India’s Maritime Opportunity

 Spanning the trade and economic bandwidth, a country’s maritime affinity and competence extends to the military and strategic areas of relevance

By C Uday Bhaskar

The first summit meeting of the 21-member Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) concluded on March 7 with the assembled leaders issuing an inspirational vision document entitled the Jakarta Concord.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not among the leaders who were in Jakarta though India was represented by the Vice President Hamid Ansari, a former career diplomat. The domestic political compulsion related to the five assembly elections that included India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh was evidently the higher priority and the results declared on March 11 have consolidated Modi’s political stature in an emphatic manner.

The Modi-led NDA II government will soon complete three years in office and over the next two years the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will consolidate its position as India’s most credible political party. With the kind of numbers that the ‘lotus’ (BJP’s political symbol) has won in Uttar Pradesh, both houses of parliament will have a decisive BJP majority and this kind of parliamentary strength and political capital is unprecedented in India’s recent history.

On the foreign policy and security front there are many issues that merit Modi’s attention in the last two years of his tenure. And the IORA Summit that Modi was unable to attend draws attention to the maritime window of opportunity that must be prioritized by India. The maritime domain has a distinctive relevance in the calculus of a nation’s comprehensive national power. Spanning the trade and economic bandwidth, a country’s maritime affinity and competence extends to the military and strategic areas of relevance.

Major power status is an amalgam of many strands of national capability and it has been empirically established that over the last 500 years, every such claimant has maximized its maritime potential in a determined manner. Thus it is no coincidence that China has identified and invested in this sector over the last 40 years.

President Xi Jinping has unveiled an ambitious connectivity project also called the OBOR (one belt-one road) which has a substantive maritime connectivity component. As of now India is not part of this grand plan though many of India’s maritime neighbours are active participants.

It is instructive to note that Indonesian President, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo exhorted his people to turn the archipelagic country into a “maritime nation” on the day he assumed office – October 20, 2014. Soon after this in November 2014 at the East Asian Summit, Jokowi unveiled his grand “Poros Maritime Dunia” (Global Maritime Axis) doctrine.

India for a variety of historical reasons has not been as deeply aware of its maritime potential as it ought to have been. And even if a small group of professionals were cognizant of the maritime domain in an episodic manner – this sector rarely received the kind of sustained high-level political attention that it deserves.

Modi signalled a rare departure fairly early in his tenure and in March 2015 embarked on a three island-nation trip to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. In Mauritius he outlined a shared maritime vision for the Indian Ocean region and declared: “We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region.” Sagar is also the Sanskrit word for the ocean and this multi-lingual trapeze is vintage Modi rhetoric.

A review of the Modi vision outlined in Mauritius in 2015 and the five elements that were identified for collective effort are also reflected in the Jakarta Concord. But the reality is that, despite the persuasive rhetoric of March 2015, India has not been able to enhance its comprehensive maritime capability in an appropriate manner.

Modi’s absence at Jakarta was noticeable and the sense was that India is not yet ready to walk the rich maritime talk. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were represented at the summit by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and President Maithripala Sirisena respectively. Other leaders included Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, South African President Jacob Zuma and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Domestic politics may have prevented Modi from attending a major regional maritime summit, a grouping that was conceived by India in 1997. Regional maritime connectivity and nurturing the Blue Revolution have immense potential that is largely untapped. But if the ‘Sagar’ vision can be re-infused with the political commitment it warrants, Modi may still be able to orient India towards its inherent maritime destiny before he prepares for the 2019 general election.


Ice Broken at IORA

Established in the mid-1990s, IORA is a regional forum that, to date has not been particularly significant in shaping the choices of its member states. The organization purports to, per its charter, “build and expand understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation through a consensus-based, evolutionary and non-intrusive approach.” As a result of this approach, IORA has no “binding contracts or rigid institutional structures.”

The decision this year to stage a high-level summit in Jakarta has no doubt raised the organization’s prominence. With heads of state and government in attendance, IORA 2017 drew attention to a range of issues of regional interest in the greater Indian Ocean region, including maritime security, fisheries management, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, people-to-people exchanges, trade and investment, and tourism.

The 21 member states issued a strategic vision document, known as the Jakarta Concord, that “sets out a vision for a revitalized and sustainable regional architecture,” according to a statement from the IORA secretariat. The concord builds on a ministerial meeting earlier in March, which resulted in an action plan document setting out numerous initiatives for the organization in addition to the adoption of a Declaration on Preventing and Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism.

With its 2017 summit, IORA looks poised to raise its profile as a deliberative forum in the region. The first-ever leaders’ summit has infused the two-decade-old forum with purpose. The question now is whether its 21 member states will be able to sustain momentum.