It took nearly a decade and half for India to appoint a National Maritime Security Coordinator (NMSC). Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar, formerly the Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, has now formally taken over the newly created position and would provide expert advice to the National Security Advisor (NSA).
The announcement and the appointment of the NMSC comes at a time when India hosted a significant maritime-naval event i.e. MILAN, a multilateral initiative in which 26 ships, 21 aircraft and one submarine including 13 foreign ships and 39 delegations participated to promote “Camaraderie, Cohesion, Collaboration” among like-minded navies.
Close on the heels of MILAN, the Indian NSA participated in the 5th Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) at Male, Maldives and noted that “as maritime neighbours, we face common security challenges. Our national security is deeply intertwined with our collective security aspirations in the region”. India, Maldives and Sri Lanka are the Founding Members of the CSC. Mauritius (now admitted as Member) along with Bangladesh and Seychelles are Observer States.
The NMSC is required to address complex maritime challenges India is facing, as also explore the opportunities to build maritime bridges with neighbours for governance at sea. The challenges can be placed in at least two baskets i.e. maritime security and Blue Economy, while maritime diplomacy would offer numerous opportunity for enhancing security of the oceanic domain.
First, at the national level. By all accounts, the mandate of the NMSC will be to coordinate maritime operations of various security and law enforcement agencies to counter non-traditional maritime security threats and challenges. This would entail delivery of robust and effective response to terrorism, piracy, drug smuggling, gun running, illegal fishing, and human smuggling.
In current times, the North Arabian Sea Crescent (NASC), stretching from the Makran Coast (coastal Baluchistan) to the Red Sea through the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, should be of high concern for the NMSC. This maritime space is witness to gun and drug smuggling. While majority of the illegal weapons consignments are bound westward for Yemen, there were several interceptions of drug shipments that are south bound towards India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The nexus between small arms transporters and drug smugglers is well established and the porous land border with Afghanistan and weak coastal security in Pakistan offers an easy outflow of drugs and weapons. Another important facet of the drug-weapon smuggling network is the role of the dhows that routinely carry such consignments. Unlike the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal does not experience high levels of maritime crime; however, the waters between India and Sri Lanka witness frequent fishermen issues as also low levels of smuggling.
Second is coordination among various maritime law enforcement agencies. There are nearly a dozen ministries and departments that are closely associated with maritime security and the absence of a coordination mechanism can preclude effective law enforcement. For instance, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard function under the Ministry of Defence, Coastal Police which comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the application of security provisions under SOLAS and the ISPS Code to address security-related issues on board ships and the ports in the country, are handled by the Directorate General of Shipping.
Third is about Blue Economy which spans a number of sectors. There is a symbiotic relationship between Blue Economy and security which forms the basis for ocean governance. It is unthinkable to develop Blue Economy with a sufficient degree of security. Closely associated is the importance of good knowledge of legal provisions to plug loopholes in law enforcement. The 1982 UNCLOS sets out the legal framework for world’s ocean and seas, and offers a valuable means for dispute resolution. While the security agencies can support national Blue Economy strategy through enforcement, maritime law education and training is a weak link which the perpetrators are quick to exploit.
Fourth is about diplomacy. The external dimensions of India’s maritime security is predicated on cooperative agendas including capacity building of smaller States. It is led by Prime Minister’s SAGAR vision, his articulations of the five principles at the special session of the UNSC on maritime security, the seven pillars of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), and India’s engagements in multilateral organisations such as the IORA, BIMSTEC, ASEAN and sub-regional initiatives such as the CSC.
In this context, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard have received accolades for being the ‘first responder’ across spectrum of threats and challenges such as maritime terrorism, piracy, maritime crime, to natural disasters requiring search and rescue (SAR) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) under the rubric of ‘delivery of public goods at sea’. In particular the Indian Navy has catapulted itself from being a ‘net security provider’ to ‘preferred security partner’ in the Indian Ocean. The several ‘Mission Sagars’ during Covid-19 pandemic by the Indian Navy are emblematic of a force that ‘stands by’ to provide assistance to Indian Ocean littorals the necessary material help and assistance needed to overcome devastation caused by natural calamities.
While the NMSC’s task is clearly cut out and would receive support of various government agencies in pursuit of its charter, it would be prudent to engage a wider cross section of stakeholders such as the academia, industry and communities in support of joint objectives of economic growth, accelerating social development through the delivery of benefits thereby creating visible economic impacts. Finally, working together will open innovative vistas and new synergies, and these can potentially contribute to national security.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.