Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Indo-Sri Lanka Fishery Conflict: An Impediment to Development and Human Security

This article originally featured at the Pathfinder Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman & Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage, Director Centre for India -Sri Lanka Initiatives of the Pathfinder Foundation

Introduction: Fish do not respect boundaries but humans should!

India and Sri Lanka are two neighboring Indian Ocean states. A shallow and narrow strip of sea called the ‘Palk Bay’ and the ‘Gulf of Mannar’ separates the two countries. There is a clearly demarcated, mutually agreed upon and legally binding International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), separating the territorial waters of the two countries. There are binding commonalities in the form of linguistic, cultural, religious and vocational, between Tamil Nadu and the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Until the signing of IMBL agreements in 1974 and 1976, fishermen from coastal districts of both countries used this sea, mainly for traditional fishing. There was a harmonious coexistence between these communities for a long time. However, Tamil Nadu fishermen changed their fishing methods in the late 1970s and upgraded to steel hulled fishing vessels and engaged in bottom-trawling in order to boost production. Continuous bottom trawling on the Indian side of the IMBL resulted in depleting fish stocks therein. Gradually, these trawlers began to cross over to the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL. The newly introduced Indian trawlers were much bigger and more powerful than traditional craft, as they had to trawl and recover nets heavy with the catch. The fishermen of northern Sri Lanka found it extremely difficult to venture in to the sea during the days when Indian trawlers were poaching, as they feared damage to their boats and fishing gear, as well as safety for their lives.

During the time of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government was compelled to restrict fishing by local fishermen in the north and the east due to security concerns. However, the Indian trawlers continued to bottom trawl in Sri Lankan waters regardless, at times coming 2-3 nautical miles off the Sri Lankan coast. This situation was effectively exploited by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who used Indian trawlers to ferry their cadres, fuel, explosives; mainly from the southern Indian coast to northern, north-western and north-eastern coasts of Sri Lanka. However, the number of Indian trawlers operating in Sri Lankan waters was relatively less during this period, as they feared misidentification as LTTE agents by the Sri Lanka Navy. With the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and the gradual resettlement of displaced personnel, local fishermen wished to recommence their livelihood activities and what they encountered was a large hostile Tamil Nadu trawler fleet plundering their resources. With the fishery conflict gaining a new significance, both governments continued discussions at various levels to find an amicable long lasting solution. However, to-date, there has been no solution or even a common agreement of the issues affecting fishermen from both countries.

Legal Implications and Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (FAO, 2001):

Illegal fishing refers to activities: Conducted by national or foreign vessels in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without the permission of that State, or in contravention of its laws and regulations;

Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities: Which have not been reported, or have been misreported, to the relevant national authority, in contravention of national laws and regulations; or

Unregulated fishing refers to fishing activities: In areas or for fish stocks in relation to which there are no applicable conservation or management measures and where such fishing activities are conducted in a manner inconsistent with State responsibilities for the conservation of living marine resources under international law.

From the above definition, it can be seen that Indian fishermen engage in IUU fishing in every aspect and they are clearly violating the UNCLOS, which permits only the right to innocent passage in another state’s territorial waters. According to Gunasekera (2016), “Article 19.2 (i) of the UNCLOS makes proviso for any ‘fishing activities’ by foreign vessels to be regarded as an act of prejudice towards peace, good order or security of the coastal state, thereby confirming that such passage is not innocent.” Further, Tamil Nadu fishermen do not declare the catch and location, and carry out their activities in contravention of state responsibility to conservation of living marine resources by engaging in destructive bottom trawling.

The United Nations Development Summit in September 2015, adopted UN Resolution 70/1, “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The basis for this resolution was the understanding that global resources in the oceans should be carefully managed for a sustainable future, as the oceans are key in making the earth habitable for humankind. The main objective of Goal 14 of this agenda, ‘Life Below Water’ is to “conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (UN, 2015).
The spirit of this resolution is clearly applicable to the Indo-Sri Lanka fishery conflict. The UN has set a target year as 2020 to end IUU fishing. The UN resolution also talks about conservation and sustainable use of oceans as per international law as reflected in UNCLOS, and encouraging sustainable artisan fishing. India and Sri Lanka being member states of the UN committed to sustainable development and should abide by this resolution.

Sovereignty of Kachchativu Island

The two governments concluded two IMBL agreements with a view to maintaining cordial relations. They could be termed as landmark agreements, which came into force even before the UNCLOS. Tamil Nadu maintains that the island of Kachchativu was ‘ceded’ to Sri Lanka by the 1974 agreement without the consent of the state, for which it has sought legal remedy. However, the central government maintains that these two agreements are binding. As per Gunasekera (2016), “By virtue of the Agreement entered between the two countries in 1974 regarding the boundary in historic waters between the two countries and related issues, the delimitation process has taken place on grounds of fairness and equity more than the application of the principle of ‘equidistance’ though the final outcome justified the latter.” Hence, sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction of Kachchativu clearly falls under Sri Lanka. Based on historical facts, the Government of Sri Lanka has maintained that the island was administered by then Ceylon and has been under its jurisdiction even during the time of the Portuguese and later the British. There is evidence to suggest that Surveyor of the Government of India treated the island as part of then Ceylon, as far back as 1876 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka, 2008).

Tamil Nadu has consistently maintained that the main issue for this conflict is the ceding of this uninhabited island to Sri Lanka. However, the fact of the matter is that Kachchativu was never ‘ceded’ by India. Instead, India recognized that the island belonged to Sri Lanka. The island of Kachchativu is closer to the landmass of Sri Lanka by one nautical mile than that of India. Tamil Nadu politicians also accuse that the Sri Lankan Navy and Coast Guard harass Tamil Nadu fishermen, who accidentally drift across the IMBL closer to Kachchativu. However, the Indian Coast Guard, filing an affidavit in Chennai High Court, stated that the Indian fishermen are crossing IMBL into Sri Lankan waters for better fish catch as fishery resources are depleted on the Indian side of the IMBL. They also used banned methods of fishing and the Sri Lanka Navy does not cross the IMBL to the Indian side (Indian Coast Guard, 2015). No further argument is necessary, as this statement has come from the most authoritative source in India, which is tasked with the responsibility to guard the IMBL and Indian territorial waters. This affidavit also nullifies the claim often made by Indian fishermen that the Sri Lanka Navy is harassing them, when they are fishing in the Indian waters.

Whenever the Sri Lankan side detains fishermen and their boats engaged in poaching, Tamil Nadu political leaders blame New Delhi for ceding Kachchativu to Sri Lanka, as if that was the core of the dispute. Is Kachchativu Island the real issue in this conflict? Do fishermen from South India accidentally drift across the IMBL in to Sri Lankan side? Do they engage in illegal trawling only around Kachchativu?

The Tamil Nadu fishermen are experts in navigation and know their position well. Besides, most of these trawlers are now fitted with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). However, it has to be highlighted that Indian fishermen are not fishing only around Kachchativu island but come 2-3 nautical miles from the coastal city of Pesali in Mannar island, which is, in fact, 17.5 nautical miles from the IMBL and South West of the Delft island, which is about 11.5 nautical miles from the IMBL (Admiralty Chart, 1987). These two locations are long distances away from the IMBL and Kachchativu and deep inside Sri Lankan territorial waters. Therefore, it can be convincingly concluded that the issue of Kachchativu is only a cover to justify destructive fishing being carried out by Indian trawlers well within Sri Lankan territorial waters to sustain the multimillion-dollar prawn export industry. There are allegations of double standards adopted by the European Union on this clear case of IUU fishing. Although the EU has stated that it is ‘working to close the loopholes that allow illegal operators in the fisheries sector to profit from their activities,’ it has not taken any action to ban export of illegally caught prawns to its member states by India. However, the EU was quick to ban fish exports from Sri Lanka over allegations of IUU fishing though the ban is now removed (Wijedasa, 2015). Of late, northern fishermen have begun to fault the Sri Lanka government for not taking the matter with the EU forcefully.

Fishermen’s Livelihood Issue

Quite often the state of Tamil Nadu argues that their ‘poor fishermen’ are suffering due to enforcement measures undertaken by the Sri Lankan government. However, it is noteworthy that almost all persons, who are engaged in bottom trawling, are contracted employees. It is alleged that the trawlers are actually owned by large-scale businessmen, who are often close to the political elite of the state. Suryanarayan highlights this fact by saying “quick returns from prawns attracted many from non-fishing communities to invest in this profitable venture. As a result, numerous fishermen became daily wage labourers” (2016). A measure of this fact can also be seen from the increased number of trawlers in the three South Indian districts of the Palk Bay (Thanjavur, Pudukkottai and Rameshwaram), from 1568 in 1986 to 3339 in 2000 (Suryanarayan, 2016). All these trawlers engage in bottom trawling in Sri Lanka waters. Prawns have become a multimillion-dollar industry; mainly for exporting to the USA, Japan and Western Europe.

However, when the Sri Lankan authorities arrest a minute percentage of these trawlers for poaching in its territorial waters, and subject offenders to judicial processes, there are huge protests in Tamil Nadu and letters are written to the central government demanding intervention. In order to maintain goodwill between the two neighbors, the government of Sri Lanka releases offenders and their boats are handed over to the Indian Coast Guard at the IMBL at regular intervals. This procedure has become a routine occurrence and is not an effective deterrent at all as they return to engage in poaching no sooner they are released. Enforcement measures such as burning or blowing up captured fishing vessels as being practiced by Australia and Indonesia, are not implemented so as not to adversely affect bilateral relations with India when they capture vessels engaged in IUU fishing in their territorial waters. However, a step in the right direction is that due to severity of poaching, Sri Lanka has refused the demand made at the November negotiations in New Delhi for the release of hundreds of boats it has seized.

Traditional and Human Security Implications

During its heydays, LTTE employed Indian fishing trawlers either seized or hired, to transport war-fighting materials and their cadres, initially between the two coasts and at latter stages to carry out ship to shore transfers. Such activity posed a serious security threat, as the LTTE was able to engage in near-conventional battles using long range artillery and mortar pieces. The conflict ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE. Although there has not been a resurgence of the organization, there were several attempts by certain segments of the Tamil Diaspora to revive hostilities in Sri Lanka. Against such a backdrop, large number of Indian fishing trawlers coming very close to Sri Lankan coast on a regular basis could lead to serious security implications, should the LTTE decide to revive their violent organization. Further, frequent smuggling of narcotic drugs into Sri Lanka from South India are using Indian trawlers to carry out this illegal trade.

The northern Sri Lankan fishermen engage in most sustainable methods of fishing, employing traditional artisanal methods. They do not operate multi-day fishing vessels, unlike their southern counterparts. They use small boats and venture in to the ocean for short periods, usually not more than 24 hours.

However, large steel hulled Indian trawlers practice bottom trawling, which is considered as one of the most destructive methods of fishing. Bottom trawlers are called “hoovers of the ocean” and “bulldozers mowing down fish and other benthic species” (Suryanarayan, 2016). If this bulldozing of the Sri Lanka Ocean is continued, soon there will be hardly any fish to catch. Bottom trawling scrapes the sea bed, disturbs the marine environment, damages age old corals, affect the growth of planktons and finally affect the reef fish, prawns and other types on benthic marine species, which could result in ‘habitat degradation.’ The majority of the northern coastal population of Sri Lanka depends on fishing or fishery related industry. That is the only livelihood activity they have ever known. If that source of livelihood is destroyed, there will be huge economic, social and political consequences affecting human security.

Progress of High level and Fishermen level Discussions

Traditionally, the Indian side had made it a practice to demand that representatives of fishermen from the two countries should meet and discuss all issues relating to the dispute, to which Sri Lankan authorities seem to agree, despite the fact the issue required negotiation between the two governments and not between offenders and victims. Recently however, representatives of Sri Lankan fishermen have been firm against the systematic exploitation of fisheries resources by their Indian counterparts. During the most recent encounter in New Delhi on November 2, 2016, after a gap of nearly one and half years, Sri Lankan fishermen refused to agree to the demand made by their Tamil Nadu counterparts to fish in Sri Lankan waters for 83 days in a year for three consecutive years as a grace period before they switch into deep sea fishing as an alternative way out of the Indo-Lanka poaching issue (Sunday Times, November 13, 2016).

The Sri Lankan fishermen have been adamant that they would not agree to continuation of illegal poaching and bottom trawling in their waters and had insisted that Tamil Nadu fishermen should stop engaging in such activity forthwith. The Sri Lankan fishermen also demanded compensation for the losses incurred due to poaching and bottom trawling, prior to moving ahead of further talks (The Hindu, 2016). Further, they had pointed out that Tamil Nadu fishermen were engaged in IUU fishing, and threatened to take the matter up in international forums to bring pressure against the illegal activities practiced by them for decades. The stand taken by the Sri Lankan fishermen, who are the victims of IUU fishing, is genuine as it is their livelihood at stake. It is the responsibility of the Indian government to adopt measures to address the livelihood issue of its citizens and, allocate adequate resources help them in their transition from bottom trawling to deep-sea fishing.

Aftermath of the inconclusive fishermen’s talks, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and Aquatic Resources Development Minister met with Indian External Affairs Minister and Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, to discuss possible measures to find solutions to the fishery conflict (Lanka Business Online, 2016). This is the first time the two foreign ministers actively participated in fishery talks, which is a clear indication of the commitment of both governments to find a lasting solution. Whilst the details of the discussions are not published, it is reported that they agreed to set up a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Fisheries to meet every three months and a meeting between Ministers of Fisheries every six months. The first Ministerial Meeting was held on January 2, 2017 in Colombo.

Among the several issues to be taken up by the JWG are for “expediting the transition towards ending the practice of bottom trawling at the earliest,” which patently lacks a time bound commitment. Other tasks of the JWG would be to work out modalities for Standard Operating Procedures for handing over apprehended fishermen and ascertain possibilities of cooperation on joint patrolling (Lanka Business Online, 2016).

Conclusion and The Way Forward

Diplomatic initiatives, JWGs and fishermen to fishermen talks have not seen the desired results for the last several decades. There is no common understanding between the two sides, one driven by profits and greed, and the other by poverty and desolateness. Whilst the Sri Lanka side maintains that poaching and bottom trawling by Indian trawlers should not be permitted, the Indian side is demanding licensing, limiting the number of trawlers and days, thereby not harming their fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

The law enforcement authorities on both sides of the IMBL are forced to restrain themselves due to political pressure wielded by Tamil Nadu business interests. The hostile attitude of Tamil Nadu towards Sri Lanka mainly rests around this dispute, which could result in adversely affecting the excellent bi-lateral relations between the two countries. The solution to the problem is not to permit Tamil Nadu business interests to profit from their illegal activities. Unless a firm position is taken by Sri Lanka with regard to violation of its territorial waters, engaging in illegal bottom trawling by way of stepped up arrests and non-return of fishing vessels may continue. It is clear that poaching in the Palk Bay area and the Gulf of Mannar would continue for some time, while the marine environment is systematically destroyed to a point of no return. However, the ongoing dispute should not result in physical harm to the Tamil Nadu fishermen, due to the failure of authorities concerned to address the dispute in a timely manner.

Both sides should accede that this is a livelihood issue affecting thousands of families on both sides of the divide. It has also to be recognized that taking care of livelihood issues of citizens is a responsibility of the respective governments, who should find solutions to issues affecting bilateral relations without resorting to prevarication. As Suriyanarayanan points out, there are some positive measures being undertaken by the state of Tamil Nadu. There is a planned buy-back arrangement of trawlers, provide alternative livelihood for fishermen engaged in trawling and to construct tuna long liners. Through incentives and persuasion, affected fishermen could be encouraged to switch over to deep sea fishing in the Indian EEZ and international waters or engage in other vocations. However, sincerity, effectiveness and timely implementation of these measures are yet to be ascertained (Suryanarayan, 2016).

Sri Lanka’s concern is whether the fragile marine ecosystem in the Palk Bay would survive until these measures are implemented effectively. There is a need for Sri Lanka to embark on scientific research on the subject area to ascertain the real damage caused by bottom trawling and the resultant impact on the fisheries in the Palk Bay in order to gather sufficient data from primary and secondary sources, make an assessment of the cost of annual losses due to poaching, and be ready to present a incontrovertible case to India. A research station in the island of Kachchativu manned by the National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA) personnel could be entrusted with this task. A joint mechanism for investigation of alleged offences and joint patrolling by both countries merits consideration. If all efforts fail in finding an amicable solution, the government of Sri Lanka should be ready to refer the dispute to the appropriate international authorities on the strength of UN resolution 70/1, Goal 14: ‘to conserve and sustainably use oceans and marine resources for sustainable development.’


References 

Admiralty Chart Number 1584- Trincomalee to Point Calimere (2010)
Indian Coast Guard (2015) Indian Fishermen Indulge in illegal acts in Lankan Waters. Available at: [LINK=http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-indian-fishermen-indulge-in-illegal-acts-in-lankan-waters-says-coast-guard-2081178.]http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-indian-fishermen-indulge-in-illegal-acts-in-lankan-waters-says-coast-guard-2081178.[/LINK] \[Accessed: 24th Sep 2016]
Lanka Business Online (2016). Indo-Sri Lanka have held ministerial level talks to find solutions to fishermen’s issues. 07 Nov 2016. Available at: [LINK=http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/india-sri-lanka-hold-ministerial-talks-on-fishermen/]http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/india-sri-lanka-hold-ministerial-talks-on-fishermen/[/LINK] \[Accessed: 9 Nov 2016]
Suryanarayan, V. (2016) The India Sri Lanka Fisheries Dispute: Creating a Win-Win in the Palk Bay. Available at: [LINK=http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/09/09/india-sri-lanka-fisheries-dispute-creating-win-win-in-palk-bay-pub-64538]http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/09/09/india-sri-lanka-fisheries-dispute-creating-win-win-in-palk-bay-pub-64538[/LINK] \[Accessed: 25th Sep 2016]
Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world. UN Available at: [LINK=http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/oceans/]http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/oceans/[/LINK] \[Accessed: 24th Sep 2016]
The Hindu (2016). Indo-Sri Lanka Fishermen talks end in Stalemate, The Hindu, 02 Nov 2016. Available at: [LINK=http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indosri-lanka-fishermen-talks-end-in-stalemate/article9296510.ece]http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indosri-lanka-fishermen-talks-end-in-stalemate/article9296510.ece[/LINK] \[Accessed: 10th Nov 2016]
The Maritime Border Between Sri Lanka and India Stand Settled, (2008). Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka. Available at: [LINK=http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/component/content/1396?task=view]http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/component/content/1396?task=view[/LINK] \[Accessed:25th Sep 2016]
Saikia, J. and Stepanova, E. (2009) Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalization. SAGE publications, New Delhi
Wijedasa, N. (2015) Politics bedevils solution to Palk bay Poaching, Sunday Times, 20th Dec 2015, Available at: [LINK=http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151220/news/politics-bedevils-solution-to-palk-bay-poaching-176067.html]http://www.sundaytimes.lk/151220/news/politics-bedevils-solution-to-palk-bay-poaching-176067.html[/LINK] Accessed: 25th Sep 2016

Featured Image: Fishermen carry a box filled with fishes at a fishing harbor in the southern Indian city of Chennai. (Babu/Reuters)

Challenging China’s Sub-Conventional Dominance

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

A recent RAND report underscored the significance of the strategy by certain states of employing measures short of war to attain strategic objectives, so as to not cross the threshold, or the redline, that trips inter-state war. China is one of the countries cited by the report, and the reasons are quite evident. The employment of this strategy by China is apparent to practitioners and observers of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region. The diplomatic and military engagements in this region call attention to the South China Sea, where China’s provocative actions continue to undermine international norms and destabilize peace and security.

Vietnam and the Philippines are the two claimants determined to oppose such actions with the support of other regional security stakeholders. They intend to shore up their military strength, especially in the maritime domain. The Philippines decided to upgrade military ties with the U.S. through an agreement allowing forward basing of American military personnel and equipment. It will receive $42 million worth of sensors to monitor the developments in West Philippine Sea.  Additionally, India emerged as the lowest bidder to supply the Philippines with two light frigates whose design is based on its Kamorta class anti-submarine warfare corvette.

The recent visit of US. President Obama to Vietnam symbolizes transformation of the countries’ relationship to partners and opened the door for the transfer of lethal military equipment. Vietnam is considering the purchase of American F-16 fighters and P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. Its navy is already undergoing modernization with the induction of Russian Kilo class submarines. India, which uses the same class of submarines, helped train Vietnam’s submariners. Talks with Vietnam to import India-Russia joint BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles seem to be in an advanced stage.

But, this military modernization is concentrated on strengthening the conventional domain of the conflict spectrum, while China accomplishes its objectives by using sub-conventional forces. China’s aggressive maritime militia and coast guard are the real executors of local tactical contingencies, while its navy and air force provide reconnaissance support and demonstrate muscle power.

This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam's maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China's deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea. MARITIME POLICE / AFP - Getty Images
This June 23, 2014 handout photo from Vietnam’s maritime police shows a Chinese boat (L) supposedly ramming a Vietnamese vessel (R) in contested waters near China’s deep sea drilling rig in the South China Sea.  (MARITIME POLICE / AFP – Getty Images)

The 2014 HYSY 981 oil rig stand-off, when China’s vessels fired water cannons and rammed into Vietnamese boats, serves as a classic example of China’s use of sub-conventional forces. Some of these platforms are refitted warships, and the total vessel tonnage has far exceeded the cumulative tonnage of neighboring countries. China has also deployed coast guard cutters weighing more than 10,000 tonnes, the largest in the world. They cover maritime militia’s activities like harassing Vietnamese and other littoral fishermen from exercising their rights or defend China’s illegal fishing activities in the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Recently, they have forcefully snatched back a Chinese fishing vessel that had been detained by the Indonesian authorities for transgression.

Such provocative actions to forcefully lay down new rules on the ground need to be challenged, but using conventional air and naval assets will only lead to escalation. It is advisable to learn from China’s strategist himself in this context, Sun Tzu, who counsels that it is wise to attack an adversary’s strategy first before fighting him on the battlefield.

Therefore, both Vietnam and the Philippines must also concentrate on building up the capacity of respective coast guards and maritime administration departments with relevant assets like offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to secure the islands and exclusive economic zones. Operating independently in these areas inevitably hedges against China’s proclamation of South China Sea as its sovereign territory and requiring its consent to operate in.

Vietnam is inducting patrol boats furnished by local industries as well as depending on the pledge from the U.S. to provide 18 patrol boats. The Philippines contracted a Japanese company to build 10 patrol vessels on a low-interest loan offered by Japan’s government. It is also set to receive four boats from the U.S.

India should also take a proactive position and join its regional security partners in extending its current efforts in the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. India has built high level partnership programs to build the capacity of its neighboring Indian Ocean countries to ensure security of their exclusive economic zones. In the process, it delivered some of its OPVs to Sri Lanka. Recently, Mauritius became the first customer of India’s first locally built OPV Barracuda. India is now building two more for Sri Lanka. Additionally, Vietnam has contracted an Indian company to build four OPVs using the $100 million line of credit offered by the Indian government.

Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Image: Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)
Warship Barracuda docked in Kolkata. (Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Ltd)

The demand for these vessels will only grow as the strategic competition in the South China Sea escalates. India enjoys better political, historical, and security relations with the South East Asian countries, especially Vietnam. The Philippine government has underscored this relationship between India and Vietnam as the foundation for its own relations with India. Taking advantage of this situation not only improves India’s strategic depth in the region but also enhances its manufacturing capacity that is at the core of Make in India initiative.

The specific requirements like range, endurance, and armament depend on the customer countries. The more critical question at play is whether the regional security stakeholders are comfortable with the idea of upgunned coast guards along the South China Sea littoral.

The U.S. has forward deployed four of its Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore to tackle a variety of threats emanating in the shallow waters. The ships are smaller than a frigate but larger than an OPV in terms of sensor suites, armament, mission sets, and maintenance requirements. War simulations proved that upgunned LCS can cross into blue water domain with ease and complicate an adversary’s order of the battle.

Vietnam and the Philippines could specify higher endurance, better hull strength and advanced water cannons for their OPVs to defend proportionally against Chinese vessels. In addition to manufacturing ships, India should also train Vietnamese and Philippine forces on seamlessly integrating  intelligence from different assets for maritime defense.

Over time, a level of parity in the sub-conventional domain needs to be achieved and maintained to force China to either shift its strategy or escalate the situation into conventional domain whereupon the escalation dominance will shift to status quo countries.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Chinese 10,000 ton coast guard cutter, CCG 2901. (People’s Daily Online)

China’s Maritime Silk Road Gamble

This is republished from the Johns Hopkins SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Ever since Xi Jinping announced the creation of a Maritime Silk Road in an October 2013 speech to the Indonesian parliament, China’s vision for “one road” running through Southeast and South Asia has driven a significant portion of Chinese foreign policy in its periphery. This has led to both the controversial Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (announced in the same speech) and complementary investment funds such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank, as well as high-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders to countries in the region. In addition, China sees its “Silk Road Economic Belt” among its Central Asian neighbors as indivisible from the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as seen by China’s slogan 一带一路 (“one belt, one road”) and its public diplomacy effort to promote both policies together. All of this indicates that, like many Chinese foreign policy initiatives, the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” is multi-pronged: it is intended to serve diplomatic, economic, and strategic purposes.

First and foremost, the Maritime Silk Road is designed to pacify neighboring countries threatened by China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, China has attempted to both aggravate tensions among its Southeast Asian neighbors and soothe them at the same time, contrary to its normal pattern of swinging back and forth between aggressive brinksmanship and diplomatic rapprochement (such as in China’s relationship with Taiwan or its cutting off and then reestablishing of military to military ties with the United States). Despite the idealistic claims of ‘peaceful economic development absent political strings’ made by Chinese leaders and state media about the Maritime Silk Road, China has continued unabated to strengthen its unilateral claim to vast maritime territory in the South China Sea, turning reefs and other undersea maritime features into full-fledged islands, complete with airstrips that could be used by the People’s Liberation Army.

Conversely, the Maritime Silk Road is also designed to cement relationships with countries that are tacitly friendly to China such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. This will be accomplished primarily through economic incentives like infrastructure development and trade deals. In this sense, the Maritime Silk Road not only stands side by side with the Silk Road Economic Belt, but also as part of a historical continuum that includes China’s past investment in maritime-related infrastructure, which has been referred to by some as a “String of Pearls” policy. If one wants to know what kind of infrastructure projects China will fund in the future, look to what it has done in the past: oil and natural gas links to Myanmar’s port in Sittwe, ports in Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects, and the Pakistani port in Gwadar. Indeed, China and Malaysia have already announced a joint port project in Malacca. Meanwhile, China, which is already the largest trading partner for most countries in Southeast and South Asia, is also signing new free trade agreements with countries such as Sri Lanka.

Chinese infrastructure investment, intended primarily to strengthen China’s energy security and increase trade between China and its neighbors, will now get a huge boost with the creation of both the AIIB and more specialized investment vehicles such as the Maritime Silk Road Bank and the Silk Road Fund. While the AIIB has had the flashiest rollout with China contributing $50 billion USD to a planned $100 billion USD in capital, the other two funds are no slouches: the Silk Road Fund has plans for $40 billion USD in capital, while the Maritime Silk Road Bank hopes to attract $100 billion RMB in investment.

Finally, unmentioned in authoritative Chinese sources is that the Maritime Silk Road, and especially Chinese infrastructure investment, is implicitly intended to facilitate more frequent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployments in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The PLAN needs reliable logistics chains across Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) throughout Southeast and South Asia; ships cannot go far without a reliable supply of fuel, food, and armaments. But for the foreseeable future, China is at a serious disadvantage in this regard: the US Navy and allied navies have such a preponderance of force and ability to project power throughout the region that the PLAN is ill-equipped to compete. Given the PLANs current capabilities, China’s logistics capacity would only be dependable during peacetime; they would not survive in a contested environment, particularly if the US decided to close off key chokepoints like the Malacca and Sunda Straits. Therefore, the first step to strengthen the PLAN’s capabilities is to build reliable logistical infrastructure in key friendly states, such as the aforementioned projects in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. These logistical links would still be quite vulnerable in a conflict scenario, given the tenuous relationship China would have with even putatively friendly countries if China went to war. Therefore, the primary benefit for the PLAN is to demonstrate presence in peacetime, and to show that it can operate far from its own shores.

The Maritime Silk Road, along with the attendant Silk Road Economic Belt, is truly a multi-headed dragon, so large that it is difficult to disaggregate its many parts. The most difficult challenge for China, however, will not be building infrastructure and signing trade deals—these are no doubt massive undertakings, but they are fundamentally instrumental tasks that will not receive much opposition from countries in the region. The more difficult objective for China is translating investment and trade into building a coalition of states in the region that align their values and foreign policy goals with those of China, and indeed identify with China at the expense of competitors like the US. China will likely find this kind of bandwagoning hard to pull off—when it comes down to it, the Maritime Silk Road may wash away like sand.

William Yale is the Director of Operations at CIMSEC, an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project, and a Research Associate at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.

Chinese Submarines Taste Indian Ocean

PLAN Song-class submarine in Hong Kong
PLAN Song-class submarine in Hong Kong

A Chinese military website, ostensibly sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army, quoting Sri Lanka media has reported that a Chinese Type 039 diesel-electric Song-class submarine along with Changxing Dao, a submarine support ship from the North Sea Fleet was sighted berthed alongside at the Colombo International Container Terminal. Although the pictures of the submarine and the support vessel together in the port have not been published either by the Sri Lankan or the Chinese media, it is believed that the submarine arrived in early September just before the Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit to Sri Lanka. The report also states that the submarine was on a routine deployment and had stopped over for replenishment. Further, a Chinese naval flotilla would call at a Sri Lankan port later in October and November.

In the past, reports about the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean have been announced in the media. For instance, the Indian media reported that a type-093 attack nuclear submarine was on deployment (December 2013 to February 2014) in the Indian Ocean and that the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (Foreign Affairs Office) had informed the Indian military attaché in Beijing of the submarine deployment to show ‘respect for India’. Apparently, the information of the deployment was also shared with the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia.

A few issues relating to the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean merit attention. First, the Chinese submarine visited Sri Lanka and not Pakistan, a trusted ally of China whose relationship has been labeled as ‘all weather’. The reason for the choice of Sri Lanka could be driven by concerns about Pakistan domestic political instability, which had prompted Xi Jinping to cancel his visit to Islamabad during his South Asia tour last month. Further, the high security risks in Karachi harbour and Gwadar port add to Chinese discomfort.

In the past, there have been a number of terrorist attacks on the naval establishments in Karachi. In 2002, 14 workers of the French marine engineering company Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN) were killed and in 2011, attack on PNS Mehran left three P3C-Orion damaged. The recent report about an attempt to hijack a Chinese-built Pakistani frigate by a terrorist group linked to the Al Qaeda has only reinforced these apprehensions. The Gwadar port is perhaps not yet ready to take on submarines; besides, in the past, three Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar port project were killed in a car bombing and two Chinese engineers working on a hydroelectric dam project in South Waziristan were abducted.

The second issue that warrants attention is that the deployment of the Song-class submarine in the Indian Ocean would be the first ever by a Chinese conventional submarine. This could be a familiarization visit, keeping in mind that the Chinese do not have sufficient oceanographic data about the Indian Ocean. After all, submarine operations are a function of rich knowledge about salinity, temperature and other underwater data. It is plausible that the Pakistan Navy, which has a rich experience of operating in the Arabian Sea, may have shared oceanographic data for submarine operation with the Chinese Navy. Further, the submarine would also get an opportunity to operate far from home and it is for this reason that it was escorted by a submarine tender. It will be useful to recall that China had deployed a number of ships, aircraft and satellite in the southern Indian Ocean in its attempt to locate the debris of MH 370. These factors may have encouraged the Chinese Navy to dispatch the submarine to the Indian Ocean.

Third, if the Chinese are to be believed that they informed Singapore and Indonesia about the deployment of type-093 attack nuclear submarine in the Indian Ocean earlier this year, then the purpose for that was to address the issue of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) also referred to as the Bangkok Treaty signed on December 15, 1995, during the fifth Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. The nuclear submarine would have entered the Indian Ocean through any of the three straits i.e. Straits of Malacca, Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait and transited through the SEANWFZ.

The ASEAN countries have been urging the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States – who operate nuclear powered submarines / warships carrying nuclear weapons, to sign various protocols of the SEANWFZ but have expressed reservations partly driven by the fact that the SEANWFZ curtails the movement of nuclear propelled platforms such as submarines. Indonesia has been at the forefront to ‘encourage the convening of consultations between ASEAN Member States and NWS with a view to the signing of the relevant instruments that enable NWS ratifying the Protocol of SEANWFZ’.

If the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean is true, it is fair to suggest that Chinese forays have graduated from diplomatic port calls, training cruises, anti-piracy operations, search and rescue missions, to underwater operations. Further, the choice of platforms deployed in the Indian Ocean has qualitatively advanced from multipurpose frigates to destroyers, amphibious landing ships and now to submarines. The Indian strategic community had long predicted that China would someday deploy its submarines in the Indian Ocean and challenge Indian naval supremacy in its backyard; these concerns have proven right. The Indian Navy has so far followed closely the Chinese surface ships deployments in the Indian Ocean but would now have to contend with the submarines which would necessitate focused development of specialist platforms with strong ASW (anti-submarine warfare) capability.  

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is the Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at director.nmf@gmail.com.