Evolution of India’s Maritime Diplomacy Over the Last Ten Years
Vice Admiral Satish Soni (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, NM, ADC

On the occasion of commissioning of the Mauritian Naval Ship Barracuda, built by M/s Garden Reach Shipbuilders Kolkata, for the Mauritian National Coast Guard, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 12 March 2015, made a commitment to the Indian Ocean littorals. He said ‘We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region’. His vision was in consonance with the seminal document ‘Indian Maritime Strategy - 2015’. In tandem with the ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Look West’ and ‘Act East’ policies, the Indian Navy has in recent years, given an impetus to ‘Maritime Diplomacy’, a major role that navies seek for themselves to build a broader maritime environment to counter threats and address challenges by cooperative maritime engagements. The preceding ten years have witnessed an exponential growth in the Indian Navy’s commitment to the region by initiating a host of engagements not only to enhance cooperation at sea but also to position India as a ‘Preferred Security Partner’ and ‘First Responder’ in the region.

Building Bridges of Friendship through High level Maritime Strategic Interactions

Whilst showcasing the might of the Indian Navy, the International Fleet Review (IFR) held in Visakhapatnam in Feb 2016, brought together navies from across the globe on Indian shores. 48 navies (including India) participated in IFR-16, represented by 23 Chiefs of Navies, 24 foreign warships and 25 Heads of Delegations. Representation by foreign countries in such large numbers in the International Fleet Review with the theme ‘United through Oceans’ underscored the acceptability of other nations for India to play a lead role in nurturing peace and tranquillity in the waters around us. On 21 February 2024, India hosted the 12th edition of the multi-nation exercise ‘Milan’, wherein representatives from 47 countries including Ministers, Chiefs of Navies, Ambassadors and maritime agencies participated. ‘MILAN’ with its motto ‘Camaraderie – Cohesion - Collaboration’ symbolises the enduring spirit of international maritime cooperation. The exercise brought together maritime nations for establishing regional synergy to achieve the shared objective of peace and prosperity as articulated in the Prime Minister's vision of SAGAR. On 22 Dec 2018, India commissioned the ‘Information Fusion Centre - Indian Ocean Region’ in Gurugram. The centre collaborates with 50 maritime agencies and 25 countries with a mission to advance maritime safety and security by collating and disseminating critical information. 13 international liaison officers comprise the staff to make this initiative truly international. In 2023 alone, the centre analysed 3955 incidents related to contraband smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy/armed robbery. Such high-level strategic interactions have helped provide a fillip to ‘Maritime Diplomacy’ and shape the maritime environment to our advantage.

Capacity and Capability Building- India, a Preferred Security Partner

The Indian Navy has a state-of-the-art training infrastructure and offers these facilities to smaller navies to support capability development. These interactions facilitate a shared understanding of maritime issues, strengthen relations, enhance interoperability and enable broader cooperation. During the preceding ten years, on an average 1000 naval personnel from the neighbourhood have been trained in our naval establishments every year. India has also been contributing to build capacities of smaller navies by gifting ships, aircraft and other assets. Our shipyards have also built new ships as per the needs of the recipient Navies. The list of naval assets transferred to smaller navies in the region include three Offshore Patrol Vessels to the Sri Lankan Navy during 2015-18 and a 4000 tonne floating dock (under construction), INS Kirpan, a missile corvette to the Vietnamese Navy in 2023, Offshore Patrol Vessel MCGS Barracuda to Mauritius in 2015, UMS Minye Theinkhathu (A kilo class submarine, previously INS Sindhuvir) to Myanmar in 2020, Two Dhruv Advanced Light helicopters, a Dornier aircraft, two fast patrol vessels and a Landing Craft Assault ship to Maldives during 2014-2024, four fast interceptor boats to Mozambique during 2019-21, a fast patrol vessel to Seychelles in 2021 and the shore based anti-ship missile system BrahMos to Philippines in 2024. Adhering to a ‘Womb to Tomb’ principle, these assets have received maintenance support including technical advice, repairs and refits and development of resident expertise.

Operational Deployments

India considers the Indian Ocean as its primary area of interest and the Navy deploys ships, aircraft and Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) for Presence and Surveillance Missions around crucial chokepoints and Sea lines of Communication in the Indian Ocean Region. Since August 2017, the Indian Navy’s deployments in the IOR have been better organised under the Mission Based Deployment concept. An Indian Naval ship is always deployed in seven discrete areas across the Indian Ocean to respond to a developing situation at sea; be it attempts at hijacking by pirates, smuggling of contraband, drug/human trafficking, Search and Rescue (SAR) or for providing Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR). This has been a welcome relief for states possessing limited naval capacities for law enforcement at sea. Since the outbreak of the Israel Hamas conflict in October 2023 and resurgence of Piracy in Western IOR, the Indian Navy has been proactively deployed for maritime security and has safely escorted more than 40 lakhs tons of cargo. The Indian Navy has undertaken more than 1000 boarding operations/investigations and apprehended 62 pirates. Continued operational efforts of the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden region have resulted in saving more than 288 lives, which include more than 80 Indians and 200 foreign nationals.

Being the First Responder to a Crisis

Countries of the littoral often request India for maritime assistance to address specific requirements such as hydrographic surveys, search and rescue (SAR), sealift of critical stores, surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zones etc. and the Indian Navy has always been forthcoming in providing assistance, at times curtailing its own requirements at home. Such interactions are indicative of the trust reposed in us by our neighbours and our commitment to lend a helping hand, always. Our timely responses have been catalysts for enhancing goodwill amongst the maritime community. During the Covid pandemic in 2019/20, the Indian Navy deployed ships to 15 foreign countries for providing assistance. These deployments spanned over 215 days at sea and Indian Naval ships traversed a distance of 40,000 miles to deliver a cumulative assistance of more than 3000 MT of food aid, over 300 MT Liquid Medical Oxygen, 900 Oxygen Concentrators and 20 ISO containers. Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster relief operations during the preceding decade include Operation ‘Neer’ for providing water to Maldives in 2014, disaster relief during cyclone ‘Roanu’ in Bangladesh in May 16 and again in June 17 during cyclone ‘Mora’, flood relief operations in Sri Lanka in May 17, relief operations in Indonesia during an earthquake in Sep 18, Cyclone relief operations in Mozambique in Mar 19, Madagascar in Jan 20 and Myanmar in May 23. Such assistance has been instrumental in reassuring our friends that India takes pride in being the ‘First responder’ to a crisis in the Indian Ocean.

Indian diaspora has a substantial presence in littorals of the Indian Ocean and the Indian Navy has always been present to assist them in their hour of need. During Operation ‘Rahat’, the Indian Navy went into harm's way to evacuate Indian nationals from Yemen in May 2015. In April 2023, once again naval ships evacuated stranded Indian citizens from Sudan. On 05 May 20, Operation Samudra Setu was launched to repatriate Indian citizens from overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic bringing 3,992 Indian citizens back to their homeland by sea. Indian Naval Ships Jalashwa (Landing Platform Dock), and Airavat, Shardul and Magar (Landing Ship Tanks) participated in this operation which lasted over 55 days and involved traversing more than 23000 kilometres by sea. In May 2021, at the peak of second wave of COVID, the Indian Navy launched Operation 'Samudra Setu II’; this time to support Covid relief operations in our country by ferrying Cryogenic Oxygen Tanks and other critical COVID Medical Stores from foreign shores to Indian ports.

Conclusion

In an unstable geo-strategic environment, India’s military diplomacy powered by the navy has started to make an important contribution. An assertive and reassuring Indian naval presence is aiding India and her maritime neighbours to harness the dividends of the ‘Blue Economy’ and develop their economies optimally. Preceding ten years are witness to a transformation in how we have chosen to respond to the waters around us. India has shed her inhibitions and sustained efforts have enabled us to make a mark as a responsible and capable maritime power in the region.
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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