Envisioning a secure Indian Ocean


India’s decision to convene an open debate of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on enhancing maritime security, to be chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 9, reflects India’s international evolution as a maritime nation. The objective of the debate is to highlight effective international maritime cooperation to respond holistically to natural and manmade threats to maritime security.

The fallout of the 2004 tsunami, which took a heavy toll on human and natural resources, led to the creation of an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System by the UN in 2005. Early warnings through an international network seek to prevent a recurrence of such devastation. Faced with the increased threat from piracy originating off the coast of Somalia since 2007 to shipping in the western Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy participated robustly as part of a UNSC mandated 60-country Contact Group on Piracy off the coast of Somalia.

With a coastline of over 7,500 km, India has a natural interest in enhancing maritime security. The Indian Ocean region transports 75 per cent of the world’s maritime trade and 50 per cent of daily global oil consumption. India’s Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) policy, unveiled by PM Modi during a visit to Mauritius in March 2015, proposes an integrated regional framework to meet such an objective in the Indian Ocean.

The five pillars of SAGAR are: One, India’s role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Two, active engagement with friendly countries in the IOR. India would continue to enhance the maritime security capacities and economic resilience of these countries. Three, developing a network to take effective collective action for advancing peace and security in the region. Four, a more integrated and cooperative focus on the future of the IOR, which would enhance the prospects for the sustainable development of all countries in the region. Five, the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the IOR would be on those “who live in this region”. India would continue its engagement with other nations having strong interests and stakes in this region through dialogue, visits, exercises, capacity building and economic partnership.

Sustaining international cooperation to enhance maritime security requires two supportive frameworks in the policy and operational areas. An effective legal policy framework must underpin a rule-of-law based approach to securing the maritime domain. The open debate will focus on the application of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), bringing to the fore new challenges to peace and security including from non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates and criminal gangs engaged in drug trafficking.

The discussion can become the catalyst for reviewing the operational effectiveness of the UNCLOS, especially regarding the enforcement of its provisions on freedom of navigation, the sustainable exploitation of maritime resources, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. India’s credentials in presiding over this discussion are enhanced by the fact that in July 2014, it accepted an UNCLOS tribunal award on the maritime boundary arbitration between India and Bangladesh, contributing a new impulse to effective international economic cooperation among the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal (BIMSTEC).

Securing the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) that traverse the oceans is of central importance to enhancing maritime security. The debate must focus on ensuring equal and unrestricted access to SLOCs by states while resolving differences through peaceful means. In the Indian Ocean, three major SLOCS that play a crucial role in the energy security and economic prosperity of states include the SLOC connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean through the Bab al-Mandab (that transports the bulk of Asia’s international trade with its major trading partners in Europe and America), the SLOC connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz (transporting the bulk of energy exports to major import destinations like India, ASEAN, and East Asia), and the SLOC connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the Straits of Malacca (integral to the smooth flow of trade with ASEAN, East Asia, Russia’s Far East and the US).

Sharing data on threats to commercial shipping is an important component of enhancing maritime security. India’s initiative to establish an International Fusion Centre (IFC) for the Indian Ocean region in Gurugram in 2018, jointly administered by the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard, serves the objective of generating Maritime Domain Awareness on safety and security issues. It is projected that 40 international liaison officers from partner countries will eventually be located at the IFC.

The debate would illustrate the increasing role of the private sector in the maritime domain, whether it is in shipping, sustainable development through the Blue Economy, or using the maritime domain to provide the critical submarine fibre-optic cables supporting the Digital Economy. The ability of the UNSC to respond to the debate by endorsing a multiple stakeholder approach to enhancing maritime security would be a significant outcome, setting a paradigm for upholding “multi-dimensional” security in the 21st century.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 9, 2021 under the title ‘Securing the Indian Ocean’. The writer is a former ambassador and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in New York