HomeInternational Development & DiplomacyCoastal and Maritime Security of the Indo-Pacific- India’s Strategy for Shared Leadership

Coastal and Maritime Security of the Indo-Pacific- India’s Strategy for Shared Leadership


International trade has increased leaps and bounds with globalisation and so did sea-borne trade. Sea-borne trade depends upon free movement near the choke points and the Straits that is considered as global commons. Coastal borders, gulfs, territorial waters, cargo terminals, waterways, air and sea transportation, ports and container securityentered the paradigm of security; especially maritime security. These are also the regions where illegal movement of arms, narcotics and humans happen; with piracy, crime and terrorism infesting the region like in no other times. Movement of people and resources led to focussing on not only maritime issues but also to know the internal strife of the states; especially in the Asian region that includes North Africa; which is culturally and historically conjoined to Asia mostly West Asia. The world is focusing on Asia and Asianisation of global politics at an asymmetric level. The emergence of ‘Indo-Pacific,’ the confluence of two seas led to the scholarship on understanding the regional challenges of armed conflict, armed robbery, terrorist threats, container security, maritime territorial disputes, illegal fishing, serious socio-political disturbance; in places like Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria that made the study on Coastal security a central topic for ‘maritime security.’ The paper will look at the urgency to deal with the geopolitical construct of the ‘Indo-Pacific,’ the challenges and issues of coastal and maritime security. India being a maritime country it’s capabilities in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) to thwart the asymmetric threats in the region and the forces that counter the concept like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that will have a special mention due to it being an anti-thesis to Indo-Pacific Concept. Finally, the paper will deal with the way forward; where cooperation and engagements in the region and their ability for consensus building and collective decision-making with shared leadership is proposed. Thus, bringing Multipolarity to the forefront and diluting the US-China rivalry. The emergence of Middle Power Communion within the Asian Context is most lucrative an arrangement with India at the forefront.


International Relations has taken a maritime turn due to changes in the global political equations.The emphasis on coastal borders and the ocean waters became one of the core issues of maritime security concerns.Coastal border is unlike land border a little more complicated, but not to say that land borders are easily understood. International politics has shaped, redistributed and even altered boundaries and sovereignties and hence it becomes imperative to understand how borders and boundaries play the role in both internal and external security. Coastal borders become more complicated with changing strategies and increased movement on the sea as nearly 90 percent of the world trade is done on sea.The traditional and non-traditional aspects of security have somehow got merged and intermixed since terrorism, piracy and trafficking (human, drugs and cyber), in detecting contraband across nations, illegal fishing and territorial disputes, all these had entered the traditional domain of security concerns. This made the importance of gulfs, straits, ports and borders, territorial waters, cargo terminals, waterways and air and sea transportation to understand security; especially maritime security of individual countries. The emerging economies and globalisation are directly interlinked increasing the importance of trade and investment across countries. Patrolling and surveillance mechanisms required technological enhancement and international collaboration.Environmental awareness and sustainability are equally important issues of the Indo-Pacific region; especially in oceanography, marine biology and hydrography to improvise on marine resources for environmental sustainability.The emerging concept of Indo-Pacific has varied impact on security, diplomacy and politics that could change the course of events in the region; especially because it is evolving as an Asian concept with Asian values.

Coastal Security and Maritime Security

Coastal security is about both individual countries coastal border security which stretches till its EEZ of 240 nautical miles and also included the maritime strategy that involves the littoral countries in securing the waters by denying air, land and sea access to other countries that are entering without permission. Maritime concepts of ‘sea denial, sea control and power projection’were the core factors of maritime strategy of every country.‘Sea Power’ has been a major concern for ancient empires and has been the major weapon of the colonial empires in the world. After World War II, various laws were brought out by the victors, also read as Europe and US together or the colonisers over the colonised; who in the 21stCentury have created a space for itself in the International political platform; that is now called the ‘Rules-Based Order.” During the brief phase of US unipolarity the international order was maintained through NATO and other US alliances. After globalisation the slow rise of Asian giants and the visible and vibrant rise of China is thawing the hegemonic structure of US leading to further challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and a slow but sure rise of multipolarity.

The first challenge of the region is the US-China Rivalry. While Donald Trump had irritated the thin line of tolerance between both the countries, Joe Biden has toed a similar path for the Indo-Pacific security and has further strengthened the procedures of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) among the member countries of Australia, Japan, India and US. China’s aggressive behaviourincreased with Australia after Australia asked for an enquiry into the origin of the Corona Virus and the International community sided Australia. Moreover, US’ attempt to maintain the ‘Rules based Order’ has many takers in the region as well as the extra-regional powers like UK, France, Netherlands andGermany (to a certain extent) who have become enthusiastic in developing not only a maritime strategy in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, but also collaborating in naval exercises and deploying submarines, for example UK became a dialogue partner of ASEAN to be more involved with the region in trade, security, science and technology, education and Climate Change issues and has also engaged itself in naval exercise with Quad on the Indian Ocean and near the South China Sea in July 2021.Australia, UK and US have formed a new security partnership named AUKUS to counter China and for Australia to avail nuclear submarines.

Second challenge of the Indo-Pacific region is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has indeed created a meticulous Chinese strategy and influence all over the world. China’s aggression in the South China Sea, its ability in Anti-Access and Air Denial (A2AD), its reach in the port areas of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar and its military base in Djibouti and a potential base at Vanuatu has made many believe that China is attempting to ‘re-order the region.’The protracted dispute of the South China Sea (SCS) on the Indo-Pacific is fast assuming a Cold War like situation of countries taking sides with either US and China.Moreover, SCS is the bridge between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean, that carries $1.2 trillion trade annually and is also an energy life-line for the north-east Asia and China even in the past. Rebecca Stratingaptly wrote that the “Geostrategic value of SCSlies in its potential to transform into a deep-sea for basing nuclear-attack submarines capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads and useful for forward deployment to other areas”and the main aim of the regional or littoral countries will be to stop this region from becoming a war zone.

The Third challenge to the Indo-Pacific region is the role played by the littoral countries; especially that of India. Indian trade by sea is 95 percent in volume and 68 percent by value on the Indian Ocean, making the Arabian Sea to South China Sea crucial for its economic growth and survival. China’s Naval policies in the Indo-Pacific region, challenges India’s presence in the Indian Ocean and ASEAN, Japan and Australia’s presence in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. SCS dispute is impacting the free routes near the Malacca straits that has become a major concern.The control or supremacy in the sea lines of communication by China has brought the littoral countries together to contain or hedge China. The issues of freedom of Navigation and respect for International Law of the Seas and maritime security became the prime movers for India’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific; which was equally the strategy of US.

Fourth endemic challenge of the Indo-Pacific region is the increasing vulnerability due to Non-Traditional Security (NTS)that seriously concerns the littorals. Trafficking of arms, drugs and fuel across borders; like in Algeria, Tunisia and Libyan borders have strong ramifications on the Indian Ocean security. The intensity of the demand for arms and the quantity of arms that were smuggled across these regions has been one of the factors of the on-going Syrian crisis and also is a phenomenon that “the existence of arms caches and its consequence of possible terrorists’ attacks with these arms”cannot be ignored.Apart from that the Indian Ocean has large sparsely patrolled region and hence both strategic and tactical interdiction is quite limited and hence the smugglers move large shipments into these regions; especially in the western Indian Ocean, and from Mozambique and Tanzania the drugs are moving towards Maldives and Sri Lanka. Security of the trading vessels or container security largely depends upon the security of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) with the significance of the littoral and the choke points increases; hence both India and China are projecting their power in securing the SLOCs.Cyber-crime and piracy have increased the vulnerabilities of the littoral countries due to their lack of capabilities and awareness on intelligence sharing with either the US or with other countries of the region. India being at the forefront of all these backlashes needs to not only increase its capabilities but also collaborate for intelligence sharing and logistic support. India’s capabilities on Maritime Domain Awareness is a case in point.

Maritime Domain Awareness

One of the major factors of maritime security is Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) which comes with ‘coastal security strategy and operational decision-making,’‘risk management and Vessel tracking system,early detection and resolution.US President George W Bush mentioned that “The heart of the Maritime Domain Awareness program is accurate information, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of all vessels, cargo, and people extending well beyond our traditionalmaritime boundaries.” In short MDA is “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime domain that could impact security, economy, environment of a country, a “cornerstone for a successful counterterrorist and maritime law enforcement operation on the one hand and to check on piracy, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and migration, arms smuggling and contraband, even responding to natural disasters.” Naturally this gigantic and a crucial task of ‘high degree of situational analysis’ cannot be done by an individual country but requires collaboration with the littoral countries; especially those that are friends and partners, international agencies, civil society and private sectors and industrialists for quick access to information, coordination of activities and innovate new activities.’Both MDA and Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) are equally important which needs to be studied further for an enhanced foreign policy for regional collaboration, capacity-building and skill development.

India’s role as a ‘regional security provider on the Indian Ocean was hampered when in 2008, a terrorist attack happened in Mumbai from Sea’ and from then on MDA became the main strategy for maritime security. MDA will be ‘extended beyond its coastal waters and EEZ to the wider Indian Ocean’ which will be a collaborative effort along with key stakeholders of the region. India’s emphasis is on developing MDA near the Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and Ombai Straits, and also at the east coast of Africa. China’s submarine threat in the Indian Ocean ‘compelled the Indian navy for a permanent surveillance of the Oceans critical sea lines and choke points or straits by ‘mission ready’ warships.India established a National Committee for Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security headed by the Cabinet and led by the Indian Navy aided by the Coast Guard, Marine Policy and other state and central agencies and in 2014 Ministry of Defence started an Information Management and Analysis Centre and National Command Control Communication and Intelligence Network, with joint operation centres at Mumbai, Vishakhapatnam, Kochi and Port Blair. India launched National Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean region (IFC-IOR) in 2018, a three-pronged approach a) confidence and capacity building among partners in swift and accurate information sharing, b) transparency of maritime environment and c) use of high-tech state of the art methods and analytical tools.India’s electronic and signals intelligence are improving considerably beyond its coastal waters towards Mauritius, Oman which is crucial to monitor China-Pakistan duo on the Indian Ocean. India-Japan collaboration through the Asia-Africa Economic Corridor helps latently in surveillance of the region. The Malabar and Milan naval exercises and also bilateral naval exercises have also helped in checking on Piracy. India needs to focus on its MDA by bringing in the littoral countries for better information sharing and confidence building and skill training.

India had limited its involvement in the Quad and has enhanced its relation with France over AUKUS alliance, and India is also reluctant in sharing information or opening up to US near its core surveillance stations like Port Blair. India is unwilling in both ‘material and doctrinal terms’ in getting closer to US.Furthermore, India is cautious in getting closer to US which had a long relation with Pakistan and its recent advances on the bid for FONOP (Freedom of Navigation) on India’s EEZ without prior permission and also making a statement on India’s excessive maritime claims on Lakshwadeep are just a confirmation that US is itself reluctant in maintaining close alliances with Asia. This opens an alternative to India in bringing all the littoral countries together like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea on the south-eastern Indian Ocean along with South Africa and Iran within the fold for maritime security at a level playing field. India’s Indian Ocean Initiative can be a lucrative medium to start on issues of maritime and coastal security. India’s ability in institution building will be once more explored. With the Pandemic, maritime security has increased another aspect of global governance of health and have included international collaboration to improve international supply chains so that economy of countries improves. One major aspect to understand Indian and the Pacific coastal politics is to clearly articulate China’s BRI.Moreover, China’s advances on the Indian Ocean made the regional countries more aware of the emerging challenges and made it imperative for collaborative efforts; especially in the fields of intelligence sharing and coastal surveillance.

Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

Why is there so much of hype and anxiety over China’s BRI? Is China set to interpret international politics from the Chinese point of view creating yet another rules for an international order? The older name of BRI was One Belt One Road (OBOR) a Maritime Silk Road; which was still in use in the Chinese circles has an air of dominance which is camouflaged within its politics. The road stretches from the North and East of Africa to the whole of Southeast Asia and on the other hand it has a land silk road covering the Mongolia, Russia, Eurasian countries and West Asia and to parts of Europe.Nearly 64 percent of Chinese trade transited the South China Sea (SCS) in 2016 while Japan had 42 percent and US only 14 percent.SCS has thus become a ‘global flashpoint’ and the regional and extra-regional countries are articulating their relation with China with theirsingular viewpoint on SCS. China’s dependence on Malacca Strait had also led to its strategic aggressiveness and assertion for an undisrupted transaction by sea. China was trying not tostorm the already troubled region of West Asia where US hegemony reins. China maintained its relation strictly for trade and investment and ‘secure energy supplies, export market for finished goods and find new opportunities for investments’ for some time until the OBOR has come forth. China had to support its growing economy and had to gain an upper ground on seaborne trade, making an intersection of geoeconomics to geopolitics. The grand plan of OBOR is one of the biggest ever taken up by any country until now. Such a huge project required a longer process of strategizing, especially in choice of the countries and the ways of approaching the countries. Initially the project targeted the economically weak countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Cambodia for cooperation and connectivity of ports, that culminated in bringing its first naval base at Djibouti. The naval base was addressed as an anti-piracy mission at the Gulf of Eden. Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran can become next targets of China for a fully equipped bases that will give it a stronghold over the West Asian region and on the Indian Ocean to a large extent. The BRI as suggested by China to be solely an economic project has changed into a full-fledged political and diplomatic strategy to triumph. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CEPC), the flagship project within OBOR on India-Pakistan disputed region (POK); i.e., Baluchistan for building the Gwadar port is an indication that China may disregard India by making it a political dispute. Moreover, ‘the port gives China the transhipment facility to energy supply of the Persian Gulf that may prevent it to depend so much on Malacca Straits’ and also to counter US Pivot to Asia-Pacific and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).Interestingly China’s strategy in the region is similar to all the rising economies in the region like India, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea but minus the hegemonic assertion. The fear is also that Chinese standards will be imposed if major countries accept it as a basic standard, for example the high speed railway technology, energy and telecommunications (Huawie, ZTE, 5G Tech).While India, Japan, Australia and the US formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) as an overall security provider of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean, there is a potential counter-Quad formation taking place with China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and probably Turkey. In the whole process India seems to be losing its influence first at Myanmar over Stiwee, the tripartite pipeline via Bangladesh and then with Iran over Chabahar, the trilateral pipeline with Pakistan and Iran. But India could strike other bilateral deal with Iran over underwater pipeline and with Myanmar in minilateral groups like BIMSTECK, Kaladan Multimodal projects etc. Hence India needs to focus on diplomacy more than ever and Indo-Pacific as a concept has given it the platform.

Indo-Pacific as an Enduring Concept for Coastal and Maritime Security

Indo-Pacific is a geopolitical concept that emerged a couple of decades back and is still evolving with every country in the region making their strategic move towards the concept. Firstly; Indo-Pacific is a maritime concept; with a continental inclination. Indian Ocean is more active today than the Pacific or the Atlantic, nearly 100,000 ships transit the Indian Ocean annually.Indo-Pacific region is concerned not only with the aforementioned issues but is also evolving as an Asian concept due to the emerging Asian economic giants. And on the other hand, the Indo-Pacific concept is also dealing with the countries; especially West Asia and North Africa that are in severe political crisis; with possibilities of crime and terrorism taking much more brutal turn than before. Hence Indo-Pacific is used both as a concept and as a geographical region by the stakeholders and the emerging powers of the region like India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam or ASEAN together along with the United States (mostly without it). Indo-Pacific; is emerging as a concept of cooperation, collaboration and engagement not only from a security perspective but also from a diplomatic, cultural and economic angles. Along with the regional countries, Europe is expanding its understanding of the Indo-Pacific and getting involved in the region, like UK, France, Germany and Netherlands. In fact, the major intention of the European states is to protect the ‘Western Rules Based Order’ that is being threatened by China’s rise. Secondly, to secure US hegemony and democracy, and making UNCLOS as the basic standard for an International Order. On the other hand, the stakeholders of the region may not want to join the Western or Chinese groups that could lead to a Cold War like situation but want to enhance on the concept of Multipolarity and institutionalise the region as a ‘Zone of Peace.’ Japan, India, Indonesia, Australia Vietnam and South Korea sharing the leadership for making the confluence of the seas an enduring concept of peace and stability and be instrumental in thwarting a war between US and China. Maintain the global commons as per the international law.

The focus of Asia in the present decades is not only due to rising economies and hence a balance-of-power game, but it is more due to the rising idea, cultural consciousness and historical and civilisational ethics that needs perpetuation, unlike the empire building of the west says Amitav Acharya; like Okakura Tensing made a statement“Japan will be the mirror of the whole of Asian Consciousness.”Seemingly, Japan’s premier Shinzo Abe was the first in 2007 to mention the ‘confluence of two seas’ and their cooperation. The Asian identity is an attempt to find a procedure that could be more enduring, rational and considerate of the present conditions of Climate Change, aspiration for inclusivity and respect plurality for sustained human growth. Rising Asia has a different statement to make to the world; especially after the Global Pandemic the need for cooperation and building a strong global governance mechanism has come to the fore. Inter-national or inter-state has given way to ‘Global’ concerns. Understanding globalisation from a newer perspective of collaboration and engagement rather than rivalry, conflict and power games.

The Way Forward-India’s Role and Strategy

India and Indo-Pacific are closely entwined due to the very fact that India has a coastline of 5422 touching 12 states and Union Territories, and an EEZ of 2.013 million sq km.Border issues with China, Pakistan were mainly due to the lack of proper delimitation and demarcation, mostly because it is man-made and not having natural boundaries like lakes and rivers.India’s border disputes and the trauma of partition has made Pakistan and China; India’s core contentions. ButIndia has a natural advantage being at the strategic position in Indo-Pacific and trade, connectivity and communication gets easier due to the movement on the oceans. India has to come out of its bureaucratic slumber and get the projects working and issues solved with regional countries faster, in order to get its position on track. India’s maritime research and capabilities needs to be regularly checked and enhanced.

As Dr Prabir De of Research and Information System (RIS) had aptly said in a webinar that ‘Institution building is important since the countries will stick to the region and not build sub-regions of their own.’ India’s foreign policy, ever since its independence in 1947 was for aPan-Asian Solidarity. India’s independent foreign policy decision-making and its emphasis on ‘interference of any extra-regional actors (especially US and China) in the Indian Ocean region will be considered as a national security threat’has continued with similar verve even today. Moreover, India’s nuclear ethics has been ‘minimum credible deterrence’ against China proves it to have the Asian values. India’s strategic outlook off late has been to focus on building ‘asymmetric warfare capabilities’ to be able to man its land, air and sea threats. India’s shift from Non-Alignment to Poly-alignment is equipped to be more security driven and increase its engagements with countries who are both high profile in international standing along with small states for diplomatic leverage and increase its weaponry and engage in militaryexercises, information sharing, logistics support and humanitarian operations. India’s strategic outlook became more indulgent, vibrant and bold in the present century. The recent increase in territorial disputes between India and China, the Doklam standoff, Galwan melee or skirmish and many others from 2017 till date, China’s submarine threat in the Indian Ocean made Indian strategists think of ‘managing China’s rise that can benefit India without compromising India’s sovereignty or national interest.’ India’s strategic planners are yet to devise an alternative mechanism for regional influence and it will be the confluence of the middle powers. Australia, likewise is expecting India to be of help in dealing with China. The stakeholders of Indo-Pacific are well aware that an open combat will have to be completely negated and it requires a rational plan. What India needs at this juncture is not only to develop its maritime prowess but also to have a lucrative and enduring partnership with the littoral countries. India’s idea of ‘inclusivity and plurality’ within its foreign policy is also extended towards the Indo-Pacific construct. Some scholars believe that multipolarity is yet to come, the players of the Indo-Pacific region will prove it wrong, by showing how the middle powers, emerging powers all together form a union to thwart US-China rivalry and also not allow a typical western domination with a changed scenario of a fusion of Euro-Asian power system and accommodate Asian values also within the ‘Rules-Based-Order.” Huge White interestingly points out that “Indo-Pacific is a popular concept in the region since it is reassuring’ and has so much potential in building an Asian strategic paradigm which is bereft of World War and Cold War politics. The time has come for building a Multipolar Multilateralism.


Maritime Security can be used broadly to include every issue that has its connection to the seas. But the countries need to focus on maritime security that meant security threats emanating from the traditional and non-traditional aspects as mentioned in the paper. This does make Climate Change to be kept in perspective while operations were taken up on the seas; since such a reality cannot be ignored. Moreover,India needs to prioritise on its understanding of threat and act with urgency. The bureaucratic delay or undermining the efficacy of ‘direct and imminent threat’ factor on the sea needs an overhaul if maritime security of the Indian Ocean is a priority. The strategy that needs to be followed in the present times will be collaboration among the littoral countries for a sustained maritime security.



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