India’s role in collective maritime security
Christian Bueger, University of Copenhagen & SafeSeas
The expansion of the Chinese navy in the Western Indian Ocean has led to concern among analysts in India and elsewhere. With the takeover of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and its recent employment of a research vessel, China sends signals of intending to use the facility for its navy. This implies that China now has two dual-use facilities in the region — the other one being Pakistan’s Gwadar — and a naval base in Djibouti.
China is, however, not the only country increasing its military footprint. Russia is increasingly interested in the Indian Ocean with a consistent maritime presence and alluded attempts to establish naval facilities. The United States has a historically strong presence in the region with two major facilities in Bahrain and Diego Garcia. The European Union is about to launch its 3rd naval operation under its new Coordinated Maritime Presence concept. Without a doubt, the militarization of the region is growing.
Militarization is problematic if naval deployments are understood through the lenses of geopolitical competition over influence. The region is then understood as a giant pie, where each power must struggle to get its piece. This is the current dominant interpretation. Fears are growing that tensions build up and a situation like in the South China Sea is in the making. Such fears are often exaggerated and might even trigger spirals of further militarization. While there are competing territorial claims in the region, such as those between Mauritius and the United Kingdom, or between Kenya and Somalia, these do not have the regional escalation potential we witness in Southeast Asia.
Maritime security is a shared responsibility
A more optimistic scenario is that of a region that manages its security together accepting that there’s no legal basis to deny external navies access and that there are shared interests. Then, everyone must contribute to collective security in the region. The region is not short of maritime security threats and could benefit from more surveillance and constabulary deployments.
Maritime security threats, such as narcotic smuggling, illicit fishing activities, threats to shipping, or the spread of violent extremism, are on the rise. These have harmful consequences for the economies of the Western Indian Ocean littoral economies and trade routes. They are shared problems that must be better addressed.
The smaller states in the region need such support, given their severe capacity limitations in governing their territorial waters and vast Exclusive Economic Zones. Also, the capacity to provide Search and Rescue and marine accident responses in the region is weak, as evidenced by the mishandling of the Wakashio disaster off Mauritius in 2020.
These are all issues of collective security that the growing number of navies in the region must take some responsibility to address. Collective security requires multi-lateral frameworks and institutions for coordination, information sharing, joint awareness and deconfliction.
India’s role in collective maritime security
For India this means to stay on the course it charted during its UN Security Council presidency: to work towards multilateral maritime security mechanisms. In the 2021 UN Security Council debate on maritime security, Prime Minister Modi set out a collective agenda and global road map for maritime peace and security.
As a global political leader and security architect, India does not have to start from scratch to help build a collective maritime security house. The legacy institutions and experience from counter-piracy provide the basic foundations, while the ongoing salience for holistic maritime security understanding the cement. Leadership is required on subregional and global levels.
In the subregion of the Western Indian Ocean, institutions such as the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) forum provide an ongoing valuable mechanism for navy-to-navy dialogue that must be used by all actors in the region to coordinate and deconflict. India should not only participate, but recognize the importance of the forum, take leadership, and encourage external navies to take over shared responsibilities.
On a diplomatic level, the situation looks bleaker. The once-successful Contact Group on Piracy has become a sleeping beauty. India should play its role kissing it awake. Revitalizing the group is important to ensure a diplomatic forum for the region that includes international players. The group has the potential to address regional maritime security threats, become a key dialogue forum, and better coordinate the increasingly fragmented security architecture.
The global level
On a global level, there’s a consensus that the issues that comprise the maritime security agenda must be linked and addressed holistically. This consensus was observable in the 2021 UN Security Council debate led by India. It would be rational to work towards a global maritime security institution given the collective benefits of more security, less crime and better marine protection. Fragmentation and eclecticism are not the right way forward to enhance coordination, improve data collection and sharing, solidify working relations with the ocean industry and enhance capacity building.
As a global security architect, India would benefit from a pragmatic approach continuing the campaign it started in 2021. This will imply forming a high-ambition coalition for maritime security, rallying interested global powers, but also the smaller states that are the most affected by maritime insecurity. The issue could be raised at broader global forums, including the G20.
More concrete proposals for institutional design, principles and benefits of a global maritime security mechanism must be worked out in collaboration with think tanks and international organizations.