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Boosting maritime security

India and the 10-member ASEAN collective engaged in  an intensive two-day Delhi Dialogue (July 19-20) whose focus was on strengthening bilateral maritime cooperation. This annual Dialogue, now in its tenth iteration, is an extension of the summit level meeting that was held in January this year on the occasion of the Indian Republic Day, where the ASEAN heads of state/government were the special invitees.

India’s more structured engagement with the ASEAN nations began during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s tenure in the early 1990s when the Look East policy was formulated. Successive governments have sought to impart greater content to this initiative. Over the decades, the ASEAN 5 (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand ) has become a ten-nation entity with the inclusion of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Under Prime Minister Modi, the ‘Look East’ policy has been given greater traction as ‘Act East’ and there is a visible maritime emphasis that is subsumed under the acronym SAGAR: security and growth for all in the Indo-Pacific region. The maritime component of India-ASEAN goes back to the early 1990s when a series of Track 1.5 deliberations were held under the CSCAP (Council for Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific) and many security issues were deliberated upon.

This was a period when China was just coming out of the 1989 Tiananmen experience and as a CSCAP participant during some of the deliberations, one can recall the manner in which the Taiwan issue induced considerable anxiety and latent tension in the regional security grid. At that time, the Clinton administration sent US aircraft carriers to the region (March 1996) to caution Beijing over any impulsive move to intimidate Taipei.

While the military tension gradually dissipated – one lesson was deeply internalised by Beijing – the imperative of acquiring appropriate naval power to ensure that China was not subjected to such ‘humiliation’ ever again. It may be averred that the March 1996  experience was the more urgent trigger-pulse for Beijing to determinedly acquire naval capability. Consequently, in the transition from Jiang Zemin to Xi Jinping, China had acquired credible naval /maritime power across the board.

This rise of China and its assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) has led to considerable unease in the entire region and the rejection of the international tribunal award in relation to artificial installations (not islands) has made Beijing the elephant in the ASEAN drawing room that no one dare ‘offend.’ This Chinese orientation was driven home unambiguously at a 2010 ASEAN plus meeting where the Chinese Minister declared to his ASEAN counterparts:  ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’

While the rise of China and its territorial assertiveness is the most serious and complex maritime security challenge for ASEAN, individual nations have made their choices and compromises. The Philippines who led the charge against China over the SCS has done a U-turn after a change of government and is now pro-Beijing in a visible manner. In essence, China has managed to cause a fissure in the internal political cohesion of ASEAN.

India’s relevance and credibility in the maritime domain was established in an unintended manner. The December 2004 tsunami that led to considerable destruction and loss of life in parts of ASEAN saw the Indian Navy emerging as the first responder despite its modest profile (in relation to the USA and China) and this altered the perception of India in the extended region.

Add to this the piracy challenge in the 2008-09 period and the Indian response as part of a global effort, that once again burnished Delhi’s maritime security provider potential. In the last decade, India has been able to make small but valuable contributions to the bilateral  maritime engagement with individual ASEAN nations. These range from providing training to pooling resources, to dealing with lower order security challenges such as piracy, gun-running and criminality at sea. Bilateral naval and coast guard patrols and exercises are progressing and the India-ASEAN maritime comfort level is becoming more robust – as evidenced during the Delhi Dialogue deliberations.

Yet the core security/strategic challenge to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region is the rise of China and its imperious unilateralism in the SCS and the growing footprint in the Indian Ocean that now extends from certain Indian Ocean islands to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

At the same time, China is a major trading partner for ASEAN (over US $500 bn in 2017) and many ASEAN nations obtain substantive military inventory items from Beijing. Thus it is a complex and contradictory relationship that ASEAN has with China and much the same could be said about the India-China bilateral. Dependency, discord, and an inherent power differential apropos Beijing have to be managed astutely.

India has adopted a mix of prudence, pragmatism and principle in dealing with China in the maritime domain and this is reassuring to the ASEAN collective. Thus Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj could reiterate India’s commitment to a ‘common, rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific region at the Delhi Dialogue and emphasise the inclusive approach.

ASEAN nations would be aware that India and China had just concluded a maritime affairs dialogue in Beijing (July 13) and that cooperation in the oceanic domain was seen as a means of enhancing mutual trust between the two countries. Maritime cooperation can span the bandwidth from robust engagement on apolitical issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and subtly signal an element of politico-military suasion.

India and ASEAN can evolve a consensual way ahead in the maritime domain where the least politically discordant areas for cooperation can be advanced, thereby punctuating the Indo-Pacific in a manner that prioritises the collective ‘good order at sea’ over the individual interest.


Source : dnaindia