Dr Jivanta Schottli[This piece is abridged from a journal article originally published by the author in India Review]
‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) was launched with fanfare in March 2015 by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to the island nations of the Seychelles and Mauritius. Handing over the first-ever naval ship to be built by India for a foreign nation to Mauritius, Narendra Modi delivered a speech in which he proposed a vision and framework for delivering security and growth to the Indian Ocean region. The 2015 launch and speech was meant to mark the, then recently elected, government’s ‘new’ oceanic focus and to reflect a renewed drive to enhance India’s maritime engagement, profile and capacities. Invoking principles such as collective responsibility, international maritime rules and norms, and the need for partnerships and collaboration, the speech employed concepts of governance, rather than geopolitical competition and contestation. This also conveyed and legitimised India’s readiness to take on a role that went beyond the near neighbourhood, and foreign policy challenges with Pakistan and ChinaOver the course of the next years, the government of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have appeared to invest in active maritime diplomacy. Efforts to improve maritime infrastructure at home through the Sagarmala programme were initiated and new mechanisms created to facilitate strategic investments abroad, including the building of the deep-sea Chabahar port of Iran. These have certainly had their shortcomings stemming from federal politics at home and the challenges of navigating particularly volatile international politics.
Drawing attention to the Indian Ocean nevertheless makes eminent sense, given the obvious strategic importance—the ocean has always been central to India’s energy security with more than 90% of the country’s oil imports coming by sea, from the Persian Gulf. A growing percentage of India’s economy is export-driven and reliant on international shipping as the cheapest mode of transportation. As a peninsula formation, India is surrounded on three sides by water with the Bay of Bengal to the East, the Arabian Sea to the West, both of which feed into the Indian Ocean enveloping the southern part of the country. Indian territory stretches far out across the ocean with the Lakshadweep archipelago that is part of the Maldives-Chagos group of islands to the west and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east that bring India within a stone’s throw away from Indonesia’s Aceh province.
Other reasons to focus on the Indian Ocean have included great power competition that has gained momentum over the last decade and which has manifest itself explicitly in terms of naval competition, sea power and maritime diplomacy. In 2017 China inaugurated its first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti. The United States, a resident naval power with its massive presence at the base of Diego Garcia along with other naval powers including France and the United Kingdom have shored up their presence across the Indian Ocean. For India, the competition has prompted more naval exercises in bilateral and multi-national formats, and a turn towards a more explicit emphasis on maritime security. A number of logistical agreements have been signed with major maritime powers to share military bases and sensitive intelligence.
Meanwhile, there has also been a concerted effort to showcase and emphasize the importance of maritime governance. This refers to growing challenges associated with managing and protecting ocean resources, helping other countries to develop maritime domain awareness and demonstrating leadership particularly when it comes to humanitarian and disaster relief operations. Greater coordination amongst departments and ministries and a willingness to take action have strengthened India’s position as first-responder in times of natural disaster and political crises, and net security provider. Most recently, in May 2020 the Indian government launched ‘Mission Sagar’ to provide food and medicine supplies to island nations in the western Indian Ocean hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There has been much debate amongst scholars and observers over the extent to which Narendra Modi’s foreign policy initiatives have marked a real substantive shift in priorities from those articulated in the past. SAGAR as a set of preferences, has set forth a proclaimed desire for India to be regarded as a promoter of collaboration and partnerships in the region and thus a supporter of multilateral initiatives. While there are parallels to be drawn with the internationalist orientation of Indian foreign policy in the 1950s, a major change to be noted in the current initiatives is the bid to get extra-regional powers to be more invested in the region. This coincides with the growing international perception of India as a key player in the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. How India balances its continental security needs with those of being a maritime power, will be one of the greatest challenges for India’s foreign policy in the years ahead.
Dr Jivanta Schottli is Assistant Professor in Indian Politics and Foreign Policy at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.