Looking Outward: Indian Maritime Power and Energy Security

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Trisha Ray, Columnist

From February 4-8, 2016, the Indian port of Vishakhapatnam was overflowing. Glistening under the sunlight, a dizzying array of warships sailed down the harbor. China’s PLAN Lizhou, the American USS Antietam, and India’s new destroyer, INS Kolkata, joined the ships of the 50 participating countries in one of the biggest peacetime demonstrations of naval power since 2001. India hosted its first International Fleet Review in 2001; this one, however, was significant not only in scale but also as a resounding reminder of India’s growing maritime power.

What accounts for the increasing focus on the seas? First, in its immediate neighborhood, India faces the threat of “sea-borne terrorism,” epitomized in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[i], The terrorists were believed to have set out from Karachi, and made the trip to Mumbai via the port of Porbandar in Gujarat. They passed through maritime security by forcibly boarding an Indian fishing vessel, the Kuber, and murdering the crew upon arrival.[ii] India has since implemented a security mechanism consisting of three lines of defense: a marine police wing, the Coast Guard, and the Navy. Patrolling a coastline 1,997 miles long with this mechanism takes up considerable maritime resources. The Navy also patrols India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches 200 nautical miles from the Indian coast. The recent increase in destroyers, therefore, points to this more active defense in the seas. Second, and equally crucial, is energy security. India relies heavily on imported oil: in 2013, India spent $133 billion on crude alone: a massive 31.6% of its total expenditure on imports.[iii] In 2003, this figure was just $17.1 billion, representing around 24.8% of import expenditures.[iv] The EIA predicts that India’s demand for petroleum and other liquids will double by 2040.[v] Presently, most of India’s oil comes from the Middle East, something India is seeking to rectify by looking to Africa. India is the single largest buyer of oil from Nigeria and has also sought out contracts with Sudan, among others.[vi] It should not come as a surprise, then, that India’s “extended neighborhood” now stretches to the west coast of Africa and that the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” features prominently in its 2015 Maritime Security Strategy.[vii] This shift is to be expected: India has long sought to make up for what it feels is lost time, as part of a greater discourse of its centrality in the web of maritime connections accompanied the spread of languages, religions and practices.[viii]

On a practical level, as the country has transitioned to an outward leaning economy, its spheres of security have also expanded and are also increasingly driven by energy and resource concerns. Its ties with Japan, for instance, have grown not only due to shared interests vis-à-vis China, but are now bolstered by technology transfer agreements, and recently, a civil nuclear deal.[ix] Additionally, the fact that India is attempting to reach out to Pyongyang, likely for mineral resources that can fuel India’s IT industry, despite the latter’s closeness to Pakistan and its own precarious status point to a shift towards a more multi-level outlook toward its security.[x]

Several facets are now evident in India’s maritime strategy. First: the stress on “networked capacity, i.e. establishing well-equipped listening posts across the Indo-Pacific points toward the growing role of a rapid, steady flow of intelligence. Second: the concept of SAGAR (literally, “ocean” but also an acronym for “Security and Growth for All in the Region) coupled with India’s reach into its extended neighborhood indicates a scaled up outlook on its own security.[xi] India may become a more active participant in the protection of key chokepoints in its oil supply. Third: we can expect to see greater maritime cooperation, visible in large events like the Fleet Review, joint exercises such as the Malabar naval exercises with the United States, and maritime investment events like the Global Maritime Summit. The Summit will be held in Mumbai this April in partnership with South Korea, and hopes to attract maritime infrastructure development projects – physical, logistical, and IT. With a growing interest in global stability, partly linked to its energy-related investments (Myanmar, Columbia, Vietnam, Sudan and South Sudan among many others), India may finally begin to be more constructively vocal in international institutions and shed its reputation for “discomfort with power”[xii].

[i] Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense (Navy): “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy”, 2015 http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf p. 39

[ii]Yogesh Naik, The Times of India. November 28, 2008. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Mumbai_attack_Satellite_phone_vital_clue_to_solve_mystery/rssarticleshow/3770611.cms

[iii]The Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/ind/

India spent an additional $4.19 billion on refined petrol and $13.3 billion on petrol gas.

[iv] Ibid.

[v]U.S. Energy Information Administration: Country Profileshttps://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.cfm?iso=IND

[vi]National bureau: “India to buy more crude oil from Nigeria”, The Hindu. Jan 23, 2016.http://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/india-to-buy-more-crude-oil-from-nigeria/article8140954.ece

[vii]Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defense (Navy): “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy”, 2015 http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf

[viii] John Garver, Protracted Contest, University of Washington Press. 2001. pp. 11-12

[ix]Including Japan in the Malabar naval exercises reflects the security side of this engagement.

[x]KallolBhattacharjee: “India reaches out, wants to upgrade ties with North Korea”, The Hindu. Sept 16, 2015. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-reaches-out-wants-to-upgrade-ties-with-north-korea/article7656332.ece

[xi]MoD (Navy): “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy”: pages 43, 64, 65, 75, 134, 135, 143

[xii]Harsh V. Pant , “A Rising India’s Search for a Foreign Policy,” Orbis, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 250-264, 2009.

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