The Strategic Flipside Of The Sagarmala

The idea of Sagarmala is to modernize and develop the Indian ports, integrate them with the industrial clusters and connect it through road, rail, inland and coastal waterways so that the ports become the drivers of India’s economic growth story. India has a long coast-line, and, if the experience of the developed world – like the US, Japan and so on- is an indicator, a port-led industrialization and development has its own share in a States’ economic growth. The Sagarmala project is conceived with this intention. The projects will be implemented in a phased manner over a span of 20 –year period, and has essentially four key drivers: (a) optimizing multi-modal transport to reduce the cost of domestic cargo, (b) minimizing the time and cost of export-import cargo logistics, (c) lowering costs
for bulk industries by locating them closer to the coast, and (d) improving export competitiveness by locating discrete manufacturing clusters near ports. By virtue of its geography, India enjoys a strategic location on key international trade routes. The Indian coast-line is 7500 kms long and stretches across 13 Indian states. Unfortunately, New Delhi has not been able to optimize its port-capacity and the inland waterways transportation. Historically, transportation by water ways has remained under- utilized despite the fact that it is significantly cheaper compared to road and railways. The Sagarmala National Perspective Plan indeed identifies specific opportunities for transportation of commodities by coastal shipping and inland waterways.
However, there is a flipside to the Sagarmala project. As such, India’s maritime geographical positioning is both an advantage and a challenge. Despite a massive
coastline and geographic primacy in the Indian Ocean, India has devoted little attention
on the security and the strategic aspects of its vast maritime frontiers. The close proximity of international shipping lanes to India’s coasts attracts other powerful countries to dominate the region and create a potential situation of conflict on issues ranging from maritime geopolitics, security, trade, and ocean –resources and right to navigation in the coming years.
As New Delhi attempts to integrate its economy with its East and Southeast Asia, we now
see Comprehensive Economic Partnerships with the 10 members of ASEAN, ranging from
Myanmar to the Philippines, as also with Japan and South Korea. ASEAN-led forums like
the East Asia Summit have led to an Indian strategic role across the Bay of Bengal, which traverses the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, crossing the disputed waters of the
South China Sea. India also cannot ignore the fact that China is vigorously opposed to
our participation in economic and security forums linked with ASEAN, including the
ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
Beijing also wants to outflank New Delhi on its western shores, through a network of
roads and ports. The Chinese strategic objectives are based on developing a Silk Road
that links China with Central Asia, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the Persian Gulf States,
Russia and the Baltic States. China is simultaneously building ports across the Indian
Ocean, in Asia and Africa. The Gwadar port in the Balochistan province of Pakistan is
close to India’s sea-lanes, linking India to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, from where we get
over 70 per cent of our oil supplies.
Ideally, it would be useful if the major Asian oil importers — India, China, Japan and
South Korea — cooperated on developments that threaten the security of vital sealanes
and energy corridors. But, given existing tensions and suspicions, this may be
too much to expect anytime soon.
At the same time, the Indian ocean littoral states face significant policy and governance
challenges from multiple sources, including territorial disputes and rivalries
among naval powers, intensifying environmental pressures on marine and coastal
infrastructure and resources, piracy and trafficking on the open ocean, and weak
and failing states on shore. To navigate the complicated maritime realm of the Indian
Ocean, policy makers throughout the region will need to collaboratively develop
strategies to address these interconnected strategic, socio-economic, commercial,
and environmental trends that will continue to shape the region in the coming decades.
The current strategic landscape therefore calls for a rapidly evolving security
landscape characterized by both of soft and hard power, ranging from maritime
partnerships and trade initiatives, to bilateral and multilateral disaster management
exercises, to active efforts to demonstrate sea control and credible combat power.
Therefore, for New Delhi’s the challenge would be to develop viable security architecture
across and beyond its shores. As part of broader ‘maritime governance’, New
Delhi should bolster her naval strength and expand maritime partnerships with other
countries at a bilateral and multilateral levels. Naval modernization, expansion of civilian
maritime infrastructure, development of island territories, and naval assistance
to other countries should form the core of this strategy. New Delhi has already engaged
friendly navies through Joint naval exercises like Malabar 2014. This needs to
be further intensified, but there should also be an advance professional interaction
and understanding between our sailors. A blue water navy capable of power projec-tion is a flexible strategic tool, but it requires diplomatic investment in forward bases
and friendly ports in addition to the financial and human investment.
Second, New Delhi should also augment its coastal defenses. The Coast Guard suffers
from capacity constraints due to inadequate procurement and infrastructure. It is
incumbent upon the respective state governments to recognize the exigency of seaborne
threats and take effective steps to augment the capabilities of marine police,
which is one of the first respondents during crises.
Third, India should maintain congenial political relations with its maritime neighbors
in the Indian Ocean region, and particularly, in immediate neighborhood like Sri Lanka
and Maldives. India also needs stronger partnerships with other island states, like
Seychelles and Mauritius, which are being wooed by China with a renewed vigor. Recent
initiatives to provide security assistance to India’s maritime neighbors – such as
the Seychelles, Mauritius and contributing towards multinational anti-piracy efforts
in the Gulf of Aden are steps worth taking.
Fourth, India needs to deepen its military security cooperation in the Indian Ocean
with USA, Australia, Japan, and Singapore. India should engage more through multilateral
initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indian Ocean
Naval Symposium to convey its maritime strategy.
Fifth, the threats to navigation and maritime freedoms, including in critical straits and
exclusive economic zones can be countered through adherence to international laws
by all parties as well as through monitoring, regulation and enforcement.
Sixth, rising competition for seabed minerals reveals the need for creating a regulatory
regime, developing safe and effective ocean-development technologies, finding
ways to share benefits of the common heritage, and ensuring environmental protection.
It should be treated as a part of global commons.
India’s geo‐strategic significance as a stabilizing power in the Indian Ocean is now
widely acknowledged. India now needs to be prepared to shoulder its responsibilities.

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