Looking South from the South

Looking South from the South

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

We have been hearing about looking and acting east, west and north, but not south, but the time has come to look and act south as the biggest treasures and the most dangerous threats come from the vast oceans in the south of India. We neglected the south as the marauding hordes which came from the west and the north appeared more formidable than the economic and cultural invaders from across the oceans.

In the middle of the 18th century, the French and the British East India Company initiated a protracted struggle for military control of South India, but the foreign threat came from the mainland and not from the ocean. The rulers of the southern states made peace with the British by accepting the paramountcy of the British Crown. Essentially, no direct threat was perceived from the oceans. The arrival of Christianity and the Muslim Arab merchants were welcomed. The Zamorins of Calicut, sought the help of the Arabs to dominate the maritime trade on the Malabar Coast for centuries after the disintegration of the Chera Dynasty.

The religious and cultural diversity of India came from the South and this was seen as positive. Except for Tipu Sultan, who tried to save his land from foreign invaders, most South Indian leaders accepted trade and cultural contacts as beneficial. There was a sense of comfort that, with the high Himalayas in the north and the vast oceans in the south, India was a haven of peace.

The invincibility of the Himalayas was proved wrong in 1962 . The Chinese aggression was nothing short of perfidy which engaged our attention ever since. Pakistan on the west and the east also preoccupied us till the liberation of Bangladesh. We had no big neighbors to the south to pose a threat and the island states like Sri Lanka and Maldives had cultural and trade links with India which made them natural allies.

During the Cold War, we began to see the dangers of the presence of foreign powers in the Indian Ocean and with the help of NAM we created the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace, (IOZOP) which was meant to eliminate the foreign military presence in the Indian Ocean. The focus was more on the military bases like Diego Garcia than on the passage of naval ships and therefore, the Soviet Union and China gave lip service to the IOZOP. The western interests were protected in the UN Ad hoc Committee on the Indian Ocean by Australia and the envisaged conference on the IOZOP never took place.

A Conference of the littoral and hinterland states, which was an interim measure, revealed a deep division between India and the other regional states as Pakistan raised the issue of the threat from regional powers and Sri Lanka seemed to support Pakistan. Sri Lanka also wanted some cooperation with foreign powers for exploration of maritime resources. The whole concept of IOZOP became ineffective in the process. A Pakistani proposal for a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone became a bone of contention as it was patently hypocritical and diversionary.

After the end of the Cold War India began cooperating with external powers and even began military exercises with them. Asia Pacific and later Indo- Pacific became a region where China became active and the US and other western powers began to look towards India to contain China. The Quad (US, India, Japan and Australia) came into being much to the annoyance of China. After the advent of the Trump Administration, the Quad became further diluted as the US scaled down its involvement in the Indian Ocean. The focus shifted to the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) of the Chinese, which was meant not only to dominate the Indo-Pacific, but the entire world. India remains the only country to stay out of BRI not only on account of sovereignty issues in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, but also because of the threat it poses to the whole region. After the Wuhan Summit and the Chennai Connect, it appears that we have diluted our opposition to the BRI, but China does not appear to have changed its position.

The Chinese threat from the south became evident when the Chinese began to create “a string of pearls” composed of our small neighbours to suffocate India and countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives fell victim to it, lured by massive financial assistance to these countries. The instability in these countries also made their leaders dependent on China’s support. Rajapakse In Sri Lanka and Yameen in Maldives allowed China and Pakistan to make inroads into India’s periphery. There have been improvements in recent months, but those countries are likely to play India and China against each other for their own benefit.

The vast oceans form a formidable space with places and depths that are still unexplored. The immeasurable wealth there is matched by incredible dangers. Historically, the oceans have been the gateway for explorers, invaders, crusaders and traders to new continents and shores, bringing the world closer. Maritime history provides evidence of trade via sea routes occurring at least two millennia back. Romans, Egyptians, Mediterranean’s, Persians, and Scandinavians have contributed to ancient maritime history and its growth. The Indian subcontinent has been central to the growth of maritime history. The strategic relevance of oceans, waterways and navies is well discussed in Kautilya’s Arthashastra as well, highlighting the significance of ordained for securing and utilising waterways and the oceans

Maritime security is essential to ensure a holistic approach towards the governance, use and maintenance of Oceans.

In the beginning of 20th century history of international relations, the role of the seas fell within the purview of traditional security with naval presence to safeguard borders and port security being the core of the maritime security architecture. The 1956 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas conference was the first step towards addressing the territorial water claims on a global level and going beyond the discussion on naval presence to include access to resources as a major aspect. The establishment of rules by the UN was to ensure the access to natural resources was feasible and accessible to all countries. The demarcation of territorial waters and the subsequent necessity to guard them are at the heart of maritime security.

The need to look south from the south itself is a new phenomenon, which needs further strengthening. When the Air Force set up the Southern Command in Thiruvananthapuram, speculation was that this was merely to store away our assets in a secure place. The Air Force presence here has become a means to look south from the south. India’s maritime security strategy today focuses on all aspects of the challenges that are affecting the health and the future of oceans and countries. As it combines the traditional and non-traditional security paradigms of maritime security, it provides a cohesive definition that is apt to address prevalent challenges such as environmental degradation, migration, climate change, energy security, human trafficking and piracy among other non-traditional challenges. Instead of seeking foreign assistance, India provided relief and rehabilitation for our neighbours for the first time during the tsunami in 2004. India is also the leading fighter against piracy in the Indian Ocean today. India is so vast that a major section of the population has never seen the sea, while another section has not seen the snowy mountains. Policies should not be formulated by these The blue sea should not only safeguard our maritime borders but also contribute to prosperity through a flourishing blue economy.