapore: ISEAS, 2013), 102.

[2] G. Padmaja “Modi’s Maritime Diplomacy: A Strategic Opportunity,” Maritime Affairs 11, no. 2 (2015): 25-42.

[3] New York Times, “World Trade falls as globalisation costs bite,” Straits Times, November 1, 2016.

[4] Reuters, “Trade tensions mount between Beijing and Berlin,” Straits Times, November 1, 2016.

[5] Martin Jacques, “The Death of Neoliberalism and the Crisis in Western Politics,” The Observer, August 21, 2016. See also the massively successful Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century which attacks the system’s economic effectiveness.

[6] Dan Roberts, “Clinton turns against the global economy as Americans count cost of trade deals,” The Observer, August 21, 2016.

[7] Quoted in Pradumna B. Rana, “Indian Ocean: Re-energising Trade Integration in IORA,” RSIS Commentary No. 243, October 3, 2016.

[8] Published by the Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), New Delhi.

[9] A senior Indian Foreign Ministry official quoted in Niharika Mandhana, “Modi Heads to China As Asian Alliances Shift,” Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2015.

[10] Christopher D. Yung, Ross Rustici, “Not and Idea We Have to Shun: Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century,” China Strategic Perspectives No. 7, National Defense University, October 2014, http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-7.pdf.

[11] For example, with its Sri Lanka Navy’s Maritime Strategy 2025, the Navy of Sri Lanka, anxious to avoid the mistakes of the past, has similarly derived its vision of its future fleet from a clearly thought-out analysis of how it should respond to its strategic context.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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