India took over the presidency of the UNSC in August 2021, where it set the agenda to discuss a variety of international issues related to Traditional and Non-Traditional security issues. PM Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to chair the discussion at the UNSC on the topic “Enhancing Maritime Security – A Case for International Cooperation”. Maritime security doesn’t have an internationally agreed theoretical definition and it’s often regarded as a buzzword from naval power projection, which now includes various aspects of Maritime domains like Security, environment, and other economic activities. Maritime Security is very crucial to India because of its coastline of about 7517 Km, and it has more than 1200 islands under its jurisdiction. India’s territorial sea expanse is 193,834 sq km, and the Exclusive Economic Zone covers around 2.02 million sq km which is home to India’s 51 percent oil reserves and 66 percent of natural gas reserves, whose protection and perseverance is vital for strategic and territorial integrity for India.
India has been an advocate for ‘upholding rule based International order’, thus in his recent address to UNSC, PM Modi stated four key points to deal with the challenges faced at the sea. Firstly, he described oceans as “our shared global commons” and a “Lifeline of International trade”. Secondly, he urged the nations to remove barriers from legitimate maritime trade which will bolster the global economy. Third, he focused on resolving disputes peacefully according to International law. Fourthly, he stressed International cooperation to counter non-traditional security issues, these were the extension of his SAGAR philosophy, which focus mainly on maritime security and cooperation.
Maritime security is always considered a very sensitive issue, so much so that this is the very first time the UN deliberated on this issue in a holistic way, whereas otherwise, it used to be a very issue-specific approach. Currently, Maritime Security has gained traction because of recent developments; be it the suspected drone attack on an Israeli-controlled tanker which have created unrest between Israel and Iran, China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, and the recent confrontation between Russia and the Western nations at the black sea. The non-traditional security challenges, as well as piracy and deterioration of the marine environment, are also constant threats to stability across the globe.
India itself is not untouched by maritime security concerns. Since India’s Independence, oceans and seas have not posed any serious threat, either it was minor naval threats from Pakistan or it was non-traditional threats like piracy and terrorism. But the increasing influence of China in the region has alarmed New Delhi to rethink its maritime strategy. The presence of Chinese activities in India’s Exclusive Economic Zones and its commercial ties with neighbouring countries of India, along with leasing of the ports of Gwadar, Columbo and Chittagong expose India to a dangerous Chinese maritime encirclement. The recent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops at Galwan Valley in June 2020, have also added flame to the fire and led India to adopt an extremely vigilant approach towards securing its maritime interests.
In the last five years, India has strengthened itself as a strategic power in the Maritime Domain. Establishing its base through “SAGAR philosophy”, New Delhi has successfully launched, Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) at 14th East Asia Submit which focused on “Safe, Secure, and Stable maritime domain”. At the 17th ASEAN-India Summit in November 2020, India linked IPOI with SAGAR and elaborated its scope by outlining its seven pillars which were maritime security, ecology, resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology, and academic.
Beijing’s expansionist policies always pose a strategic threat to New Delhi, thus in the last five years, India has changed its approach to foreign policy on a variety of issues. Recently India has been vocal about the Chinese incursion in the South and East China sea. India has now become the ‘Net Security Provider’ to many of the regional powers like the Philippines and Vietnam, who have major stakes in South China Sea disputes against China. Southeast Asia provides India with a market for the purchase of its Brahmos missile system; Vietnam was the first country that was offered this system. The Akash Missile System has also been offered to the Philippines. India is always being the first responder in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations especially at the Gulf of Aden. India through its QUAD membership, not only coordinating in the area of Defense but also focuses on three broad working groups, namely; Quad Vaccine Expert group, Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group, and Quad Climate Working Group.
Despite the recent milestones, India faces numerous challenges towards establishing its major strategic foothold in the maritime domain. The two major challenges are that India does have great policy ideas but it somewhat lacks resources to implement them, especially in the area of blue economy and marine infrastructure projects where they lack technology and innovation. The second and the foremost challenge is deterring Beijing itself, it is beyond doubt that China is an emerging superpower that is expanding its trade and economic ties through One-Belt Road Initiative. Indo-Pacific countries are divided in their policy towards China, where on one hand countries like Vietnam and Singapore are more interested to invest in India’s role as a net security provider, and on the other hand countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia want to maintain close relations with Beijing. The Philippines too has an unpredictable approach towards Beijing. Despite its dispute with China on the South China Sea dispute, the Chinese Vaccine Diplomacy has made Manila’s approach softer towards China.
Symbolically, this high-level participation from Security council members on such a sensitive issue under India’s Presidency in UNSC has reflected India’s position as an emerging responsible stakeholder in Global Maritime security. Under the umbrella of the “Human Centric approach towards Security,” India intends to expand its maritime influence towards the African continent. The east coast of Africa is an integral part of the Indian Ocean Littoral. Thus, Kenya’s membership in UNSC this year provides New Delhi with an opportunity to work with African Nations on various Traditional and Non-Traditional security issues faced at Sea. India can also work on Maritime domain awareness initiatives with countries of Indo-Pacific in which they can collaborate through naval deployments and port visits and training of coast guards, also the robust information sharing about illegal fishing, drugs smuggling, terrorism, etc, will help to eliminate these threats on time. New Delhi can also work on establishing inclusive regional maritime security infrastructure which will help to monitor any unwanted activities.
India through its recent collaboration with the European Union and QUAD can work on the maritime infrastructure projects on trade and investments, which will benefit many regional countries of Asia and Africa. It will provide them with a viable option parallel to the projects based on Beijing’s Dept-Trap Diplomacy. One of the foremost challenges faced is to reach a consensus about maritime governance. Ratification of UNCLOS still remains a big milestone that needs to be achieved for maintaining stability at oceans, but the territorial disputes like the one in the South China sea and recent unrest in the Black Sea, the Kerch Strait, and the Sea of Azov, keeps the UNSC divided. But despite their differences, the capability of New Delhi to push to adopt the very first presidential statement on ‘maritime security’ at UNSC can be considered as a strategic win. Thus these preferable outcomes do strengthen the belief that India’s rightful efforts towards global challenges make India a responsible stakeholder at the global stage.