Dr. Gadde Omprasad
1st May 2021
India’s Indian Ocean strategy has two basic components. One is to consolidate India’s regional naval presence with exploration into options for establishing bases in littoral states so that a deterrence can occur to external power dominance. Two is to promote economic and technical cooperation with initiatives such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). These two components have been guiding India’s efforts to answer the China initiated Maritime Silk Road as part of its Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI).
Recently in an effort to inject a third component in its IOR strategy, India has officially joined the club of QUAD, a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, Japan and the USA. It was formed with a vision for free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), freedom of navigation and over flight. The same also has been reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as mentioned in the joint declaration titled as ‘The Spirit of the QUAD’, released soon after the first ever summit of the heads of the states conducted virtually on March 12, 2021. Interestingly, the USA so far has not yet ratified the UNCLOS of 1982 but is a party to the 1958 Convention on High Seas (CHS). Though CHS is superseded by the UNCLOS and the USA recognizes it as a customary international law, its non-ratification poses significant challenges to the concept of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) prescribed by UNCLOS. This recognizes special rights of states regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind from the coastal areas to upto 200 nautical miles.
Within one month of this joint declaration, the USA shocked India on 7 April by claiming that it has conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) inside India’s EEZ near Lakshadweep islands in consistent with international law, without mentioning which international it is referring to. India reacted with the statement that “UNCLOS does not authorise other states to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular, those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state”. India seeks prior information and permission from the foreign vessels, especially military vessels as per its ‘Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and others under Maritime Zones Act, 1976’. The US act had violated both UNCLOS and India’s national laws.
Though few justifications were made by observers with arguments that it was an act to send a message to China that FONOP is applicable for all the countries and QUAD declaration is not targeted towards any particular country, US actions in India’s EEZ has raised serious doubts on convergences of their IOR interests. Immediate concern comes from the fact that what if other foreign powers follow the footprints of the US, particularly China with the same argument and does a FONOP in the EEZ of India. What action India could take to contain China if that situation arises? It will put huge pressure on India’s foreign policy and security aspects. QUAD declaration in that sense has grossly ignored India’s security and strategic concerns and satisfy only US strategy of not allowing any one power or coalition of powers to dominate the Eurasian strategic geography, which includes South Asia and Indian Ocean littoral regions. This has been mentioned in the Congressional Research Paper titled, “China-India Great Power Competition in the Indian Ocean Region: Issues for Congress” published during Trump administration in 2018.
The report seeks the US to act as a balancing power in the IOR region in the context of growing India- China competition and rivalry. Though both Trump and Biden administrations have declared India as one of the important strategic partners for US in their IOR strategy, US actions in India’s EEZ has punctured its trustworthiness and created doubts in other littoral states about India’s ability to protect its own interests, let alone the interests of the region, as a regional power. India needs to be firm in rejecting any attempts from external powers, which jeopardize its own strategic and security objectives.
Secondly, the report also called for facilitation, collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas. A large part of these seas are seen as EEZ by China and is of the view that foreign countries need permission from Beijing, similar to the stand India adopted in its own EEZ. Chinese claims over these EEZ are in dispute with Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Vietnam respectively. The USA has security obligations in the region and needs unrestricted FONOP. At the moment, India’s ability and presence in the Chinese EEZ is insignificant and hence, the call given in the report is neither beneficial nor applicable to India but serves larger interests of US and its allies in the Southeast and East Asian region.
Thirdly, QUAD has neither identified the geographical area under IOR or Indo Pacific region or has shared understanding. As per the National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2017, the USA defines the Indo-Pacific region stretching from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, where as India sees IOR region from the Horn of Africa to the shores of South East Asian countries. India’s interests largely lies in this region and sees growing China’s investment projects and military establishments as a direct threat to its economic and security interests in the form of ‘String of Pearls’.
The Need for India’s Independent Strategy on IOR
The first two components of India’s Indian Ocean strategy are independent in nature and evolved to counter China’s economic and military advances in the littoral states of IOR, which are also India’s immediate neighbourhood. The BIMSTEC and SAGAR initiatives emphasized on cooperation in the fields of Blue Economy. Most of the areas identified for mutual cooperation in these initiatives are directly associated with Blue Economy and each of the member country’s EEZ. So far, no strategy has been devised by the littoral states to collectively counter extra regional powers encroachments in the name of FONOP particularly in the EEZs of the member states. For India alone, IOR is so important that more than 90 percent of its oil imports, 95 percent of trade volume happens through the region.
Any militarization of the region by the external powers will seriously pose a great threat. India needs to emerge as a real ‘net security provider’ and to take a lead role as a regional power in this area to protect not only its interests but also interests of other states. Unfortunately, India’s strategy for IOR has been concentrated mostly in and around the Bay of Bengal region. India needs to first clearly define IOR for its larger interests and devise a grand strategy to protect the same. The Grand Strategy must include apart from vision for protecting its geo-economic, geostrategic and security interests, ways and means to reach those objectives. As long as India depends on collaborations with extra regional powers for arms deals, financial assistances and collective security exercises, it may not be able to justify its ambitions of emerging as at least a regional power.
*The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Central University of Sikkim, Gangtok