India's decision to conduct an international fleet review in Vishakahapatnam with participation of over 50 nations earlier this month was a significant step towards achieving a stronger maritime status in South Asia, particularly in relation to China.
Oceans are important avenues of global trade and means of conduct of international relations. The Indian Ocean, particularly, has emerged as a significant strategic threatre with major powers of the world, including China, eyeing to consolidate their positions there.
The Chinese have focussed on building all sorts of infrastructure around India and as their financial stakes grow fast in the Indian Ocean region, they are also aiming to develop infrastructure as part of a new maritime silk route. For India, that is enough competition to kickstart its own abilities.
From prioritising the West, India's new maritime environment is more about China
India traditionally has focussed on the western forces in the Indian Ocean (US, France, etc) but with China's growing maritime clout in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, India's own maritime policies can no longer delay a necessary transformation. New Delhi today needs to come out of its 'zone of peace' mindset and focus on a rapid modernisation of its naval infrastructure and diplomacy, including that vis-a-vis other littoral states.
India must IORA & IONS initiatives
To have a robust maritime policy vis-a-vis Beijing, New Delhi needs to work on its political relations with maritime neighbours like Sri Lanka and Maldives and island states like Seychelles and Mauritius, which the former, too, cultivates strategically. New Delhi can make the best use of maritime multilateralism through initiatives like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) to execute a naval diplomacy that gives it big returns.
Though the IORA was revived and IONS was launched during the UPA era, it is the current NDA government which has pursued the aim of serving its own geo-political, economic and strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region more actively.
Naval forces need modernisation
The issue of modernisation of the naval force is also another aspect India needs to address besides engaging more with other maritime nations. India has planned a global maritime meet in April but parallelly, it also needs to ensure that many of its naval projects are also freed from red-tapism. Only then can it aspire to build on the success of the recently held fleet review.
Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force chief Admiral Tomohisa Takei, who took part in the fleet review, said India is an important country in the Indian Ocean region and needs to take responsibility for security in the area. This is a very realistic reminder for our policy-makers and they will do India a big service by lending it a serious ear.