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India’s role in ensuring sea lanes act as pathways to mutual prosperity

  • Harsh Vardhan Shringla
  • 12 August, 2021 12:00 AM
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On August 9, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presided over the United Nations Security Council debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation”. In more ways than one, this was a historic first.

To begin with, it was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the UNSC. It was also the first time that maritime security was discussed under the agenda item of international peace and security. While the council has in the past discussed issues related to piracy and armed robbery at sea, this was the first such holistic discussion.

And finally, to mark the convening of this event by India, the Council adopted a Presidential Statement on Maritime Security — first such UNSC outcome document on the subject — with the unanimous consent of all 15 member states.

The UNSC Presidential Statement reaffirmed that international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, sets out the legal framework applicable to oceanic endeavours.

It drew attention to the use of the sea by terrorists, as was the case in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, and called for capacity building and sharing of effective practices to combat such crimes.

Further, it took note of the continuing problem of transnational organised crime at sea. It emphasised safeguarding legitimate uses of oceans, the lives and livelihoods of seafarers and coastal communities.

The event saw high-level participation from UNSC member states, with four Heads of State / Government and 10 ministers present.

This reflected India’s international standing as well as the global stature of our Prime Minister. In his remarks, Prime Minister Modi proposed five principles, as a framework for international cooperation in maritime security.

These included the need for removing barriers to legitimate maritime trade; resolving maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law; jointly fighting maritime threats from natural disasters and non-state actors; conserving maritime environment and resources; and promoting responsible maritime connectivity. These five principles are a natural extension of India's stated positions on enhancing maritime security. It was in 2015 that the PM had first enunciated the concept of SAGAR or ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.

This was followed by his 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue speech in Singapore, where he outlined India's Indo-Pacific Vision. In 2019, the PM launched the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative’ at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, proposing seven pillars for cooperation among states in the maritime domain.

With a coastline of over 7,500 kms, comprising 1,200 islands, the oceans have always been central to India’s ethos. Our rich maritime history goes back to at least the 3rd millennium BC, when the inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization engaged in maritime trade with Mesopotamia.

The archaeological remains of the world's first dock at Lothal in Gujarat bear testimony to India’s prowess as a sea-faring nation even thousands of years ago. Today, almost 90% of India's international trade is through maritime routes. It’s in our interest that the sea lanes are rendered as pathways to mutual prosperity and corridors for peace.

India has made its mark as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region and beyond, including as a first responder for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. India’s swift response to recent requests from its neighbours in the western Indian Ocean is in conformity with the PM’s vision of both SAGAR and ‘Vasudeva Kutumbkam’.

The Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurugram has become a hub for maritime information exchange, with several countries deploying liaison officers. The Indian Navy has intensified anti-piracy operations, while also providing training and capacity building assistance to partner countries. Marine pollution control is a new element, where India has responded to calls for assistance by Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

As several speakers at Monday’s UNSC debate noted, India’s success in steering the council to discuss an issue that had remained outside its consideration represented a remarkable breakthrough. Previous attempts to get the council to deliberate on maritime security did not succeed due to differing perceptions among members, particularly the P-5. Monday’s debate did bring out the fault lines clearly. Yet, the council adopted an outcome document in the form of a Presidential Statement by consensus.

India’s global stature and its constructive bridging role made the difference, proving that intractable global issues can indeed be progressed.

By successfully hosting this Presidency Open Debate, India has established its credentials as a responsible actor on the world stage. A positive outcome from the first signature event of our Presidency has only strengthened our belief that myriad global challenges can be addressed and resolved through a reformed UNSC, reflective of contemporary realities. And with India taking its rightful place at the famed Horseshoe Table as a permanent member.

The author is Indian foreign secretary and also former High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh