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Maritime India’s Global Destiny

India’s maritime roots are amongst the oldest in the world, traceable to the Harappan civilization more than three millennia ago. Indian mariners were active from the shores of Africa and Arabia in the west, to the lands of Southeast Asia in the east, well before the advent of the Europeans at sea. There is much archaeological and documentary evidence, highlighting both the extent and continuity of Indian maritime activity through the ages. Regrettably, this maritime impulse faded at a critical moment in history, during which period the world transitioned from the medieval to the modern. Let alone the Mughals, even the Marathas, and the kingdoms of the southern peninsula, failed to give impetus to sea power at that juncture.

In sharp contrast, European maritime emergence originated in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century, spurred by funding provided to explorers like Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco de Gama by a visionary prince, Henry the Navigator of Portugal. It was successfully taken forward by Spanish, English, Dutch and French monarchs during the 16th century, a period which coincided with the Mughals, the Mings, the Shoguns and even the Caliphs concurrently turning their backs to the sea, eventually leading to European domination of Asia through the innovative use of sea power.

The Mughals, coming as they did from landlocked Central Asia, and entirely ignorant of the seas, hastened the collapse of India’s maritime capabilities, which went into near terminal decline. The British created and sustained an Indian Army, separate from the British Army, but the maritime defence of India was outsourced to the Royal Navy, allowing indigenous maritime skills and experience to wither. Consequently, when India gained its freedom, the Indian Navy had to begin its innings with a motley collection of a few small sloops and gunboats, and virtually no industrial support.

The seven decades since Independence have, no doubt, witnessed a revival of maritime activity in both military and civilian spheres, but India’s ancient maritime impulse has yet to be fully unleashed. Progress in the maritime domain has been incremental, mainly on account of inadequate funding, coupled with sporadic and uncoordinated initiatives on the part of successive governments. Till very recently, the bulk of Indian politicians and mandarins, ensconced in inland New Delhi, continued to be afflicted by classical ‘sea- blindness’, a debilitating, inherited legacy of the Mughals.

On the economic front, India’s maritime trade and commercial interests have expanded manifold over the decades since Independence. This has been a natural consequence of the burgeoning population and the developing economy. However, marine infrastructure, from ports to ship-building yards, has suffered from lack of sustained impetus and coherent, holistic policies, till very recently. The Sagar Mala project, launched by the Modi government, and its maritime vision, articulated to the world at large at this year’s maiden maritime summit in Mumbai. The project promises to redress the neglect of the maritime sector, but it is to be seen whether the requisite funding priority will be provided to this initiative.

In so far as maritime security is concerned, the prevailing Westphalian international order continues to be essentially anarchic in nature, with military and maritime power still very much currencies of exchange in the equations between nation-states. Without military muscle, neither economic power by itself, nor even in combination with superior diplomatic finesse, can translate into heft in the existing global construct.

Sea power then, continues to remain as relevant as ever in today’s globalised world for both the security and prosperity of nations. This is clearly illustrated by the on-going imbroglio in the South China Sea. Despite the exploration and use of space, and the advent of a host of communication, surveillance and aerospace technologies, the 21st century has been termed as  the ‘century of the seas’, since the oceans, covering 70% of the planet, are central in the global balance of power, and vital for human economic activity.

History has clearly demonstrated that the destinies of nations and their navies are firmly intertwined. In the current world order, India’s security, its extensive maritime interests, its prosperity and its capacity to influence geopolitical outcomes, literally demands the possession of a strong and capable Navy.

Since Independence, the Indian Navy’s leadership has doggedly built a truly three-dimensional blue-water navy, despite a constant paucity of funds and lack of awareness of matters maritime in New Delhi. A far-sighted vision created early synergies between the Navy, the public-sector ship-building yards and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, as well as the acquisition of in-house warship and submarine design capability. The Navy also initiated a Coast Guard to address constabulary functions at sea, and established the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or IONS to further maritime diplomacy in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India today possesses a potent, engaged and respected Navy, with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in its order of battle, capable of operating in the contemporary  network-centric warfare scenario despite some sophisticated equipment and capabilities still being imported.

To maintain this, to enhance strength, and simultaneously modernise its platforms calls for a long-term commitment beyond the 15%-18% of the defence capital budget currently allotted to the Navy. A vibrant indigenous defence industrial base also calls for more from the defence budget. No amount of private sector participation, PPP projects, FDI, FII, offsets, or joint ventures with foreign majors, will enable the success of the ‘Make in India ‘ initiative in the defence sector, if inadequate orders are placed by the Indian Armed Forces  due to intermittent or insufficient funds.

The prevailing dictum from more than a century ago has been: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This Ocean is the key to the Seven Seas in the 21st century. The destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”[1] The shift of economic and military power to the East may well prove this right. It is vital that India’s maritime renaissance, presently primed and ready-to-go, be unleashed through sustained and bipartisan political support, translated into long- term provision of the considerable funding that both the civil and military maritime domains require. Anything less, and India may well miss the boat again.

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House. He was the former Commander- in-Chief of both the Western Naval Command and the Eastern Naval Command, and former Chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

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[1] This quote is often attributed to the great American maritime strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, but equally challenged to not be his words. http://www.economist.com/node/13825154