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28 July 2022, Gateway House

India’s blue economy and the Indo-Pacific’s future

The Indo-Pacific region envisages the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a continuum and stands on two central pillars – maritime security and economic development. The public discussions, however, are focused on maritime security, strategy and geopolitics, while economic development has received less attention. This imbalance can be corrected by creating an awareness on how to harness the potential of the region's Blue Economy and its vast resources and opportunities.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The concept of the Indo-Pacific region envisages the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a continuum, an inter-connected space in which security and economic development of nations demand a rules-based international order. The three adjectives most frequently used by Indian leaders and officials to describe this vision – “free,” “open” and “inclusive” – denote a tension-free, cooperative environment where nations live in harmony and resolve their differences peacefully.[1] The Indo-Pacific stands on two central pillars – maritime security and economic development. But the public debate has been tilted in favor of maritime security, strategy and geopolitics, while economic development has received less attention. This imbalance needs to be corrected, and the best place to start might be by focusing more attention on harnessing the potential of Blue Economy (BE). Influential elements in India are aware of the need for this policy correction and are engaged in efforts to bring it about. This re-calibration is the culmination of a long evolution in India’s self-image as a subcontinental country. For the first five decades after independence, the country concentrated on its role as a constituent of the vast Asian land mass, with a resultant policy posture of ‘sea-blindness.’ In the past 25 years, the country came to portray itself as a pivotal Indian Ocean nation – a shift that has culminated in the government’s conscious adoption of a broader security-and-development paradigm for a vast domain stretching from the western Pacific to the eastern and southern shores of Africa. As India implements “a shift toward a more active maritime foreign policy,” wrote a noted scholar, its “maritime moment” has arrived.[2] Now it needs both consolidation through maritime security and diversification through the BE. As this represents a profound policy transition, India (and other nations of this region) will have to overcome many challenges to make it a reality. Fortunately, a substantial intellectual and deliberative infrastructure is already in place for them to consider the issues, craft solutions and hammer out the details. This paper reviews the agreements and organizations that will shape future deliberations. It concludes by looking at some remaining gaps in this new architecture that need to be addressed.


The Blue Economy began seeping into the consciousness of academics and policymakers following the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – the Rio +20 summit – in 2012. There, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) urged special consideration of their challenges to survive and develop through ocean-based economic activities depicted as the BE. Soon thereafter, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), later renamed the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), began systematically pursuing the cause of BE with considerable enthusiasm. India participated fully in these efforts as a leading member-state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Mauritius in 2015, which presented the doctrine of “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR), triggered a series of discussions and studies in the non-government sector.[3] The early work of leading think tanks such as Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), National Maritime Foundation (NMF), Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Gateway House was substantially reinforced by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), an apex business association, through the publication of two major knowledge papers in 2017 and 2020.[4] FICCI’s contribution, together with other intellectual endeavors, culminated in six webinars as part of a quadrilateral project involving four prestigious institutions, which further advanced the national discourse.[5] In the meantime, Sagarmala, an Indian-government maritime development program, continues to be central to the government’s maritime vision. Announced in 2015 and set to continue for 15 years, it strives to convert coastal areas into economic centers for regional and global maritime connectivity. It encompasses port modernization, construction of new ports, connectivity enhancement, port-linked industrialization, and sustainable development of coastal communities. It envisions an investment of about $13.23 billion. The release of India’s Blue Economy: A Draft Policy Framework by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) in September 2020 was a milestone in the evolution of India’s BE policy.[6] The fruit of several rounds of multiple deliberations with relevant ministries, think tanks and experts, this document defined “both the strategy as well as the vision that can be adopted by the Government of India,” wrote Rattan P. Watal, the member-secretary, EAC-PM. A few key points pertaining to the draft policy framework deserve to be highlighted here. First, it defined BE as “an emerging concept comprising the entire eco-system of ocean resources including marine, maritime and the onshore coastal economic sub-systems within India’s legal jurisdiction, which have close linkages with economic growth, environmental sustainability and national security.”[7] Second, it referred to a conservative estimate that BE in India represents “4% of the Gross Domestic Product,” thus putting an official stamp on it.[8]

Third, it identified seven priority areas for the BE: The much-needed national accounting framework; coastal marine spatial planning and tourism; fisheries and aquaculture; trade and technology; logistics, infrastructure and shipping; coastal and deep-sea mining and offshore energy; and security, strategic dimensions and international engagements.[9] Fourth, it underlined the significance of BE as one of “the ten core dimensions of growth” in the government’s vision of a New India by 2030.[10] Fifth, in the context of the expanding network of submarine optical fiber cables for ensuring highspeed broadband connectivity, the draft policy advocated recognition by India of “an important, emerging economic and strategic axis called the Seychelles-Singapore-Samoa (SSS) axis,” noting: “This axis should form the basis of a robust Blue Economy Policy for India.”[11] Finally, the recommendations and the roadmap contained in the draft policy document aim “to significantly enhance the contribution of the Blue Economy to India’s GDP in the next five years.”[12] The latest official pronouncement on the subject was made by PM Modi at the UN Security Council’s special session that he chaired on 9 August 2021. While enunciating “five basic principles,” he suggested that barriers to legitimate maritime trade should be removed; settlement of maritime disputes should be peaceful and based on international law; natural disasters and maritime threats created by non-state actors must be faced through mutual cooperation; maritime environment and maritime resources should be preserved; and responsible maritime connectivity should be encouraged.[13] This represents a holistic framework for India and the international community to address the inter-linked themes of maritime security and BE in the Indo-Pacific region.


India’s drive to promote BE, which may be termed its Blue Diplomacy, has largely been conducted in multilateral fora. The IORA tops the list, given India’s pre-eminent and strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region. The government, academics and business leadership have been actively supporting and shaping the IORA’s programs.

IORA demonstrated its commitment to the pursuit of BE agenda through three Ministerial Conferences and the Jakarta Summit as well as a series of initiatives it took during the period from 2014 to 2020.[14] Three are particularly noteworthy: i) the Working Group on Blue Economy (WGBE) has produced a work plan comprising a list of concrete projects in each of the six priority areas,[15] ii) the Core Group on Fisheries Management provides a coordinated mechanism for engaging relevant fisheries-management stakeholders in member-states; iii) the Blue Carbon Hub strives to build knowledge and capacity to protect and restore blue carbon ecosystems in the IOR. France and Germany have engaged with the member-states, including India. France, now a member, offered technical and financial assistance relating to fisheries and aquaculture, and Germany, an observer, helped with efforts relating to climate change, green shipping and marine pollution.[16] India held four workshops with the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) to develop policy convergence and joint BE projects. These were held in Vietnam (2017), New Delhi (2018 and 2019) and Jakarta (2021). They helped to strengthen the ASEAN-India partnership. “The objective is to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth,” wrote Manoj Kumar Bharti, India’s ambassador to Indonesia, “that will maximize employment opportunities within the ASEAN-India region, with a specific concentration on maritime economic activities.”[17] The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), launched by PM Modi at the East Asia Summit in November 2019, addresses various aspects of the BE even though the government does not mention it by name. All its seven pillars are anchored in the maritime space. India has been actively seeking partners to serve as “leads” for specific sectors. The pillars and their leads identified so far, are: i) maritime security (India), ii) maritime ecology (Australia), iii) maritime resources (France and Indonesia), iv) capacity building and resource sharing (lead country pending), v) disaster risk reduction and management (India), vi) science, technology and academic cooperation (lead pending), and vii) trade, connectivity and maritime transport (Japan). Addressing a national conference on IPOI recently, a senior official urged specialized institutions “to do academic research, generate ideas and develop academic linkages with similar institutes in the region.”[18] In other fora – including the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), BRICS (a group of emerging economies that include Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa), and India-Africa Forum Summit – India and other parties have considered the need to pursue the BE agenda, but their efforts are yet to move beyond pious pronouncements. The BE also figures in bilateral discussions between India and a few countries, such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives. However, progress has been uneven, as the focus has been mostly on maritime security. There is one exception: India-Norway dialogue has resulted in palpable progress on the construction of zero-emission autonomous ferries and sustainable ship recycling. Indian and Norwegian representatives underscored the growing significance of bilateral BE cooperation, especially in the context of constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.[19]


Several gaps in India’s BE perspective have the potential to be converted into fruitful opportunities: 1. The “draft” policy framework now needs to be elevated to a full-fledged official policy with a clear focus on strategy and a practical roadmap. The government should announce and own it, creating an effective high-level coordinating mechanism that brings all relevant ministries, agencies, state governments and non-government stakeholders together. 2. The conduct of Blue Diplomacy, still marked with hesitancy, should now be more forthright, business-like and less reliant on academic knowledge alone. India’s Green foreign policy should acquire a blue tinge. The Ministry of External Affairs could do with a centralized Blue Economy Unit. Its future BE initiatives must encompass the business sector. More specifically, IPOI may not be able to produce desired results without the engagement of leading Indian companies specializing in BE business in the region. 3. Policymakers need to accord attention to important issues relating to BE such as absorption and application of new technologies, expansion of the availability of green financing, and adoption of sustainable but profitable measures for marine litter removal. 4. Finally, BE should be brought within the ambit of cooperation among the Quad countries – Australia, India, Japan and the US. All are equipped with vast oceanic resources; cooperation in the BE realm will deepen their partnership further. The Quad governments should consider forming a Working Group on Blue Economy, in addition to several institutional mechanisms announced at its Washington Summit on 24 September 2021.[20] It is gratifying to note that these governments plan to form a “Green-Shipping Network” and to deploy “green-port infrastructure and clean-bunkering fuels at scale.”[21] The work of Quad Shipping Taskforce will be watched with interest. But the BE stands for much more than shipping. Hence the need for a new institutional mechanism to deliberate and act suitably on all critical sectors of the BE remains relevant and urgent. The suggested Working Group on Blue Economy could be assisted by the apex industry chambers of the four countries. Encouraging progress has taken place in the past five years in turning India into a Blue Economy nation, but it is only a beginning. The future will be molded by what the nation and its international partners do together to secure common objectives.

Amb. Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House, and a former Ambassador.

This essay is part of a paper, published by Gateway House, with the support of the United States Embassy, New Delhi. Read the full compendium ‘India in the Indo-Pacific: Pursuing Prosperity and Security’ here.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors. The views expressed in the paper do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Embassy, New Delhi.

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© Copyright 2022 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.


[1] ‘Prime Minister’s Visit to USA for Quad Leaders’ Summit and UNGA High-level Segment’, Ministry of External Affairs, 14 September 2021. and_UNGA_Highlevel_Segment.

[2] Darshana M. Baruah, ‘India’s maritime moment has arrived’, The Hindustan Times, 30 September 2021.

[3] Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius, 12 March 2015, Ministry of External Affairs. of_Offshore_Patrol_Vessel_OPV_Barracuda_in_Mauritius_March_12_2015 (accessed on 13 November 2019).

[4] This author led two separate groups of experts which helped the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) to publish two detailed reports on Blue Economy entitled: i) Blue Economy Vision 2025: Harnessing Business Potential for India and International Partners, 2017. spdocument/20896/Blue-Economy-Vision-2025.pdf (accessed on 7 December 2019). ii) Blue Economy: Global Best Practices – Takeaways for India and Partner Nations, 2020. laenderberichte/detail/-/content/blue-economy-global-best-practices-takeaways-for-india-and-partner-nations-3 (accessed on 5 February 2021). Their perusal is recommended for obtaining a fuller understanding of the vast range of issues and stakes involved.

[5] The latest development concerns a stellar example of institutional synergy created in the strategic community; this resulted in the convening of a total of six webinars and a national conference under the “Quadrilateral Dialogue Series on Blue Economy – India’s Pathway to a Sustainable, Secure and Resilient Economy.” Hosted jointly by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), National Maritime Foundation (NMF), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and FICCI, these stimulating discussions, held between September 2020 and August 2021, involved a large number of experts across India and abroad. They explored in depth a wide range of relevant issues and possible future directions for the growth of Blue Economy. The publication of a book based on these deliberations is awaited.

[6] ‘India’s Blue Economy: A Draft Policy Framework’, Economic Advisory Council to The Prime Minister Government of India, New Delhi, September 2020. P. 12.

[7] Ibid., p. 12.

[8] Ibid., p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 13.

[10] Ibid., p 10-11. The document aptly explains the significance of BE for India’s economic development, “India has a unique maritime position. Its 7517 km long coastline is home to nine coastal states and 1382 islands. The country has 12 major ports and 187 non-major ports, handling about 1400 million tons of cargo every year, as 95% of India’s trade by volume transits by sea. India’s Exclusive Economic Zone of over two million square kilometers is rich in living and non-living resources and holds significant recoverable resources of crude oil and of recoverable natural gas. The coastal economy also sustains over 4 million fishermen and other coastal communities. With these vast maritime interests, the Blue Economy in India has a vital relationship with the nation’s economic growth.”

[11] Ibid., p. 11.

[12] Ibid., p. 34.

[13] ‘English translation of Prime Minister’s remarks at the UNSC High-Level Open Debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case For International Cooperation” (August 9, 2021)’, Ministry of External Affairs, 10 August 2021. Statements.htm?dtl/34151/English_translation_of_Prime_Ministers_remarks_at_the_UNSC_HighLevel_Open_Debate_on_ Enhancing_Maritime_Security_A_Case_For_International_Cooperation_A.

[14] Rajiv Bhatia, ‘India in IOR: Harbinger of Safe, Secure and Clean Seas Towards Progression of Blue Economy’, An Ocean of Opportunities: Enhanced peace, Security & Cooperation in the Indian Ocean, p. 2-7. Department of Defence Production, Government of India, New Delhi, 2021.

[15] For relevant details, see ‘Priorities and Focus Areas: Blue Economy’.

[16] For details, see ‘Remarks by Dr. Gatot H. Gunawan, Acting Secretary General of IORA for the Quadrilateral Dialogue Series on Blue Economy – India’s Pathway to a Sustainable, Secure and Resilient Economy, 16-19 August 2021’. Text was obtained from the IORA Secretariat, courtesy FICCI.

[17] Manoj Kumar Bharti, ‘Blue economy offers ASEAN-India a sea of cooperation opportunities’, The Jakarta Post, 3 March 2021.

[18] Secretary (East), Keynote Address for National Consultations on Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, 3 September 2021.

[19] Hans Jacob Frydenlund and Ratan P Watal, ‘After the pandemic, the centrality of the Blue Economy in recovery’, Hindustan Times, 7 June 2021.

[20] ‘Joint Statement from Quad Leaders’, 24 September 2021, The White House. statements-releases/2021/09/24/joint-statement-from-quad-leaders/

[21] ‘Fact Sheet: Quad Leaders’ Summit’ 24 September 2021, The White House. statements-releases/2021/09/24/fact-sheet-quad-leaders-summit/