Tag Archives: Indian Ocean

Enhance Maritime Presence in the Indian Ocean

New Administration Topic Week

By Vivek Mishra

The Indian Ocean together with the maritime area of the Asia-Pacific should be on the high priority list for the next Administration. The region has been witnessing a twin factor rise in its importance: the rise in trade transmission through the Indian Ocean has increased tremendously over the past decade, besides witnessing a dramatic ascendancy in strategic importance owing to vulnerabilities of geographic choke points and more importantly, an ever increasing Chinese presence.

Increasing Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean was not perceptively noticed by the last administration in Washington. The Indian Ocean seems likely to represent the maritime arena that would bear the second thrust of Chinese maritime power after the South China Sea. The Chinese leased their first international naval base in Djibouti denoting the extra-regional dimension of what is increasingly being seen as China’s hegemonic rise. The increasing Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean is a real and present danger for the countries of the Indian Ocean littoral and should definitely concern the U.S. Navy which has been actively present in the Indian Ocean since the Cold War; both on and beneath the surface.

The Indian Ocean for the next administration, then, could be a ground to better facilitate coordination between two important numbered fleets, the Fifth and the Seventh Fleets. Hitherto, the Indian Ocean’s maritime expanse has been divided between the two numbered fleets of the U.S. Navy with respective Areas of Responsibility. However, to increase effectiveness and coordination, particularly in the backdrop of strategic augmentation of the Indian Ocean, the two numbered fleets should be given some overlapping areas in the Indian Ocean. These exchanges could be coordinated with strong regional navies in the Indian Ocean such as India’s. Given increasing maritime coordination between the two navies, such collaborations would bolster maritime reconnaissance in the Indian Ocean and enhance submarine tracking capabilities in the region.

The forward presence of the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean has for much of the past been eclipsed by fleet concentration near the Gulf region in the Arabian Sea. It will be timely for the next administration to increase Diego Garcia’s role in military coordination. With India’s recently leased Assumption Island (from Seychelles) not very far from Diego Garcia, there is enough potential to impart a fresh impetus to joint reconnaissance and submarine tracking in the Indian Ocean waters under the next administration.

Vivek Mishra is an Assistant Professor in International Relations of Asia at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, India and was previously a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University.

Featured Image: The island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. (Reuters)

Reinforcing China’s Malacca Dilemma

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

China has been pressing to complete the Gwadar port in Pakistan and build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), allowing it to be connected over land to an Indian Ocean port. Gwadar and CPEC allow China to circumvent the Strait of Malacca which can be blockaded by rival navies in the event of  conflict, termed as “Malacca Dilemma.” However, the rising activism of Balochistan independence parties could complicate these projects, compelling China to continue to depend on this Strait. This situation certainly bodes well for maintaining regional stability.

As China’s economic power burgeoned, its political class sought to transform the country into a major power by building comprehensive national power, which also requires investing in a sophisticated military. Political narratives were developed citing “historical” facts and figures to re-establish China’s position in the world order. However, China’s attitude towards its neighborhood has become increasingly assertive in  recent years, signaling the rise of a potential regional hegemon. Those countries with stakes in maintaining the peace dividend responded by building alliances and partnerships to counter this security threat.

By signaling the intent to blockade the Strait of Malacca, these regional countries seek to deter China from military adventurism in the region. China’s economic growth is dependent on the seas, both for receiving energy and other raw materials required for low cost manufacturing, as well as the shipping of finished goods to markets in the U.S., Europe, etc. These ships have to pass through the Strait of Malacca situated between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Therefore a blockade of this Strait will impose energy and trade crises in China that can trickle down to hurt society, and in turn lead to pressure on the political class. Losing the people’s support will undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China and could lead to an internal political transition. In fact, China’s history shows such transitions occurring after wars.

India has established credible naval presence in the Andaman Sea adjacent to the Strait of Malacca and is partnering with the U.S. and other countries in safeguarding it. Such presence can be translated into a formidable blockade. On the other hand, China has yet to showcase its capabilities and willingness to fight to keep this Strait open for its ships. Citing these developments, Hu Jintao termed this situation “Malacca Dilemma.”

His successor Xi Jinping resolved to overcome this dilemma by investing in the One Belt, One Road initiative. China moved determinedly to build ports in the Indian Ocean countries Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been transformed into a blue water navy and is routinely deployed in the Indian Ocean. The docking of PLAN ships and submarines in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the region signals China’s intent to safeguard its energy and trade shipments in the Indian Ocean.

A map depicting China’s sea lines of communication through the Malacca Strait as well as the land route of the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. (SCMP)

The ports in Myanmar and Pakistan have the added advantage of being connected to China via overland routes. This sea/land interspersed connectivity allows China to minimize maritime threats by rerouting its energy and trade over the land. During a conflict, China can focus its forward deployed naval assets f in the Indian Ocean on safeguarding the sea lines of communication connected to its ports in Pakistan and Myanmar instead of stretching those assets across the Ocean. The development of overland routes also serves Beijing’s intention to develop poorer western regions of the country.

China’s projects in Myanmar are proceeding with difficulties, with some of them cancelled due to opposition from local communities and environmental groups. Furthermore, China’s ships have to navigate the Bay of Bengal to reach Myanmar’s port which gives opportunity for rival navies to interdict. More significantly, Myanmar has recently undergone political transition from military rule to a democratically elected government. This transition signaled the country’s willingness to break through international isolation and normalize diplomatic relations with the outside world. As a result, China lost Myanmar as a client state and can expect a review of its projects as the new government balances between competing political and economic narratives in the region.    

The trump card for China remains to be Pakistan. Despite international condemnation and American displeasure for its unwillingness to cease state sponsored terrorism, Pakistan continues to enjoy diplomatic leverage with the U.S., and despite the show of political clout in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, India is still lacking a credible strategy to curtail Pakistan’s destabilizing behavior in the region.

China has adopted the earlier U.S. policy of hyphenating India with Pakistan and is willing to safeguard its client state’s interests across international forums. It has promised to invest $46 billion in Pakistan to complete the CPEC project. In addition, China is building nuclear plants, co-producing military jets, and will sell eight submarines; all incentives for Pakistan to align its interests with China’s.

In return, China will gain access to the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean, which is connected to the Persian Gulf, through the Gwadar port. The CPEC envisions building the requisite land route from Gwadar to China via the sensitive Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Karakoram mountains, ignoring India’s apprehensions regarding building infrastructure in the disputed territories without consultations.

However, Pakistan itself is not without problems. The Balochistan province where Gwadar is located forms a major part of Pakistan’s territory and is highly rich in natural resources. However, its development needs have long been ignored by Islamabad. The Baloch people argue that neither the Gwadar port will benefit them but can instead lead to further exploitation of the province’s natural resources and affect their livelihoods.

A graphic depicting the various forms of investment, their estimated costs, and proposed infrastructure linkages. (Wall Street Journal)

India is convinced that the Gwadar port and the CPEC projects have underlying strategic intentions while the Baloch people question the veracity of economic benefits that can be derived from these projects to their province. Both parties are concerned about infrastructure build up in those areas considered sensitive for historical or strategic reasons. In this situation, Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his recent Independence Day speech signals India’s willingness to work with the Baloch people to confront the common problem and fulfil mutual interests.

While more details are pending, China is apparently concerned with these developments as its options to connect to the Indian Ocean via land routes fall into jeopardy, forcing continued reliance on the Strait of Malacca. This could be a welcomed development for upholding regional stability as it offers concerned countries an opportunity to maintain strategic deterrence and escalation dominance against China by controlling access to the Strait of Malacca.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Crew members work on the Chinese Navy ship Wei Fang as it docks in Myanmar on the outskirts of Yangon on May 23, 2014 (AFP 2016/ SOE THAN WIN)

The Concept of ‘Reach’ in Grasping China’s Active Defense Strategy: Part II

This publication was originally featured on Bharat Shakti and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Editor-in-Chief’s Note

Part I of this two-part article introduced the geoeconomic and geostrategic imperatives that shape China’s geopolitical drives. It also presented the overarching concept of “reach” as an aid to understanding the international import of China’s military strategy. Read Part I here.

In this second and concluding part of the article series the author explores Chinese strategic intent and its ramifications. The article provides an account of the naval facilities China is promoting or constructing on disputed islands among littoral states of the Indian Ocean; assesses China’s economic linkages with African nations; and projects the growth curve of the Chinese Navy, all of which are important to keep in view while analyzing the trajectory of Chinese geo-strategic intent.

By emphasizing the factor of temporal strategic-surprise (in contrast to spatial surprise), the author offers clues to understanding the links between China’s military strategy and her geopolitical international game-moves as they are being played out within a predominantly maritime paradigm. As in the famous Chinese game of Go—perhaps a more apt analogy than chess—the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space. The author explores the spatial and temporal dimensions of the Chinese strategy and the related vulnerabilities of the opposing Indian establishment.

In his 2006 dissertation written at the US Army War College then-Lt. Col Christopher J. Pehrson, USAF, termed the Chinese geostrategy the “String of Pearls.” This expression, first used in January 2005 in a report to U.S. military officials prepared by the U.S. consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton, caught the attention of the world’s imagination. Pehrson posited China as a slightly sinister, rising global power, playing a new strategic game, as grandiose in its concept, formulation and execution as the “Great Game” of the 19th century. Despite vehement and frequent denials by Chinese leadership of any such geostrategic machinations designed at the accumulation of enhanced geopolitical and geoeconomic power and influence, the expression rapidly embedded itself into mainstream consciousness.

Image Courtesy: Chinausfocus.com
China’s One Road, One Belt economic infrastructure initiative. (Chinausfocus.com)

As a net result, for over a decade, China has chafed under the opprobrium heaped upon it for a concept that (to be fair) it had never once articulated by the state. However, in a brilliant rebranding exercise by Beijing in 2014, the world’s attention is being increasingly drawn away from the negative connotations associated with the phrase String of Pearls and towards the more benign-sounding 21st century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt, also known as “One Road, One Belt.” This presents an alternative expression, while it nevertheless covers essentially the very same geostrategic maritime game-plays that Colonel Pehrson explained a decade ago. The new expression emphasizes transregional inclusiveness and evokes the romance of a shared pan-Asian history with the implied promise of a reestablishment of the economic prosperity that the Asian continent’s major civilizational and socio-cultural entities, namely China and India, enjoyed until the 18th century.

Each “pearl” in the String of Pearls construct—or in more contemporary parlance, each “node” along the Maritime Silk Route—is a link in a chain of Chinese geopolitical and geostrategic influence. For example, Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities and sheltered submarine base, is a pearl/node.

It is by no means necessary for a line joining these pearls/nodes to encompass mainland China in one of the concentric ripples typified by the Island Chains strategy. In fact, since the Maritime Silk Route is a true maritime construct, it is highly unlikely that the nodes would do so.

Image Courtesy: chinahighlights.com
The location of Hainana Province, China. (chinahighlights.com)

Other pearls/nodes include the recent creation of artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands incorporating, inter alia, the ongoing construction/upgrade of airstrips on Woody Island—located in the Paracel Islands, some 300 nm east of Vietnam—as also on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Additional pearls/nodes have been obtained through Chinese investments in Cambodia and China’s continuing interest in Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra.

China’s development of major maritime infrastructure abroad—the container terminal in Chittagong, Bangladesh; the Maday crude oil terminal in Myanmar’s Kyakpyu port; the development of ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia, Kribi in Cameroon, the Djibouti Multipurpose Port (DMP), and the offer to even develop Chabahar in Iran (checkmated by a belated but vigorous Indian initiative), along with the successful establishment of a military (naval) base in Djibouti—all constitute yet more pearls/nodes. The development of an atoll in the Seychelles, oil infrastructure projects in Sudan and Angola, and the financing of newly discovered massive gas finds in offshore areas of Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoros, are similarly recently acquired pearls/nodes. Even Australia yields a pearl/node, as does South Africa, thanks to Chinese strategic investment in mining in general and uranium-mining companies in particular, in both countries.

Chinese maritime policing vessel.
Chinese maritime policing vessel. (SCMP.com)

From an Indian perspective, China’s new strategic maritime-constructs (by whichever name) are simultaneously operative on a number of levels, several of which are predominantly economic in nature and portend nothing more than fierce competition. At the geostrategic level, however, the economy is at its apex and is China’s and India’s greatest strength and greatest vulnerability, at the same time; therefore, the economy is the centerpiece of the policy and strategy of both countries. This is precisely why, as the geographical competition space between India and China coincide in the Indian Ocean, there is a very real possibility of competition transforming into conflict, particularly as the adverse effects of climate change on resources and the available land area becomes increasingly more evident.

“Reach” has both spatial and temporal dimensions. The spatial facets of China’s geopolitical moves are evident, as illustrated in the preceding String of Pearls discussion. It is critical for India’s geopolitical and military analysts to also understand the temporal facets of this construct. The terms short term, medium term and long term are seldom used with any degree of digital precision. A nation tends to keep its collective “eye on the ball” in the short term and, by corollary, tends to assign far less urgency to something that is assigned to the long term. This ill-defined differentiation is how strategic surprise may be achieved in the temporal plane. For instance, in China, the short term generally implies 30 to 50 years. This is an epoch that is far in excess of what in India passes as the long term. Consequently, India fails to pay as close attention to developments in China as she might have were the developments to unfold in a duration corresponding to India’s own short term of 2-5 years. This distinction permits China to achieve strategic surprise, and this is as true of military strategy as it is of grand strategy and geoeconomics.

On the one hand, it should be remembered that these strategic constructs are not only about maritime infrastructure projects, involving the construction of ports, pipelines and airfields, though these developments constitute their most obvious and visibly worrisome manifestation. The strategy is equally about new, renewed or reinvigorated geopolitical and diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and nation states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island nations of both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean). On the other hand, China’s strategic maritime constructs have some important military spin-offs, which closely align to the furtherance of geostrategic reach. Thus, by developing friendly ports of call (if not bases), facilities and favorable economic dependencies in the various pearls/nodes, the logistics involved in the event of an engagement in maritime power-projection are greatly eased.

Type 904 (Dayun Class) Transport Ship (globalmil.com)

Supplementing the pearls/nodes are the Chinese Navy’s five impressive stores/ammunition supply ships of the Dayun Class (Type 904) and six underway replenishment tankers of the Qiandaohu Class (Type 903A). In addition, China requires ground control stations to meet her satellite-based needs of real-time surveillance. Unlike the United States, China simply does not have adequate ground control/tracking stations within the Indian Ocean to affect requisite ground control and real-time downlinking of her remote-sensing satellites. This forces her to deploy a number of ships (the Yuanwang Class) for this purpose. These constitute a severe vulnerability that China certainly needs to overcome. One way to do so is to establish infrastructure and acceptability along the IOR island states and along the East African littoral, as China is currently attempting to do.

The principal lack in the Chinese strategy to provide military substance to the country’s geoeconomic and geostrategic reach comes in the form of integral air power through aircraft carriers. China is rapidly learning that while one can buy or build an aircraft carrier in only a couple of years, it takes many more years to develop the human, material, logistic and doctrinal skills required for competent and battle worthy carrier-borne aviation. For nearly a decade now, China has demonstrated her ability to sustain persistent military (naval) presence in the Indian Ocean—albeit in a low threat environment. Combat capability is, of course, quite different from mere presence or even the ability to maintain anti-piracy forces, since the threat posed to China by disparate groups of poorly armed, equipped and led pirates can hardly be equated with that posed by a powerful and competent military adversary in times of conflict.

Despite the impressive growth of the Chinese Navy and the vigor of the Chinese military strategy, China may not, in the immediate present, have the combat capability to deploy for any extended period of time in support of its geoeconomic and geostrategic reach were they to be militarily contested by a major navy. However, as James Holmes points out, if India were to continue to cite shortfalls in current Chinese capability and conclude that it will take the PLA Navy at least fifteen years to station a standing, battle worthy naval squadron in the Indian Ocean, this would lull Indians into underplaying Chinese determination and the speed of that country’s military growth. This would carry the very real consequent possibility of India suffering a massive strategic surprise. Is that something that India can afford?

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

The Criticality of the IONS Maritime Security Construct

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Ret.)

Conceptual Underpinning

The concept of Constructive Engagement is foremost amongst the various strategies that India has adopted in the furtherance of her security. Consequently, this is a strategic concept that shapes much of India’s geopolitics. 

Traditionally, security used to be thought of only in terms of the defense of territory within a state system whose defining characteristic was an incessant competition for military superiority with other nation-states, all lying within a classic state of anarchy, devoid of superior or governing authority. Today, however, India and her Navy have swung around to a far more holistic approach. This changed approach finds its historical moorings in the famous “Common Security” report that had been authored as long ago as 1980 by the “Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues” chaired by the late Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Olaf Palme. This report emphatically drew attention to alternative ways of thinking about peace and security by formally acknowledging that common security requires that people live in dignity and peace, that they have enough to eat, and are able to find work and live in a world without poverty. 

While military maritime security does, of course, continue to enjoy primacy for India, existing as it does in a world-system defined by Westphalian concepts of national sovereignty, new terms such as ‘Non-Traditional Security’ and ‘Human Security Issues,’ largely drawn from the 1994 Report of the UNDP, have made their way into maritime India’s contemporary security-lexicon and lodged themselves within its collective security-consciousness. Maritime Security is now firmly established within a new construct that incorporates military, political, economic, societal, and environmental dimensions, and recognizes the many linkages between them.  

Thus, threats to human-security, such as religious extremism, international terrorism, drug and arms smuggling, demographic shifts — whether caused by migration or by other factors, human trafficking, environmental degradation, energy, food, and water shortages, all now figure prominently as threats that are inseparable from military ones. These have led to the formulation of new concepts such as ‘comprehensive security’ and ‘cooperative security.’ Clearly, however, security issues within the maritime domain need to be referenced more towards common interests rather than threats. At a regional level, it is these very Human Security issues that have been mentioned above that constitute common interests. It is a common regional interest to create and consolidate a region in which the comity of nations is both intrinsic and assured and where every nation, big or small, is treated as an equal. Multiple options of governance must be recognized functions of the independent choice of the people of each nation-state. The state protects the individual and the individual preserves the state in a symbiotic relationship designed to establish and spread stability across the region where malevolent non-State entities should find neither spatial nor temporal room for maneuver. In sum, then our common interests are the absence-of or freedom-from threats. It is therefore appropriate that within the maritime domain, the concept of Maritime Security is increasingly being described as a condition characterized by “freedom from threats arising either in or from the sea.”[1] These threats could arise from natural causes or from manmade ones, or from the interplay of one with the other, as in the case of environmental degradation or global warming. Insofar as the targets of such threats (arising from a lack of maritime security) are concerned, these could be individuals themselves — or ‘groupings’ of individuals, such as societies and/or nation-states. When these threats address the regional fabric itself, nation-states find themselves increasingly enmeshed in a complex web of security interdependence, which tends to be regionally focused and a robust regional initiative ought to be a logical outcome of this regional focus.

DHAKA, Jan. 11, 2016 (Xinhua) — Photo taken on Jan. 11, 2016 shows a scene of the fifth biennial assembly of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fifth biennial assembly of IONS kicked off here on Monday. (Xinhua/Shariful Islam).

Multilateral Maritime-Security Constructs

Although the Indo-Pacific region has several manifestations of the regional drive towards cooperative security through Constructive Engagement, most of them lie in the Pacific. Examples include ASEAN, ASEAN+3, APEC, ARF, the 6-Party Talks, the East Asia Summit, etc. At the Navy level, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) is clearly an important multilateral security construct.

A visualization of member states of regional forums in the Asia-Pacific.

The Indian Ocean segment of the Asia-Pacific littoral is now beginning to catch up. However, for much of the Twentieth Century such sub-regional geopolitical constructs that did emerge within the Indian Ocean remained limited to West Asia and southern Africa (the Arab League in 1945, the SADC in 1980 and the GCC in 1981). There was nothing to be found at a pan-regional level that might knit together at least a significant proportion of the 37 littoral nation-states of the Indian Ocean and its rim. It was not until the closing years of the Twentieth Century that a Mauritian-led initiative fructified and led to the launch, in March of 1997, of the clumsily-named ‘Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation’ (IOR-ARC). However, for the first decade-and-a-half of its existence, this grouping confined itself purely to economic cooperation and specifically abjured security issues. It must, of course, be admitted that in 1997, the notion of security within the collective minds of the countries of the Indian Ocean was still very strongly biased towards military security alone. 2013 was a watershed for the organization, for in that year, the IOR-ARC was renamed ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’ (IORA)[2] and identified six priority areas to promote the sustained growth and balanced development of the region, of which ‘maritime safety and security’ is the first priority[3]. The IORA also indicated that it was important that its work on maritime security and safety and disaster management should be aligned with and complement possible IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) initiatives in these areas. However, not much seems to have been done to date. The IORA does not have a working group to deliberate on these issues, nor does it have an institutional link with IONS[4].

IONS: Development

In February of 2008, driven by the need to address regional vulnerabilities by capitalizing upon regional strengths, the Indian Navy made a stupendous effort to assemble in New Delhi the Chiefs-of-Navy of very nearly all littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region. Sitting and discussing together — for the first time ever —  both in ‘assembly’ and in ‘conclave,’ the chiefs launched the Twenty First Century’s first significant international maritime-security initiative — namely, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, or ‘IONS.’ That the launch of so important a regional initiative was able to meet with such wide acceptance across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean was in itself a unique phenomenon — but one representative of a region that is beginning to come into its own and seems ready to evolve a broad consensus in facing the myriad security challenges within the maritime domain. 

The acronym ‘IONS’  is an appropriate one, since the etymology of the English word ions is drawn from the Greek word ienai meaning go, and implying movement.  The fundamental concept of IONS, too, remains one of ‘moving’ together — as a region. Under the IONS construct, the 37 littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region have been geographically grouped into four sub-regions, as depicted:

West Asian Littoral East African Littoral South Asian Littoral South-East Asian & Australian Littoral
1 Bahrain 1 Comoros 1 Bangladesh 1 Australia
2 Iran 2 Djibouti 2 India 2 Indonesia
3 Iraq 3 Egypt 3 Maldives 3 Malaysia
4 Israel 4 Eritrea 4 Pakistan 4 Myanmar
5 Jordan 5 France 5 Seychelles 5 Singapore
6 Kuwait 6 Kenya 6 Sri Lanka 6 Thailand
7 Oman 7 Madagascar 7 Timor Leste
8 Qatar 8 Mauritius
9 Saudi Arabia 9 Mozambique
10 UAE 10 Somalia
11 Yemen 11 South Africa
12 Sudan
13 Tanzania

The formal launch of the IONS initiative was effected through the inaugural ‘Conclave-of-Chiefs.’ This conclave is held once every two years, with a new chairperson at the helm. As had been the intention from the start, it is at this ‘Conclave-of-Chiefs,’ removed from the glare of the media, that the most meaningful progress occurs in accordance with a formalized ‘Charter of Business.’ It is a matter of very great satisfaction that the Charter-of-Business has already been adopted, especially if it is recalled that the WPNS Charter took 12 years (from 1988 to 2000) to receive formal approval from all its constituent members.

Delegates pose for a photograph before the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Conclave of Chiefs. The regional forum was held during Sea Power 2015.
Delegates pose for a photograph before the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Conclave of Chiefs. The regional forum was held during Sea Power 2015. Photo Source: Royal Australian Navy.

Every Conclave-of-Chiefs — there have been eight held thus far — is supplemented by an IONS Seminar, which the Chiefs also attend, along with a galaxy of luminaries in various disciplines relevant to security within the maritime domain. The inaugural IONS Seminar was jointly conducted by the Indian Navy and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), at the Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, on 14 and 15 February 2008. The theme of that seminar was “Contemporary Transnational Challenges — International Maritime Connectivities” — a subject that has grown in relevance over the years.   

IONS is a unique regional forum through which the Chiefs-of-Navy of all the littoral states of the IOR can periodically meet to constructively engage one another through the creation and promotion of regionally relevant mechanisms, events, and activities related to maritime security. Yet, given the diversity of the region as a whole, there has been an acute awareness of the need to make haste slowly. Successive Conclaves-of-Chiefs have, therefore, very deliberately spent time and great effort in building the foundation of the construct through an incremental series of small but crucial confidence-building steps. 

Although IONS was an Indian initiative, it was designed from the very beginning to be a pan-regional construct rather than a country-specific one. Hence, the chairmanship of IONS rotates sequentially through each of the four sub-regions. This also ensures that the somewhat different priorities given even to common challenges, and, of course, such maritime-security challenges as are unique to a given sub-region, are all given the emphasis and attention they deserve. The first rotation through all sub-regions has already been completed with the Chiefs of Navy of India (2008-2010), the UAE (2010-2012), South Africa (2012-2014), Australia (2014-2016) all having sequentially chaired IONS. The chairmanship is currently held by the Chief of the Navy of Bangladesh (2016-2018). Pakistan participated for the first time at the level of its Navy Chief in 2014.

Conscious of the need to avoid being perceived as merely a one-in-two-years talk-shop, each Conclave-of-Chiefs sets forth a consensual agenda of specific activities designed to keep the region involved and engaged with various elements of maritime security. Some activities — such as the IONS Essay competition — might appear unduly humble in their scope, but they are essential to sustaining awareness of this regional construct and what it stands for, especially amongst younger generations of maritime security experts whose involvement will be crucial for IONS to continue to be perceived as relevant across generational shifts of personnel.

The Need for more Proactive Initiatives

And yet, it must be admitted that the movement has sometimes erred on the side of excessive caution. As the midwife of the IONS construct and its permanent secretariat, India must take its fair share of blame for allowing the movement to drift. Indeed, it has appeared — on more than one occasion — that the Indian Navy, having created such a fine instrument, has demonstrated a certain lack of initiative and dexterity in wielding it.  Opportunities have consequently been lost. For instance, the anti-piracy missions stretching from the Gulf of Aden all the way to the waters of Seychelles and Maldives, were an excellent opportunity for national maritime security agencies — even while operating essentially alone — to have done so under a nominal IONS-umbrella.  

Likewise and more recently, in January 2016, the U.S. Combatant Command AFRICOM, sponsored a maritime exercise named CUTLASS EXPRESS, whose scenarios were designed to test the ability of participating naval ship-crews to respond to illicit trafficking, piracy, illegal fishing, and search-and-rescue (SAR) situations. While there is little doubt that this is beneficial for stability as a whole, it also represents yet another lost opportunity for India to have taken the initiative to leverage IONS into undertaking activities that go beyond baby-steps.

Exercise Milan 2014 for 17 navies of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, organised by Indian Navy, at the Andaman and Nicobar Command of the Indian Armed Forces.
Exercise Milan 2014 for 17 navies of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, organised by Indian Navy, at the Andaman and Nicobar Command of the Indian Armed Forces.

Even in a region as sensitive (if not outright ‘prickly’) as the Indo-Pacific, HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) exercises and operations are amongst the most readily acceptable and regionally useful activities. Building upon the effectiveness of the humanitarian relief provided by the hospital ship, the USNS Mercy in the aftermath of the tsunami-earthquakes of 2004 (Indo-Pacific) and 2005 (Java, Indonesia), the Hawaii-based headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) launched “Pacific Partnership” HADR missions to provide succor and relief across the PACOM ‘Area of Operations’ (AOR). It invited the militaries of all nations within its AOR to partner in these annual humanitarian missions. The Mercy deployed on these missions every alternate year, while the US Navy deployed an LPD in the ‘gap’ years. India initially responded admirably, sending multi-disciplinary medical and associated support-personnel, drawn from all three Armed Forces, aboard the USNS Mercy and the USS Peleliu, for three years — 2006, 2007, and, 2008. The contribution of Indian Armed Forces medical and support personnel in providing medical succor and humanitarian relief to stricken people in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, the Marshall Islands, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, over the last three years has been both significant and extremely well-appreciated. However, even the noblest of initiatives are subject to political and perceptual vicissitudes. Thus, after these three years, Indian participation ceased — presumably because the exercise, no matter how regionally relevant in terms of humanitarian assistance and no matter what the fringe benefits were, was a U.S.-Flag multilateral-construct and not a UN-Flag one. As a result, from 2009 onward, India was conspicuous by its absence and lost a host of opportunities to showcase its Armed Forces in their most acceptable role to a regional audience. In seeking to avoid being ‘seen’ as a partner-nation to the U.S. Navy even within a humanitarian paradigm, India chose not to be ‘seen’ at all — thereby throwing out the baby with the bathwater! 

This shortsightedness is doubly ironic because, as outlined in the foregoing paragraphs, the Indian Navy had already launched IONS in a hugely successful manner and, in the ensuing years the country had a golden opportunity to leverage the enormous potential of regional HADR maritime missions by launching HADR Missions within the Indian Ocean region under the aegis of IONS. Several IONS navies could meaningfully sustain such missions by sequentially (or simultaneously) fielding one or more of their amphibious ships. The Indian Navy has several large Landing Ships — including the LPD, INS Jalashwa — one or more of which could be deployed. Despite several such opportunities having been lost in the past, there is some solace in knowing that in Dhaka this year the Indian Navy  presented a guidance document on HADR to the assembled Chiefs of Navy — and not a day too soon!

Would the U.S. Navy be willing to partner such an IONS-led series of maritime HADR missions? The answer is an emphatic Yes. This is borne out by the continuing U.S. keenness to engage with India. Witness the U.S. DoD’s 2011 “Report to Congress on U.S.-India Security Cooperation,” Page 7 of which states, “In the next five years, the United States will continue to request India’s participation in future PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP missions, the annual U.S. Pacific Fleet HA/DR event in the USPACOM area of responsibility. Indian inclusion would provide an opportunity to apply HA/DR lessons learned in other forums to a humanitarian civil assistance scenario with overlapping skill set requirements, and prepare for combined operations in an actual HA/DR event.” [5]

Finally, it is well to recall that in the late 1980s, the eminent strategic analyst and prolific writer, Barry Buzan, articulated the concept of a ‘Regional Security Complex’ to describe “…a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another.”[6] It is probably premature to apply this term in its entirety to the Indo-Pacific but we certainly appear to be heading that way, and movements such as the IONS might well end-up consolidating the region into a ‘Maritime Regional Security Complex.’ Governments of the region and their Foreign Offices must provide the maximum possible traction to the IONS construct as this is the only one likely to yield regional coherence on issues of maritime security.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

[1] Address by Dr Manmohan Singh, erstwhile Prime Minister of India, inaugurating the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) Seminar at New Delhi, 14 February, 2008; available at url: http://archivepmo.nic.in/drmanmohansingh/speech-details.php?nodeid=633

[2] 13th Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean Rim Association — Perth Communiqué, 01 November 2013; available at url: www.iora.net/media/139388/perth_communiqu__2013.pdf

[3] IORA Website; available at url: http://www.iora.net/about-us/priority-areas.aspx

[4] Commodore Gopal Suri; “Case for a Regional Maritime Construct in the Indo-Pacific”, Vivekananda International Foundation Occasional paper – January 2016; available at url: http://www.vifindia.org/sites/default/files/case-for-a-regional-maritime-security-construct-for-the-indo-pacific.pdf

[5] http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/20111101_NDAA_Report_on_US_India_Security_Cooperation.pdf

[6] Barry Buzan; “People, States & Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era”;

ECPR Press, 2nd edition, University of Essex, Colchester, UK; Reprint: 2009, p. 160