Indo-Pacific: Possibilities and Portents
Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway house, distinguished participants from Government Organisations and Industry, our esteemed international guests, ladies and gentlemen.
At the outset, let me thank Admiral Chopra for introducing me and the topic so succinctly. It is indeed an honour and a privilege for me to speak to all of you, on a very pertinent subject as part of this Dialogue.
This initiative of the Gateway House of co-hosting The Gateway of India Geoeconomic Dialogue with the Ministry of External Affairs is laudable indeed. I am indeed glad to learn that some very thought provoking discussions on a vast spectrum of issues have been held. The interplay between politics, economics and technology, as the principal drivers creating value out of resources has been highlighted.
My talk, this evening, aims to introduce another dimension in this learned discourse. I intend, providing a geo-strategic backdrop to the overall context of geo-economics, with security being the central theme.
The Indo-Pacific Region
The topic ‘Indo-Pacific: possibilities and portents’ holds special significance as the regional dynamics of this ‘notional’ space have come to bear great significance for international geopolitics and economic-wellbeing of the entire world.
As the name suggests, the term “Indo-Pacific” broadly symbolises the area comprising two great oceans – the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The term is still evolving and is increasingly being accepted as a concept in the strategic discourse.
The geographic extent of this terminology could have multiple interpretations but, in the contemporary world, the notion essentially brings the Indian Ocean and the Western part of Pacific Ocean into one strategic arc.
Some analysts would have us believe that the 21st century is a century belonging to Asia. It is generally acknowledged that the geo-political, geo-economic and military-strategic focus is in the process of shifting to the shores of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, or more precisely, to the Indo-Pacific region.
The existing nebulous regional environment in Indo-Pacific is also marked by several rising powers which are pushing for greater space on the global stage.
The region is witnessing a global power shift from the West to the East, the US rebalance, a rising China and emergence of traditional and non-traditional maritime security challenges.
This maritime region has always been of immediate relevance to the resident stakeholders but has now gained greater eminence during an era of major global churn. The Indo-Pacific is thus certainly passing through ‘interesting times’.
Imperatives of the Indo-Pacific Region
This region is home to more than 60% of the world’s population and the world’s leading and rising economic giants. Powered by demography and technology, the region has emerged as the centre of global manufacturing and service industry. The most important trade routes of the world pass through this region and the importance of Indo-Pacific sea-lanes for global trade cannot be overstated. The Indo-Pacific region is also rich in natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, which fuel the economic engines of the world.
Apart from being the traditional resource hub for strategic minerals and energy, it also provides large market opportunities. The area accounts for around 60 percent of global exports and imports in volume and tonnage(UN Annual report on Global Maritime Trends 2012)
Overall, it may be safely asserted that the Indo-Pacific region is the fastest growing economic region in the world.
Maritime Security Challenges in the Region
Even though the possibilities in the Indo-Pacific region are exciting from the economic perspective, the portents are clearly discernable from a maritime security perspective.
The region is confronted with both traditional and non-traditional security challenges. As regards traditional maritime challenges, one observes that sovereignty issues, territorial disputes and contradicting positions on international norms are defining national interactions in this region.
This has naturally led to an escalation of maritime muscle-flexing by various countries in the region. This resurgent maritime dynamism in a wider context has been termed in some quarters as ‘historically unprecedented and hitherto unseen’.
One can observe that the regional military modernisation decisions are being driven by action-reaction dynamics. Force level planning by one country has become contingent upon the known, assumed or anticipated capabilities of the other countries.
This has indeed made the Indo-Pacific region more contested and potentially, more volatile.
What is interesting to note, however, is that nations with vastly differing international views and divergent national interests are at the same time, significant trade partners and are economically well connected. It is a tenuous balance where, nations of the region, committed on one hand to the pursuit of economic growth, are also displaying a concurrent desire to bolster the capabilities of their Armed Forces.
These concurrent pursuits of growth and defence have given rise to an interesting situation in international relationships. States are now seeking to cooperate with one set of countries for economic gains whilst for security related issues they are dependent on another set of countries.
Quite naturally, contradictions are also emerging within this narrative. Organisations, both International and Regional, created for enabling cooperation amongst countries of the region are being undermined through unilateral policy pronouncements and display of economic hegemony by some countries.
In addition, the maritime economic arteries passing through the region are increasingly becoming vulnerable to non-traditional threats.
Whilst the world has managed to keep the menace of piracy in the Gulf of Aden suppressed for some time now, five incidents of Piracy and 80 incidents of armed robbery have been reported in this region in 2016. Most of these attacks were claimed by terrorist groups based in Philippines. These are indicative of a trend where the distinction between traditional piracy and maritime terrorism is fading rapidly.
The foremost victims of Piracy and Terrorism in our oceans are maritime trade and commerce. Coordinated patrols and enhanced surveillance by the littoral States have helped improve the situation. However, the area continues to remain vulnerable to these asymmetric threats.
Steady economic growth has created a regional hunger for resources which is being fed through the medium of oceans. Any disruption of oil or trade-flow in the region will have a detrimental impact on the regional as well as global economy. Therefore, it becomes essential that peace and security prevail in the region.
Maritime security has also now expanded to encompass issues such as human security and adverse effects of climate change. The increase in population density and urbanisation is already creating stress on natural resources. The environmental impact of these phenomena will manifest as economic, social and political challenges to the countries of this region.
In the maritime domain, pollution and ‘Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing’ would serve as proven precedents to illustrate this point. These pose a threat to ocean ecosystems and sustainable fishing, consequently leading to shortages, social-tensions and increasing insecurities.
The Indo-Pacific region is also prone to natural disasters, which lead to large scale human sufferings. This is also accompanied by destruction of economic capacities and infrastructure in these countries. A study by the Asian Development Bank has revealed that damages in excess of 335 Billion Dollars have occurred, between 2010 and 2015, due to natural disasters in the region.
The omnipresent threat of drugs, arms and human trafficking also poses a serious challenge to the littoral States.
Despite the numerous maritime challenges that I have spoken of so far, the Indo-Pacific region underpins the Asian growth story and we in India, today, have a major stake in this region.
The Indian Viewpoint
In terms of geography, India is open to the rest of the world. Our centrality in the Indian Ocean, and our location astride the trade jugulars of the world have contributed to the global connect that we have inherited. This connect, has been especially evident with the Indian Ocean littorals and the extended neighbourhood of West Pacific.
As we are aware, India is committed to the path of economic integration. Therefore, there is no disputing the fact that India’s economic interactions with countries of the region will continue to strengthen in the years to come. India will also continue to engage with these countries for intellectual, cultural and human integration.
As brought out by our Hon’ble Prime Minister, our engagements will be guided by our civilisational ethos of Realism, Co-existence, Co-operation and Partnership. The maritime domain will continue to play a significant role as the lifeline for these endeavours. Therefore, enhancement of maritime infrastructure and security of the seas are critical to our core interests.
To harness India’s potential for maritime growth; the Government of India has embarked on the ambitious Sagarmala Project. As part of this Project, more than 150 port building and development projects have been identified, which will mobilise more than Rupees Four lakh crores of investment.
This initiative is complemented by the Prime Minister’s Island Development Programme. The aim of this programme is to holistically develop India’s islands in the fields of tourism, agriculture and carbon neutral energy generation.
Further, the latest initiative of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) also highlights our efforts to deepen economic and security co-operation in our maritime neighbourhood. It is beyond doubt that these initiatives will aid in developing the economy of the region and increase cooperation at the regional level.
Regional cohesiveness has always presented some natural outcomes. Movement of people across borders for work, trade or tourism is bound to grow. The volume of mercantile traffic including Cruise Liners and Supply Vessels, across the Indo-Pacific will also increase. These will place additional demands and responsibilities on the Indian Navy as well as other maritime agencies.
In fact, the Indian Navy has already been at the forefront of numerous national initiatives as the ‘Net Security Provider’ in the region. The Indian Navy has actively participated in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, both within the country and abroad. Our response in the aftermath of Tsunami in 2004, Cyclone SIDR in Bangladesh in 2007, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, and more recently, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) as part of Op Rahat in Yemen in 2015 amply illustrate the Indian Navy’s commitment to provide rapid response to emergent situations in the region.
In addition to this, India has pioneered initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). The IONS brings together both the littoral navies as well as extra-regional observers and provides an open and inclusive forum for discussion on regionally relevant maritime issues.
We have also promoted professional and social interaction among regional Navies through Exercise MILAN, which brings together the navies of the region biennially.
In addition to professional and social interactions, the Indian Navy is also operationally engaged with friendly foreign countries. These engagements take the shape of Co-ordinated Patrols, EEZ surveillance and Bi-lateral as well as Multi-lateral maritime exercises. These have brought to fore, our ability and commitment, to achieve peace and security in the global commons, through cooperation and synergy.
Partnerships in the maritime domain have also helped progress mutual development through Transfer of Technology and hardware with regional navies. This resource sharing has benefitted the recipients by enhancing their own maritime capabilities.
Over the last few years, India has provided a number of ships and aircraft to friendly countries in the region. We also provide continued maintenance assistance for these platforms to remain operationally available. The Indian Navy has thus facilitated ‘capability and capacity’ enhancement of friendly navies in the region.
Our capability enhancement initiatives also include measures for cooperative development through training and hydrographic cooperation.
In my opinion, all these engagements are symbolic of our national beliefs in this regard. It is beyond doubt that ensuring Freedom of Navigation, adhering to international norms and interacting on the principles of mutual respect are essential for peace and economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region.
Need for Enhanced Cooperation
As I have brought out, the Indo-Pacific region has progressively gained centre-stage due to the increasing influence of its regional dynamics on international geo-politics. While this exalted relevance of the Indo-Pacific makes it a region of exciting ‘possibilities’, the prevailing ‘portents’ sometimes act as a dampener.
Most of these portents originate from a lack of trust and differing ultra-nationalistic perceptions. However, there is a silver lining as I see it. A comparative analysis of both possibilities and portents would reveal that the countries in the region have, in many instances, managed to find a way around the contradictions and continue doing business with each other. That perhaps shows us a possible way to plan a successful passage through these uncertain times.
Most of us would agree that the most effective way to overcome the existing trust deficit between countries is for them to enhance the level of engagement and interaction with each other. In spite of the centrality of the oceans to all countries in the region, maritime governance structures and a combined approach towards resolving maritime threats and challenges have not been accorded the deserved prominence.
Although a slew of political, economic and security forums such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), East Asia Summit (EAS) exist, their full potential towards fostering a positive and cooperative environment has not yet been fully realised.
There is a requirement to strengthen the existing frameworks and empower them. These could prove immensely useful in articulating measures, through mutual consultations, which can ensure that nations of the region act as capable and adaptive partners rather than argumentative tense competitors.
Particularly for the Maritime environment, I would recommend enhanced cooperation among the countries of the region through greater operational exchanges, personnel exchanges and information-sharing to inculcate a sense of collective responsibility and ownership. No one perhaps, knows it better than the countries in the region that confrontation would only bring distress and ruin their dreams of economic empowerment for their masses.
Countries such as India which would be among the most affected because of their centrality in the region, therefore, have already started playing a proactive role in ensuring that peace and security is maintained in the region at all costs, and the portents do not end up overshadowing the possibilities.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is only natural for the Indian Navy, as the principal instrument of the nation’s maritime power, to have a direct interest in the developments within the region.
Consequently, strategic deterrence, maritime cooperation, and capacity building will continue to constitute the cornerstones of our maritime strategy. This takes all our geo-strategic imperatives into account and aims to create a secure maritime environment that is conducive for sustained economic growth in the region.
Before I conclude, I would like to leave you all with some food for thought.
Ladies and Gentlemen, striving for ‘betterment’ has been the prime driver in the evolution of human race. Here, I must reflect, that the term ‘betterment’ is itself comparative.
Comparisons lead to competition and competitions lead to conflicts.
However, we have learnt from history that conflicts defeat the very purpose of ‘betterment’. We as responsible global citizens, therefore, need to find ways to avoid conflicts. One of the approaches to conflict avoidance is to make all stake holders equitable participants in the development process. This can be achieved by conforming to internationally accepted norms of behaviour and basing our interactions on the sound foundation of mutual respect. In this regard, it is imperative that the leading maritime countries of the region and the existing regional constructs play a major role.
I would like to conclude by stating that I optimistically look forward to seeing the Indo-Pacific region emerge as a ‘Region of opportunities’. I would like to reassure you that the Indian Navy will do its utmost best to play its role as India’s principal maritime power and endeavour to overcome the portents to the extent feasible.
I, thank you all for a patient hearing and wish you all the very best for your future endeavours. I hope that the Gateway of India Geoeconomic Dialogue grows from strength to strength along its path of progress.
Thank you and Jai Hind
Admiral Sunil Lanba is Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy. He delivered the Special Address on ‘Indo-Pacific: Possibilities and Portents’ at The Gateway of India Geoeconomic Dialogue 2017.
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