How India is taking advantage of its Blue Economy

A container ship in the Indian Ocean. File Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers

A container ship in the Indian Ocean. File Picture: Doctor Ngcobo / Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 28, 2024


By Dr Kumar Maheep

Globalisation has made seaborne commerce an indispensable catalyst for economic prosperity, leading India to focus not just on the general health of the oceans, but also on crucial aspects like freedom of navigation, security of sea routes, resource exploitation, and potential threats emanating from the seas.

Within this broader context, the evolving maritime geopolitics of the “Indo-Pacific” region takes centre stage. The global strategic and diplomatic discourse revolves around how to govern oceanic waters, both to manage emerging threats and to facilitate resource exploitation for national development.

Notably, the nature of these threats has shifted in recent decades. While traditional challenges rooted in power imbalances remain, “non-traditional” threats like climate change, piracy, and transnational crime have come to the forefront.

Despite existing international laws surrounding ocean utilization, crafting a robust maritime governance system to address this diverse spectrum of challenges is ultimately dictated by the strategic interests of various nations.

This interplay of interests is where the true essence of Indo-Pacific geopolitics lies.

In September 2023, Vice President Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar declared a modernised Indian Navy to be essential for both safeguarding national maritime interests and fulfilling India’s growing global responsibilities, particularly against the complex geopolitical and security environment of the Indian Ocean region.

This strategic endeavour not only aligns with India’s overarching goal of safeguarding its vast maritime interests but also strategically counters the growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

This resolute expansion reflects a pivotal step towards ensuring security and balance in the maritime domain. However, India avoids antagonizing China, balancing its partnerships with ASEAN centrality and engagement with South China Sea claimants.

India’s extensive coastline, encompassing 7,500 kilometres, 1,200 islands, and a vast Exclusive Economic Zone of 2 million square kilometres, has always been a cornerstone of its strategic priorities. The maritime domain has gained even greater significance since the end of the Cold War in 1991.

The rise of naval rivalry, both at large and small scales, and the need for effective governance mechanisms to address challenges like climate change, sustainable resource utilization, and overall ocean health further highlight the critical role of the maritime dimension in India’s regional and global diplomacy.

As India's regional and international footprint expands, so too does its strategic calculus in the Indo-Pacific. Navigating this dynamic region necessitates a multi-layered approach. Beyond securing its interests in the power balance of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, India must navigate the complex web of emerging strategic alignments within the wider Indo-Pacific discourse.

This entails both considering the interplay of its crucial bilateral relationships with major powers and recognizing their attempts to utilize those ties to shape India's regional role. While significant strategic convergence exists with the US, India maintains a nuanced and independent policy, as eloquently articulated in two key addresses by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This unique stance allows India to pursue its own strategic objectives while engaging constructively with a diverse range of partners within the increasingly important Indo-Pacific region.

In his 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue speech, Prime Minister Modi outlined India's vision for the Indo-Pacific, a broad maritime construct stretching from the US Pacific coast to Africa's eastern shore. He advocated for an "open, free, and inclusive" regional order, emphasising both free navigation and inclusivity beyond traditional alliances.

While acknowledging the US focus on open institutions, Modi underscored the importance of inclusivity within the maritime order itself, ensuring all nations, regardless of size, could operate freely and equally.

Notably, he stressed the need for transparent and sustainable connectivity projects alongside respect for sovereignty, international law, and peaceful dispute resolution. He emphasized India's open-mindedness to regional cooperation with diverse partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally, and recognized ASEAN's central role in the Indo-Pacific architecture.

India's maritime diplomacy therefore navigates the diverse landscapes of the Indo-Pacific, adapting its approach to each sub-region. It prioritizes the diplomatic objectives of its partners, evident in its recent Indo-Pacific division within the Ministry of External Affairs.

India's maritime diplomacy displays a nuanced understanding of the Indo-Pacific's complexities. It balances strategic partnerships with regional sensitivities, aiming to foster a "free, open, prosperous, and inclusive" Indo-Pacific built on cooperation and shared values.

* Dr Kumar Maheep is an eminent scholar of India's Foreign Affairs and Global Politics. He has a keen interest in National Security and related issues.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.