Sea power key to India post-COVID-19 plans for new world order

Photo: INS Vikramaditya, India’s lone Russian-origin aircraft carrier.

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic ravages across the world, questions abound in strategic circles on what it will mean for the global order; whether it will fundamentally alter the way power is distributed across the world.

No matter how long the pandemic stretches, and how widely it impacts communities across the world, one thing is clear – it will no longer be the world we were familiar with, where rules-based order, evolved by the comity of nations post the Second World War, had gradually become cardinal to the way responsible countries conducted their business.

Challenges to the rules-based order were perceived as aberrations, and most nations realised the need to preserve the norms established by considerable international cooperation over decades.

The assimilative spirit which led to creation of the global trading order, the remarkable United Nations conventions that codified the laws of the seas, laws of armed conflict, setting up of global organisations for maritime and aviation safety, and various arms control regimes could come under severe challenge by nations seeking to fiercely protect their interests, post COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, the world was already witnessing an isolationist America increasingly revanchist China, faltering European solidarity and a fractious Middle East unable to come to terms with its traditional rivalries.

The pandemic is likely to make the world further fissiparous and nations self-centric. In such a world, how will India cope with the new power dynamics, and changing ‘trade winds’? How can India strive to preserve the multi-polarity of the world to its advantage, and prevent it from being subjugated by hypothetical revisionist hegemony? How will the emerging world order determine India’s defence restructuring, which has received impetus after the constitution of the Chief of the Defence Staff prior the turn of the last year?

Undoubtedly, the Indian leadership and foreign policy experts will figure out the nimble steps necessary to position India in an advantageous position in the post-COVID-19 world order. But will it be matched by correct steps in the ongoing defence restructuring?

As the dictum goes “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”. Backed by political will, India may be at a cusp of major transformation, as experts have hailed the recent defence reforms as epochal in India’s post-Independence history.

In February 2020, media reports indicated that India could create up to five theatre commands and the new structures were planned to be put in place in the next two years. The Theatre Commands would be joint commands, which would have specific units of the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force under a theatre commander. Theatre commands for Jammu and Kashmir.

Western and northern international borders, and Air Defence and have been talked about. An Indian Ocean-centred Peninsular Command, covering the areas of responsibility of Navy’s Western, Eastern and Southern Command has also been mentioned.

Representational Photo: India’s unique geographical position at the centre of all major sea lanes of communication that pass through the Indian Ocean Region.

Even as the broad contours of the planned defence transformation are being worked upon in professional circles, it is important to walk the length of history to understand why sea-power should be a key consideration to the strategic vision of India’s outward exertions in the world. The Indian Ocean has been a key determinant in the rise and fall of civilisation and empires, over millennia. Scholarship of authors have unequivocally brought out that whichever power has dominated the seaborne trade in the Indian Ocean Region has enjoyed a substantive strategic advantage over adversaries.

Description of India as a ‘civilizational power’ has gained currency in nationalist commentaries. Presumably, this also includes India’s rich maritime past, created in a great measure by kingdoms engaged in overseas sea trade.

In this context, we would do well to remember that the narrative of the Indian Ocean shifts through five general periods in history covering many civilisation from fourth millennium to sixth century BC (Sumerians, Iberians, Egyptians); the first period of intrusion of Mediterranean European influence from the West and of Chinese influence from the East (from sixth century BC to the sixth century AD).

The recording of European and Chinese Impact in the Arab ‘golden age’ (seventh century AD to eleventh century AD): the period of resurgence of Chinese and Mediterranean European Influence in Indian Ocean trade (twelfth century AD to fifteenth century AD) and the rise in dominance of the Indian Ocean and its trade by the lands of the North Atlantic (from sixteenth to twentieth century AD). In the current phase, we are witnessing the contest between the dominant North Atlantic Influence (US, European powers) and a resurgent Chinese civilisation, yet again. So how does India, or Indian civilisation, fit into this mercurial trade and power dynamic?

Post the COVID-19 pandemic, major trading nations of the world would seek to use the sea routes in the Indian Ocean to their advantage, to economise upon transportation costs and secure the resources to keep their economies afloat, if not agile.

The region is likely to witness rise in illegal trade of minerals, forest produce and sea food as also trafficking of narcotics and arms, using the sea routes. As prevailing trends indicate, resource exploitation by extra regional powers has witnessed a rise over the years, especially in African countries, often in collusion with weak state actors in the region.

The exponential rise of illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean mostly attributed to Chinese deep-sea fishing fleets is a case in point. The sea routes of the Indian Ocean are being used for trafficking of illegally extracted mineral resources and timber from African countries, by resource hungry economies outside the region.

This phenomenon could see an uptick, with leading manufacturing nations scrambling to preserve their economic advantages. Concerns over illegal exploitation of maritime resources and use of the sea routes for terrorism have spurred some Indian Ocean states to seek assistance of India In patrolling their Exclusive Economic Zones. India is increasingly seen by countries in the region as a valued security partner and a first part of call for seeking assistance in capacity building and capability development.

India’s vision for maritime resurgence conceptualised in the well-known Sagarmala and SAGAR programmes, could be realised only if India retains a prominent role in deciding the course of maritime affairs in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, India’s defence transformation will need to be responsive to the country’s interests in the ocean surrounding it, which also provides India a vantage geographical location to monitor maritime traffic between various strategically important ‘choke points’, including the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal.

India’s two Island territories, namely the Andaman and Nicobar group, and the Lakshadweep and Minicoy group, are the ‘outer Island chains’ which lend the country extended terrestrial frontiers and maritime zones, to use them for defence and security purposes.

Representational Photo: An Indian Navy power projection at sea using two Carrier Battle Groups at any given time,

The structural reorganisation being planned by India’s defence planners should take into consideration the imperative need to create the amphibious capability that would be required to defend these Islands and any other overseas locations where India’s security interests may lie.

Such capability would include ships suitable for transportation of amphibious troops, naval escorts, amphibious vehicles and seaborne air power, which together could constitute a modest expeditionary military capability.

Examples from modern military history amply demonstrate that a true amphibious capability would need a cohesive integration of elements of land forces, naval platforms and sea based, as well as land-based, air power.

It is only when India possesses such blue-water naval and military capability, capable of making an effect on affairs on land in any part of the region, that India could claim to a military power of reckoning in the Indian Ocean.

In the post-COVID-19 world, India’s choices in the contested strategic environment will depend a great degree on its ability to keep its maritime neighbourhood safe for commerce and legitimate resource exploitation. Even a minor disruption in trade and transportation patterns could have unforeseen impact on internal as well as external trade, thereby upsetting the calculus of good governance.

As predominant maritime powers make readjustment of their national policies in the wake of the pandemic, revisionist powers are likely to demonstrate cavaliered and strident ambition in the Indian Ocean. India would do well to prepare for such a contingency, by paying due attention to development of sea-power.

Sea-power is a much broader concept than naval power, it is the combination of a nation’s various attributes and capabilities to use the seas to serve its political and economic interests.

Indian experts working upon the defence reorganisation could imagine an ‘Indian Ocean Integrated Command’ to reflect India’s extroverted purposefulness in the maritime realm. Such an oceanic integrated command could give a new sense of urgency to the ‘whole of the government’ coordination that would go into making India a true maritime power of the modern era.

To make the point in denouement, it is always useful to recall the words of Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, one of India’s early maritime thinkers, who wrote in his seminal work ‘India and the Indian Ocean: an essay on the influence of sea power on Indian history (1945) “If India desires to be a naval power, it is not sufficient to create a navy however efficient and well manned. It must create a naval tradition in the public, a sustained interest in oceanic problems and a conviction that India’s future greatness lies on the sea”.

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