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India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Requires Concerted Effort among Littoral Countries

Indian Navy vessel, Indo-Pacific | OPED COLUMN Magazine

Pankaj Jha | Oped Column Syndication

India’s Indo-pacific Oceans Initiative is a work in progress and requires concerted effort among littoral countries of the Indo-Pacific region.

In a recent speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has alluded to the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and the focus was on development, security and prosperity. However, there has not been much clear blueprint of the said initiative.

PM Modi has proposed a maritime security pillar at the East Asia Maritime Security dialogue. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative can be deconstructed into seven core focus areas- coordination with multilateral institutions on Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR), promoting defence cooperation and building capacities, ensure safe shipping routes, protection of marine resources, developing coastal zones, and empowering coastal communities, countering terrorism,and developing maritime security architecture.

With regard to the multilateral institutions working in the larger Indo-Pacific region with focus on the East Asian Summit, the term “Indo-Pacific” has not been gaining much traction and, therefore, it need to be promoted as the extension of the Indian Ocean and not the inclusion of India into the Pacific concept.

For India, the Indian Ocean would remain the core area of concern. At the same time, India would be developing outreach towards the Pacific region, including protecting its strategic interests in South China Sea, Malacca, Makassar, Sunda and Lombok straits.

Furthermore, the word “Indo-Pacific” need to be promoted as a geographical term so that the multilateral institutions working on this larger region start using it. This would help the littoral and island nations of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans to develop some areas of convergence among them.

While the political leaders from Australia, Indonesia, Japan and the USA have referred the term in their speeches, it needs more traction in academic and strategic discourses too.

The multilateral institutions working in this area should accept that they are part of this larger geopolitical construct as has been the case with the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The East Asia Summit need to consider taking the mantle of the Indo-Pacific security albeit with few tailor-made obligations for China. For this purpose, the East Asia Summit must institutionalize itself as an ‘important’ dialogue forum — contrary to the existing widespread perception that it is an ‘informal’ forum.

The multilateral institutions need to refer to the Indo-Pacific in their annual conferences and summit meetings. However, it should be constructed on the premise that there is something for everyone. In this context, the issue that needs further debate within is how to integrate the ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (better known with SAGAR acronym) with India’s strategic and economic interests.

Security and providing defence assistance to the countries which are threatened by pirates and trans-national criminal groups has been an issue of concern. In this regard, it is important that the island nations and weak fragile economies should get aid and assistance as well as capacity building initiatives.

The objective should be to identify flaws in their defence preparedness and address it through focused support. This might include ships, coastal radar systems and even launching the satellites for the small islands with collaboration with the the USA as well as France, Japan and others. The operational control must remain with either the USA, India or Japan. As for Australia, the country has little interests on — and limited involvement in — the Indian Ocean.

Policy circles have started to pay attention to the security of shipping lines and integrating the islands in a port-connectivity-initiative where the ports can be made sustainable through shipping chain mechanisms.

This means that large ships would offload merchandise so that small islands can sustain the dispersal of those products destined for nearby ports.

This would save the travel time of large ships and would outsource the distribution to the smaller ships. Already, India and Sri Lanka share this kind of arrangement. The larger ships passing through Colombo offload products and exports item so that smaller ships can ferry those products/items to Mumbai as well as to many other coasts on the eastern and western part of India.

In this regard, the proposed SAGARMALA project, which is expected to interconnect ports initiative along Indian coast, would also get freight as well as an economic ecosystem that would provide employment and also build a security network around the ports.

As shipping is a critical part of maritime security, the larger volume of ships in the Indo-Pacific region (with the courtesy of the SAGARMALA project) would enhance the scope of maritime coordination and strengthen the maritime security.

Marine resources is likely to be a major focus area in the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative given the possibility of finding the rare-earth minerals in the Indo-Pacific region and Chinese hyper activity in scouting for marine resources particularly along the coastal regions — and within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) — of Indian Ocean islands and the Pacific Ocean.

The recent news about twelve Chinese submersibles in the Indian Ocean signifies the importance of sea-bed resources that China wants to map before others can find out the same. There could be few unexplored new minerals that might well be the metals for the future.

The ‘Fish Hook’ strategy once envisaged by Australia and the USA needs to be re-looked so that an integrated information network with hydrographic data can be shared among the major partners. This would require support of India, Indonesia and Vietnam through trilateral maritime security initiative. Furthermore, more countries, which are interested in the venture, can be roped in as partners for larger objectives spanning the areas of the two Indo-Pacific oceans.

Among three particular eastern Indian Ocean countries — namely Australia, India and Indonesia — there are vast coastal zones that need monitoring and support for thwarting any illegal fishing and scavenging activities carried out by the hostile powers and non-state-actors.

These three countries should also focus on building a coordinated patrol-network and develop naval coordination-mechanism among them in order to meet specifically defined objectives.

Other important issues — such as the institutionalized efforts against piracy, terrorism, illegal refugees and access control of coastal zones with high value production centers — have also been in the discussions. However, the interactions need to be regular and must be made at different levels. Furthermore, these three countries — under the trilateral initiative — should ‘permanently’ deploy ships, including the Fast-Attack-Crafts, for the aforesaid purposes, instead of treating this as an ‘piecemeal effort’.

India and Australia can conduct maritime sorties, while Indonesia would provide the ships and other crafts including hovercraft and mechanized boats for coastal protection in and around the Indo-Pacific conjunction point. Indonesia would be the focal point of coordination, as its response has been slow in the past.

It is worth noting that although maritime security is the foundation of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, India alone had to cover much maritime space during the coordinated patrols. Indeed, whenever there has been coordinated patrols, both Australia and Indonesia have tried to remain in their EEZ, whereas Indian ships and personnel have been sent far off in the eastern Indian Ocean. Keeping these unfortunate experiences in mind, strict protocols and deliverables should be clearly defined for all the sides under the trilateral initiative among India, Indonesia and Australia.

Additionally, regular exercises involving countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines should be conducted. The major issues which cropped up was the blueprint for the maritime security agenda and India would seek to sign Logistics support agreements such as  LEMOA (similar like the USA) with other important countries in the region which included Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Philippines.

This would help in wider footprints and better utilization of resources. India would seek landing and docking right in Indonesia islands (developing Sabang port in Indonesia is part of this initiative) located in the eastern Indian Ocean, and also coordinated maritime surveillance with Australia.

Even the maritime sorties should have developed into semi-exercise mode so that illegal vessels and ships can be destroyed. The check and board exercises should be conducted with the three countries in case of any suspicious looking vessel carrying dangerous or nuclear cargo.

All in all, India’s Indo-pacific Oceans Initiative is a work in progress and requires concerted effort among littoral countries of the Indo-Pacific region.

Dr. Pankaj Jha is senior faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O P Jindal Global University and teaches international security. His authored books include India and China in Southeast Asia: Competition or Cooperation (2013) and India and the Oceania: Exploring Vistas of Cooperation (2016).

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