It must be truly rare in bilateral discussions between heads of state or government, and especially those in which the global superpower is a party, for a relatively inconsequential item like maritime security to even figure in the agenda, much less attract any serious attention. Yet, in the just concluded Modi-Trump interface, this theme was stressed thrice, not by our prime minister but by the US president. First, he spoke of the forthcoming Malabar exercises at sea which would, in his words, be the most elaborate and complex carried out until now. He then went on to stress the need to elevate the level of maritime security cooperation between the two countries. Finally, the joint statement acknowledged the need for both countries to play meaningful and legitimate roles in the Indo-Pacific
and the common imperative for both in ensuring freedom of movement at sea consistent with international norms.
There are other elements to this highest-level engagement too, but the purpose here is to focus on issues at sea highlighted at the meeting and how they impact our own interests and aspirations.
Starting in the reverse order, some analysts have commented that by not referring to our role in the South China Sea
(SCS), which had figured in the Modi-Obama
statement of 2016, our position has been diminished. This is erroneous. The term “Indo-Pacific” was first coined by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
in 2008. The Americans soon shied away from it and put out the more convoluted terminology of “Indo-Asia-Pacific”. The term chosen by Ms Clinton is more embracing, covering as it does waters stretching from the Suez Canal to the waters of the western Pacific (which include the SCS).
We should be more than satisfied that the Trump Administration has chosen to restore the original description and, even more important, that it recognises India’s legitimate role in this vast region. India is, in essence, an Indian Ocean Region
(IOR) player, but given its size and interests, which includes growing maritime trade, its concerns extend beyond it. So, even though it is not a SCS littoral, it cannot remain excluded from developments that are taking place there. Its inclusion as party to the Indo-Pacific
provides exactly that recognition. So, this is fully consistent with our long-term interests, and if some of our own foreign office mandarins have contributed to it, full marks to them.
As for enhancement of maritime security cooperation, while this has increased substantially in the last 15 years, we are still constrained by bureaucratic hurdles, the main ones being our inability to conclude two important bilateral agreements which would facilitate sharing of classified information. These have been discussed threadbare in earlier years but there is a need, on both sides, to take a fresh look, given the strategic convergence that has been spoken of by both leaders.
Cooperation at sea involves not just ships going out together and carrying out exercises over a couple of days, but understanding the whys and the wherefores. This can come about only if there is some degree of synergy of doctrines, and for this to happen information sharing is important. So, while one can be selective and discriminate between what can be shared and what has to be beyond the radar, some compromise seems necessary. In the IOR especially, India has to become a net security provider and that will often require joint operations with the US. This realisation will facilitate actions needed to foster enhanced maritime security cooperation.
The third element is the reference to Malabar series of exercises at sea. The content of these annual exercises, conducted alternately in the IOR and the western Pacific, has been enhanced over the last 15 years but there is a qualitative difference this year. For one, India will field its most capable platform, the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya with its MIG 29K aircraft and several frontline ships and submarines. The US participation will also be substantial. Add to this the presence of the Japanese Navy and the strategic convergence which guides this exercise becomes readily apparent. The Malabar series is clearly an Indo-Pacific
event and lends credibility to India’s aspirations and potential.
To these three elements which figure prominently in the Trump-Modi dialogue, must be added the American clearance for the supply of nearly two dozen Guardian drones for the Indian Navy. While these will, no doubt, enhance the surveillance capabilities of our forces at sea, the fallout will come in what may lie ahead. If these should materialise, as one hopes they will, it is almost certain that they will be followed, sooner rather than later, by weapon-fitted versions. The logic of the strategic relationship, provided it is taken through, will dictate such a step for both parties.
The Indian Navy also has an enquiry ongoing for nearly five dozen fighter aircraft to operate from aircraft carriers at sea and while the choice may, to some extent, be influenced by what the Indian Air Force selects for itself, the options should be wide open. Procurement of major military hardware must always be seen through the prism of geopolitical interests more than just financial cost. The dialogue just concluded gives India an opportunity to make the required course correction.
In sum, we must treat the US focus on maritime security cooperation, which treats both parties on par, as more than just passing remarks. This is the most positive part of the articulation that has been made, quite different to the rhetoric about friendship and democracy. As the Bard wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune...” That circumstance may be upon us.
The writer is a former Commander in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command. He has also served as member of the National Security Advisory Board