India must engage maritime nations

Archaeological records suggest India’s maritime heritage goes back to 3700 BCE when Lothal was a thriving port, having links to other parts of Asia and Africa.

Subsequent rulers, barring a few exceptions, however, did little to build on that tradi-tion. In the recent decades, the government took several steps to reclaim Indian maritime heritage and successful conduct of an international fleet review with participation from 50 countries would be remembered as a milestone in achieving that objective. Oceans are important because more than 90 per cent of global merchandise trade worth $20 trillion are carried through ocean. Similarly, 60 per cent of oil moves through sea routes. Closer home, Indian Ocean region has emerged as the crucial strategic theatre, thanks to surging Asian economy as most of the oil and trade for India and China passes through the sea.

With China retaining its military focus on land-based forces till recently, New Delhi had sensed opportunity in the ocean and dovetailed its ‘Look East’ policy with enhanced regional maritime engagement with tacit support from the US that was willing to back India as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi took an initiative to create Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008 as a platform of regional maritime nations. With its credibility on the rise, IONS members now talk among themselves on how to deal with piracy, exchange information and aid each other in natural disaster. The diplomatic victory put India on a higher pedestal to consolidate its position in the maritime space. With the government according policy priority to the Indian Ocean, the objective currently is to provide security and ensure economic growth for all. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said New Delhi would continue to actively pursue and promote its geo-political, strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean.

The government should now initiate more economic engagement with other maritime nations and make the Indian Navy a blue water force, if it wishes to expand the littoral footprint. While New Delhi plans a global maritime conference in April to further the economic agenda, several naval projects are tangled in the red tape, restricting India's naval reach. The Navy has a serious problem in its under water and aviation arms with dwindling number of submarines and helicopters. Many naval acquisition plans are way behind schedule and in the absence of adequate assets, the sea going force has little other option but to prioritise its tasks rather than attempting maximum number of tasks. With the Navy shouldering the brown water responsibility too in the wake of 26/11, the government must address the naval needs on a priority basis if its wants to build on the success of the fleet review.

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