'Act East': Modi's maritime mantra

The prime minister, with his maritime astuteness, may be the answer for 'sea blindness'.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recently concluded tour of Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka attempts to strengthen New Delhi’s influence in the Indian Ocean region. While New Delhi has enjoyed traditional ties over the years with these island states, now the need to consolidate economic engagement and defence/security ties with these countries, through maritime co-operation and capacity building.

Modi’s mantra of ‘Act East policy’ evolved from the 1991 ‘Look East policy’ is clearly our very own pivot. Modi is cognisant of India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean and that its development lies across the indivisible waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Accordingly, he seeks to shape the strategic security construct of the region which extends from Japan and Australia to Africa’s east coast. Consequently, his vigorous attempts to influence countries and win friends on the back of enhanced bilateral and defence ties with regional countries namely Japan, Australia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Fiji have had a strong maritime element like the recent three nation tour.

Also, China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region, as an evolving maritime power, amounts to an extra-regional player which India needs to counter. Perhaps this prompted Modi to launch a coastal surveillance radar project and need to cooperate in hydrographic survey with Seychelles. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Modi also discussed the need to find a stable solution to the fishermen’s problem. The transgression of territorial waters owing to paucity of fishing resources has the potential to flare up into bilateral political problems. To that extent, cordial India-Lanka maritime ties are a pre-requisite for regional harmony.

In Mauritius, Modi handed over an India-built ship ‘Barracuda’ to the Mauritius Coast Guard and outlined his Indian Ocean strategy during that ceremony. He stated: “We recognise that there are other nations around the world with strong interests and stakes in the region. India is deeply engaged with them. We do this through dialogue, visits, exercises, capacity building and economic partnership.”

This policy pronouncement suggests potential for India-China maritime cooperation in the region. Also Chinese Ambassador Le Yucheng’s recent statement that the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative. This revives the ancient overland China-Central Asia – Mediterranean route and can be linked with India’s ‘Project Mausam’ and ‘Spice Route’.

Evidently, New Delhi has reservations over Beijing’s invitation to India to participate in its Maritime Silk Route. Instead, India has sought to counter this Chinese move with its own ‘Project Mausam’ that invokes our ancient monsoon enabled maritime links and revival of the ancient ‘Spice Route’ linking southern India with Europe.

Modi is, however, pragmatic enough to realise that Beijing’s ‘cheque book’ diplomacy makes most regional countries support China’s Maritime Silk Route. India, with its limited resources, could be left high and dry if New Delhi chooses a ‘mutually exclusive’ approach to these Indian Ocean initiatives vis-a-vis China.

Clearly, the dragon has contributed to Modi’s interest in ‘matters maritime’. The Chinese surge into the Indian Ocean in recent years, the String of Pearls strategy, Chinese submarine operations in the Indian Ocean, the Maritime Silk Route initiative, the South China Sea disputes, have all stirred India to crank up its maritime outreach. Whether Chinese maritime initiatives are military or economy-oriented, remain fuzzy. Often what Beijing seeks to project as economic interests tend to have underlying military-strategic intent.

Maritime power

Apparently, Modi comprehends the various facets of maritime power which most definitely come from his stewardship of Gujarat. With 97 per cent of India’s trade transported by sea, he realises that his development agenda, 49 per cent FDI move and ‘Make in India’ campaign are all dependant on the security of the seas around us. This explains the prime minister’s first visit soon after he assumed office to the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya which symbolises India’s maritime power.

While he is yet to signal a grand  vision for a ‘Blue Economy’ or an ocean-oriented economy, his push for 16 new port projects, which includes a move  to corporatise our major ports, a policy to encourage the growth of Indian controlled tonnage, tax benefits for Indian seafarers and the ‘Sagarmala Project’ which encompasses ports, SEZs, multi-modal connectivity with the hinterland, supported by  storage and warehouse facilities, are all with an eye to create jobs, increase industrial production and eventually enhance exports.

In a sense, the government’s proactive maritime policy posture would also have been shaped by the 26/11 attack, the asymmetric maritime threats which emanate from a volatile neighbourhood, the scourge of piracy off Somalia and India’s vision of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. US maritime strategist Capt Alfred Thayer Mahan had identified ‘character of government’ as one of the important ingredients of a great maritime power. Modi, with his maritime astuteness, may be the answer for ‘sea blindness’, which has afflicted Indian national security and foreign policy formulation since independence.

(The writer is former Principal Director, Naval Intelligence; he has also served in the Cabinet Secretariat)

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