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[Sansad TV] India’s World – Strategic Importance of Indian Ocean Region (IOR)

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The strategic importance of IOR is ever increasing to the world order in general and Indian sub-continent in particular.

What is IOR?

  • The IOR broadly defines areas consisting of littoral states of the Indian Ocean.
  • IOR comprises a number of sub-regions, such as Australia, South East Asia, South Asia, Horn of Africa and the Southern and Eastern Africa.
  • It is marked by a glaring cultural, social, political and economic diversity.

Significance of IOR

  • Biggest market: The IOR littorals house more than one-third of world’s population.
  • Trade significance: In addition, more than half of the global seaborne trade and commerce passes through the Indian Ocean out of which, almost 70 per cent goes to countries external to the region.
  • Rich in natural resources: The IOR littoral states are rich in producing various raw materials, primarily oil, which are key to development of major manufacturing industries of developed as well as developing nations.
  • Ample marine resources: Complementary to this is the enormous seabed resources possessed by IOR comprising oil and natural gas reserves, minerals and abundance of fishes.
  • Maritime choke-points: The presence of major maritime choke points and Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) in the IOR lends it a strategic importance of gigantic magnitude.

Geo-Strategic Importance of IOR to India

  • India is at the centre: India’s central position in the IOR gives her an immense advantage and at the same time presents far greater challenges.
  • Energy Security: Taking into account the total oil imports by sea, offshore oil production and petroleum exports, the country’s cumulative ‘sea dependence’ for oil is estimated to be about 93 per cent.
  • Dependence on seas: Today, almost 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume and 68 per cent of trade by value are routed via the Indian Ocean.
  • Fishing and aquaculture: India depends heavily on Indian Ocean resources with her fishing and aquaculture industries being a major source of export as well as providing employment to more than 14 million people.
  • Huge maritime boundary: Militarily, the presence of such long coastline makes India vulnerable to potential threats emerging from the sea.
  • Hostile neighborhood: One of the worst terrorist attacks on India in recent memory – the 2008 Mumbai attack – was perpetrated by terrorists arriving by sea.
  • Unforeseen and non-conventional threats: The presence of non-traditional threats like piracy, smuggling, illegal fishing and human trafficking also present major challenges and hence, a secure Indian Ocean is key to securing India’s national interests.

Net Security Provider: To Be or Not to Be

  • Peaceful seas: India has been fortunate to have experienced largely peaceful seas for past several decades.
  • Conventional threats: The threats were mostly non-traditional like piracy, drug trafficking, IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing and human trafficking to name a few.

Reasons to take up the role

  • Obligation for the West: The acceptance of this role, as net security provider, has now become a strategic obligation rather than a matter of choice.
  • US internal crisis: Amidst a turbulent global economic environment marred by industrial recession in European block and a looming threat of trade wars between China and US.
  • Wisdom of Responsibility:  India has been acknowledged as the emerging global power in the international arena. This acknowledgement brings with itself, a commensurate level of international responsibility.
  • Void in capability: considering the perceptible void in the existing capability, the ongoing internal debate echoes in the remarks made by India’s former NSA, Mr Shiv Shankar Menon, when he said, “There is a demand that India be a net provider of security and we need to take a call on that”.

IOR Threat Mosaic: From Indian Prism

A quick scan over the IOR brings forth challenges of varied dimensions from India’s perspective. Critical of these areas under:

  • Growing PLAN Presence: Chinese presence on theports like Gwadar, Hambantota, Djibouti to name a few, in guise of maritime Silk Road needs no elaboration.
  • Modernisation of Pakistan Navy (PN): PN has embarked upon a rapid modernisation process with thrust on Undersea Warfare garnering assistance from Turkey and her all-weather friend China.
  • Shifting US Policy: US policies, since Trump, have seen stark deviation from her erstwhile policies on Indo-Pacific Region (IPR).
  • Non-traditional Threats: The challenges from non-state forces to include, piracy, maritime terrorism, drug trafficking, illicit weapons trafficking, illegal migrants, poaching etc. as well as, vagaries of climate change falls within the ambit of non-traditional threat spectrum of conflict..  

Impediments to India Becoming a Net Security Provider

  • Resource Availability vs. Requirement: The inglorious status of India as the second most populated country in the world with finite resources can muster in the present era of global downtrend.
  • Financial capabilities: Intents cannot be materialised into reality without a robust financial backing. Achieving the status of net security provider calls for manifold increase in existing military hardware.  
  • Existing Civil-Military Relationship: There have been numerous instances of missing out on strategic gains due to differing views of various ministries as well as between civil and military leadership.
  • Nascent Jointmanship: Turf war between three Services has not helped the vision of jointsmanship required for India achieving the status of net security provider.  
  • Non-alignment Policy: India has ideologically followed the principle of military non-alignment with any super power so as to retain its strategic autonomy.  
  • Primacy of Land Operations: India has been persistently focused on dealing with its land boundary with China and Pakistan, and her full-fledged participation in ongoing proxy war.  

Various steps taken

  • Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and naval exercise MILAN have been a few welcome steps by India in manifesting a coherent strategic intent.
  • This has been further augmented by initiatives like Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), project MAUSAM and the proposed Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.
  • There is an increased participation of Indian Navy in bilateral / multilateral naval exercises and CORPAT (Coordinated Patrol) with Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
  • India is already involved in training of naval personnel from various IOR nations as part of exchange programmes.
  • Further, India has also been supplying naval assets to countries like Mauritius, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles.

Way Forward

  • Formulation of a National Defence Policy: It is a miraculous paradox that India, a growing regional power and an aspirant global power, doesn’t have a National Defence Policy.
  • Coherent IOR Strategy: India needs to formulate and adhere to a coherent IOR strategy involving complementary intents and actions in dealing with IOR nations.
  • Strategic Development of Islands:  The world miraculously watched the Chinese expertise in dredging and creating small islets. God’s grace, we have the Andaman, Nicobar and the Lakshadweep Islands.
  • Capability Enhancement of IOR Nations: A thrust on capability enhancement of IOR nations, particularly their respective navies, would accrue immense benefit for the entire IOR.
  • Capability Development and Technical Upgradation: When it comes to indigenisation, the IN has gone way ahead vis-à-vis other two Services i.e. army and air force.

Conclusion

  • Indian core values of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence generate immense goodwill and inspire confidence in the entire IOR.
  • The smaller nations of the IOR have recognized the genuine intent of the Indian Navy in ensuring freedom of navigation and use of global waters as per existing International Laws.
  • However, this intent needs to be firmly backed by a matching capability and a clearly spelt-out strategy.
  • In the absence of the same, it would be a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ India would find itself struggling to secure its own maritime (and in turn, national) interests.  
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