Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges Facing the Indian Ocean – One Indian Perspective

April 2, 2019        Reading Time: 4 minutes

Reading Time: 4 min read

Image Credit:  Asael Peña /Unsplash

Yogendra Kumar*

In a speech on 12 March 2015 at Port Louis, Prime Minister Modi articulated his seminal ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) vision for the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In addition to the national imperative to safeguard its mainland and islands, he lent India’s commitment to deepen economic cooperation and strengthen maritime security capacities; collective action for peace and security through cooperation with Sri Lanka, the Maldives and other littoral countries.1 He called for a more integrated and cooperative effort for sustainable development, especially the Blue Economy aspects. He also placed emphasis on IOR security responsibilities resting with the littoral countries whilst recognising the interests of extra-regional countries in a climate of trust and transparency, respect for international maritime rules, and peaceful resolution of maritime issues.2 Invoking both India’s civilisational and maritime links to bolster bilateral cooperation with littoral countries, Prime Minister Modi highlighted the role of two pan-regional organisations, namely the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), as building blocks for a new maritime order for the 21st century.3

His preference for ‘a strong grouping around the Indian Ocean,’ rather than defining regional groupings around land mass,4 spotlights stark inadequacies of the existing maritime order. The US Navy in Southwest Asia & the wider Middle East is the legacy of the Cold War, deployed to prevent Soviet armed forces from upsetting the political order in these regions, thus maintaining a strategic equilibrium. The four-way segmentation of the water body into different US theatre commands has, therefore, resulted in a segmented US IOR perspective. Moreover, the current era of globalisation post-Cold War is overwhelmingly driven by maritime trade. The international focus has shifted ‘ocean-wards,’ towards issues concerning freedom of navigation, passage through chokepoints, maritime domain awareness, naval modernisation with its balance-of-power implications, and ‘good order at sea’-crucial for small island nations-which encompasses maritime safety, terrorism, illegal migration, piracy, and illegal fishing. For a stable and resilient strategic equilibrium, state stability and institutional capacities are critical. Non-traditional threats also pose difficulties for maintaining such equilibrium and can weaken both national and regional institutional capabilities. Climate change is a pertinent example, where resultant extreme weather events, rising sea levels and storm surges, and rapid deterioration of marine ecology threaten state capacities. Blue Economy is, therefore, both an antidote and the new economic and technological frontier for a more equitable socio-economic growth for the region. The march of technology, particularly in telecommunications and transportation, has empowered both benevolent and malevolent non-state actors, rendering the formation of governance mechanisms a complex process overall.

Still largely stable, the IOR lacks overarching pan-regional security architecture. The evolving geopolitics is fraying the existing equilibrium at its edges. In the Horn of Africa, regional rivalry intensifying due to the Yemen War has resulted in a race for naval bases, rising tensions in the Gulf region are raising prospects of instability affecting a large expatriate community, and the Malacca Straits (as well as the Lombok, Sunda, and Ombai-Wetar Straits) may already be witnessing the spillover of tensions from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean and concerns about the possible Chinese ‘disruptive’ entry into the region. Pakistan’s declared intention to place nuclear weapons on naval platforms has increased the threat of ‘loose nukes at sea,’ compounded by the near-success of Al Qaeda’s attempt to capture the PNS Zulfikar in September 2014.5

Global geopolitical uncertainties and weakened global institutions provide the setting for the efforts of littoral states to strengthen the IORA and IONS. The former promotes regional integration and, in recent times, has taken the first steps towards developing ground rules for maritime safety and security. The latter, comprising several adversarial countries, provides a platform to develop interoperability practices and culture amongst the navies and coast guards. These organisations serve as forums to develop habits of cooperation, ground rules, and norms across the entire spectrum of IOR challenges. The key to building strategic trust between the littoral and major extra-littoral countries is to foreground cooperation on nontraditional threats. India is actively cooperating with littoral countries, especially Sri Lanka, in the mentioned areas, both bilaterally and within the IONS regional framework. Physical connectivity, including maritime, is an important focus, likely to be subsumed within the new ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct. India’s Sagarmala programme aims for South Asian infrastructure integration between the coastal areas and the vast hinterlands.6 It does not carry the increasingly visible risks of the unviable Chinese maritime Silk Road projects which are aggravating economic and political fragility in recipient states, making them susceptible to external manipulation and undermining littoral efforts at establishing a resilient maritime system. The window of opportunity for the success of these efforts is vulnerable to both traditional and non-traditional challenges and may not remain open for long. The SAGAR approach, though somewhat aspirational, remains the only pragmatic way forward.


1 Ministry of External Affairs, India. (2016). Remarks by Foreign Secretary at Indian Ocean Conference. (1 September 2016). [Online]. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/27356/Remarks_by_Foreign_Secretary_at_Indian_Ocean_Conference_September_01_2016 [Accessed 15 Jan2019]

2 The Hindu. (2016). Mr. Modi’s Ocean View. [Online] Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/mr-modis-ocean-view/article7000182.ece [Accessed 16 Jan 2019].

3 Padmaja, G. (2018). Revisiting ‘SAGAR’ – India’s Template for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. [Online] National Maritime Foundation. Available at: http://maritimeindia.org/View%20Profile/636602941847320911.pdf [Accessed 15 Jan 2019].

4 The Economic Times. (2015). There are other nations with stakes in Indian Ocean: PM Narendra Modi. [Online]. Available at:
//economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/46543371.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst [Accessed 16 Jan 2019].

5 Panda, A. (2017). The Risks of Pakistan’s Sea-Based Nuclear Weapons. [Online] The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/the-risks-of-pakistans-sea-based-nuclear-weapons/ [Accessed 10 Jan 2019].

6 Kannangara, P. (2019). Sagarmala: India’s New Port Development Strategy and its Implications for Sri Lanka. [Online] Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute. Available at: https://www.lki.lk/publication/sagarmala-indias-new-port-development-strategy-and-its-implications-for-sri-lanka/ [Accessed 20 Feb 2019].

*Ambassador Yogendra Kumar retired from diplomatic service in 2012 in the rank of Secretary to the Government of India. He was previously Ambassador to the Philippines, High Commissioner in Namibia, and Ambassador to Tajikistan. All errors and omissions remain the author’s own. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and not the institutional views of LKI. They do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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