Maritime Diplomacy

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Indian Navy can take justifiable pride in remaining in the vanguard of India’s maritime-diplomacy endeavours
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM**, VSM, (Retd)
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

India’s ‘Maritime Diplomacy’ is a function of the desire of the nation to preserve, protect and promote her maritime interests.  These maritime interests flow-from and simultaneously feed-into India’s core national interest which, derived from the Constitution, is “to assure the societal, economic, and material well-being of the People of India”. It is important to note that the word ‘societal’ encompasses the human development of Indian ‘society’ at large and includes the various tangible and intangible forms, structures and processes—such as political systems, human development indices such as health, life-expectancy, poverty-eradication, education, as also more complex intangibles, such as the ‘pursuit of ‘happiness’ —that make-up India’s body-politic.  Indeed, concentration upon the ‘societal’ well-being of the people of India brings in a far more holistic understanding of ‘security’ - the desired end-result of the entire gamut of all diplomacy including, of course, maritime diplomacy - than the traditional one of ceaseless military-economic competition between nation-states.

The pursuit, promotion, preservation and protection of India’s ‘maritime interests’ are all founded upon a single axiom - that “India wishes to use the seas for her own purposes while simultaneously preventing others from using them in ways that are to her disadvantage” -  and define and shape our maritime-diplomacy as an instrument of State policy. It follows that no assessment of either the ‘form’ or the optimum ‘content’ of our maritime diplomacy can be possible without an understanding of our principal maritime interests:

•    Protection from sea-based threats to our territorial integrity.
•    Ensuring Stability in our Maritime Neighbourhood
•    Creation, development, and sustenance of a ‘Blue Economy’ incorporating:

• The protection of India’s maritime resources and offshore infrastructure, within and beyond the Maritime Zones of India

• The promotion, Protection and Safety of our Overseas and Coastal Seaborne Trade and our Sea Lines of Communication, including the ports that constitute the nodes of this trade

• Support to Marine Scientific Research, including that in Antarctica.

• Provision of support and extrication-options to our Diaspora.

• Provision of holistic maritime security (‘human’ security) — that is, freedom from threats arising ‘in’ or ‘from’ the sea.

• Gaining and maintaining a regionally favourable geostrategic and geopolitical maritime-position.

It is also important to remember that the term ‘maritime’ comprises more than just the navy and that the country’s ‘naval power’ is a sub-set of its ‘maritime power’, which involves political, economic and military power exerted through the use of the sea.  Thus ‘maritime diplomacy’ is not necessarily the same as ‘naval diplomacy’. Even though the Indian Navy is the principal ‘maritime manifestation’ of the sovereign power of our Republic, it need not be the sole one.  This notwithstanding, more often than not, the main protagonists in any maritime-diplomacy
game-play by India are the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Navy. The closer in tandem the both of them work, the more effective is India’s exercise of maritime power.

As in the case with other major navies, the ‘roles’ of the Indian Navy are often depicted as a ‘solid-triangle’ with the ‘military role’ forming the base, while the diplomatic role, the benign role, and the constabulary (policing) role form the remaining three sides. Of course, the effectiveness of ‘diplomatic-signalling’ by a navy is directly proportional to prevailing perceptions of its military capability.  For a large and competent navy such as that of India, the ‘diplomatic role’ becomes an extremely important one in times of peace and/or external-tension, for navies are, by their very character and the nature of their domain, excellent instruments of the nation’s foreign policy - as is formal diplomacy, which once again, is an instrument of foreign policy and ought never to be thought of as a synonym for the latter. Diplomacy is often popularly thought of as the peaceful alternative to violence, but in fact, diplomacy serves to prepare for war as often as it does to avoid it.

While the overall geographic ambit of India’s maritime diplomacy encompasses all of the world’s littoral nation-states - as also some benevolent inter-state and non-state entities - its principal focus is upon the ‘Indo-Pacific’ - a vast, largely-maritime region. It ranges from the African littoral, incorporating all coastal states of West Asia, Africa’s east coast, and includes at least three critical African west-coast littorals - Nigeria, Angola and South Africa.  It then runs right across the Indian Ocean in its entirety and encompasses the ‘hinge-states’ of Southeast Asia (ASEAN).  It stretches into the western Pacific to include the littorals of East and Northeast Asia (including South Korea and Japan) and even reaches into the South Pacific Ocean incorporating the seas abutting Australia’s eastern seaboard and New Zealand, as also the clutch of Pacific Islands comprising Fiji, Tuvalu and Tonga. The international traction that the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has gained is emphasised by Rory Medcalf, of Australia’s ‘Lowey Institute’:“... at first some mistook this for merely a touch of spice to liven up the staple platitudes of Asia-Pacific diplomacy. But it turns out this has been a conscious shift among thinkers and policy makers in multiple places, from Washington to New Delhi, Canberra to Jakarta.”Its contemporary widespread-usage signifies global recognition that economic and security connectivities between the Indian and the Pacific oceans are so extensive and intensive that they can only be sensibly considered as a single strategic system.  This restores the historical ‘strategic-unity’ of this vast maritime expanse, as typified by the extensive and strong maritime-trade links and other forms of maritime intercourse that existed for millennia between the kingdoms and other geopolitical entities of this region. 

Maritime diplomacy is basically played-out at either the ‘Strategic’ level or the level of ‘Operational Art’. China’s development of major maritime infrastructure abroad - the creation of ‘artificial islands’ in the Paracel and Spratly islands; the Chittagong container-terminal; the Maday crude-oil terminal in Myanmar’s Kyakpyu port; the development of ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia, Kribi in Cameroon, the Djibouti Multipurpose Port (DMP), etc.; and of course the hugely-seductive Maritime Silk Route (One-Belt-One-Road) Initiative - are examples of China’s maritime-diplomacy at the ‘strategic’ level.  Likewise, India’s Prime-Ministerial statement-of-intent to be a net “security-provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond”;her hosting (in August 2015) of the summit meeting of the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC); her efforts at maritime ‘capacity-building’ and ‘capability-enhancement’ (which although used interchangeably by many Indians, actually have very different meanings) in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Myanmar and Vietnam, are examples of India’s maritime-diplomacy at the ‘strategic’ level. Regrettably, India is more often than not, reactive and, frequently, its strategic-level game-plays are ‘too-little-too-late’.  Numerous opportunities have been lost - many in critical locations such as Djibouti, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Qatar and Oman - largely due to the ungainliness and discomfiture India seems to demonstrate when required to ‘play’ pro-actively at the ‘strategic table’. 

India appears much more comfortable to front its Navy for the exercise of maritime-diplomacy at the level of ‘Operational Art’ (not to be confused with the ‘operational level of war’), which is the deployment of ‘tactical’ assets in sequences of time, space and event, to achieve a desired strategic result. This is what the Navy does in the execution of both ‘maritime’ and ‘naval’ diplomacy.  For instance, in 1983, when the internal political stability of Mauritius - which was certainly a desired strategic aim from New Delhi’s perspective - was threatened (an ‘event’), the Indian Navy was asked to simply embark army troops (i.e., ‘tactical assets’) aboard its somewhat modest holdings of amphibious ships (once again ‘tactical assets’).  This diplomatic ‘signal’ travelled speedily across the 5,880 kilometres (3175 nm) that separated Mumbai from Port Louis and stability was restored through the execution of maritime-diplomacy at the level of ‘operational art’.  Likewise, in order to achieve the strategic aim of ensuring that the 110 Billion US dollars-worth of Indian trade that passes through the Gulf of Aden each year flows unhindered in the face of threats by pirates, India deploys its naval warships (tactical assets) in sequences of time, space and event, sending very strong signals to State-entities and non-State actors alike, thereby executing maritime-diplomacy at the level of ‘operational art’.  Ever since 2005, the Indian Navy has been at the forefront of the country’s endeavours at maritime-diplomacy and - despite the well-documented domain-infirmities of the civilian echelons of the Ministry of Defence - has been impressively proactive in its willingness to supplement the formal diplomacy of the Indian Foreign Service and support foreign-policy formulations of the Ministry of External Affairs. 

India’s ‘naval diplomacy’ supplements her ‘maritime diplomacy’ and enables the country to improve her bargaining power by negotiating from a position of strength, whether supporting national policy in ‘cooperative’ fashion - to reassure, strengthen, and change the behaviour patterns of friendly states within the region, who may be challenged by external or internal threats - or in ‘coercive’ fashion through the threat of force from the sea, or, simply to indicate to observers that a crisis is under control and that there is no need for them to intervene. Surface-combatants of the navy are far more capable in this role than are aircraft or submarines, thanks to their inherent characteristics of ‘versatility’ (incorporating flexibility-in-response and adaptability-in-role), ‘mobility’, ‘sustained reach’, ability to ‘poise-in-theater’, and, of course, their very-substantial ‘symbolism’.

‘Capacity-building’ and ‘capability-enhancement’ are important tools in the exercise of India’s maritime diplomacy. ‘Capacity-Building’ relates to ‘material’ wherewithal - i.e., the provision of hardware (platforms, infrastructure, equipment, spares, etc.)  ‘Capability Enhancement’ on the other hand, refers to the realisation of a potential ‘aptitude’ or ‘ability’.  It implies that the recipient already has the ‘capacity’ (or some proportion of it) and our inputs will now ‘enhance’ his existing capability to exploit the material wherewithal so as to derive better (hopefully optimal) results.  It is mostly by way of intangibles and cognitive processes i.e. organisation, training, maintenance, operational-exploitation doctrines, etc.  When India provided the Tarmugli (now renamed PS Topaz) and the Tarasa (now renamed PS Constant) to Seychelles, we were engaging in ‘capacity-building’.  However, the ability to sustain these ships in an operational state might well require additional inputs from us by way of maintenance-philosophies, maintenance-schedules, technical-training, tactical-training, operating-procedures, etc -  all this is part of ‘capability enhancement’.

The creation, by India, of appropriate international organizational-structures is essential for effective maritime-diplomacy.  Here again, one finds greater Indian pro-activeness at the level of ‘operational art’ than at the ‘strategic level’.  This is not to say that there have not been impressive foreign-policy initiatives by New Delhi — the ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policies and the consequent engagement of ASEAN and East Asia, as also the more recent ‘Look West’ policy, remain telling counters to any such accusation.  However, there is no ab-initio structure created by India to holistically address pan-regional concerns and to provide organisational focus to India’s maritime-diplomacy.  Even the ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation’ (IOR-ARC) was the result of a 1995-96 initiative of Mauritius - albeit with strong Indian support. In 2013, the IOR-ARC was renamed ‘IORA’ (‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’) through a largely-Australian initiative intended to provide urgent resuscitation to this largely moribund structure. However, the IORA has, thus far, abjured ‘security’ issues, thereby repeating the same naiveté that had misguided ASEAN from its inception in 1967 until 2006 (when the ASEAN Defence Ministers began to meet on an annual basis to provide form and substance to the ASEAN Political-Security Community - one of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community).  This attempted disaggregation of ‘economics’, ‘regional wellbeing’ and ‘security’ is a fatal flaw in the IORA.  In sharp contrast, at the level of ‘operational art’, we have the Indian Navy successfully launching, in 2008, the first major security initiative of the 21st Century - the ‘Indian Ocean Naval Symposium’ (IONS), which brought together the Chiefs of Navy/ Heads of Maritime-Security of as many as 26 of the 35 littoral nation-states of the IOR, and, created for the first time ever, a maritime-security that was decidedly ‘Indo-Pacific’ in design, as witness the following Venn Diagram:

The IONS Charter has provided a robust organizational-structure and a road-map of activities.  However, it must be admitted that the Indian Navy has largely failed to fully exploit the many opportunities that have come its way to move IONS-related maritime activities from ‘tokenism’ to more meaningful expressions of India’s maritime diplomacy. This notwithstanding, the Indian Navy can take justifiable pride in remaining in the vanguard of India’s maritime-diplomacy endeavours. Since 2005, when it created a transformational organisation to concentrate upon foreign cooperation and intelligence, the Indian Navy (IN) has significantly expanded its maritime engagement with regional navies, assiduously building “bridges of friendship” through structured staff and apex-level interactions, regular port-visits by its warships, and exercises with friendly foreign navies, aimed at ensuring interoperability, exchanging best-practices and enhancing maritime domain-awareness.  The Navy has consciously nurtured its relationships in the Arabian Sea through MoUs and joint committees on defence cooperation and its role in supporting and training Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) maritime forces - particularly Oman - is noteworthy, as is the success the Navy has had in furthering India’s engagement of Iran, whose maritime confidence and capabilities are growing rapidly.  In April 2015, the Indian Navy conclusively demonstrated that it had learnt from past civilian evacuations undertaken by it (from Lebanon in 2006 [Op SUKOON] and Libya in 2011 [Op BLOSSOM]) by successfully evacuating over 4000 Indians and 900 foreign nationals from wartorn Yemen [Op RAHAT], a diplomatic achievement of major proportions.  Encouragingly, there has been a notably even-handed approach to the Indo-Pacific region and naval cooperation with West Asian littorals has been very nicely matched by deep forays into south-east Asian and East Asian waters, with extensive port-calls right from Vietnam and Japan all the way down to Australia. 

With warship-attendance confirmed by as many as 60 of the world’s navies, the International Fleet Review scheduled in Visakhapatnam is currently the cynosure of all eyes and will mark yet another crest in Indian naval-diplomacy.  It remains to be seen whether India will take advantage of the sharp global focus that the IFR-2016 will create by formally articulating a grand initiative at the strategic level of maritime-diplomacy - something that much of the Indo-Pacific awaits with the keenest sense of anticipation.