By Krishna Kataria, Project Research Associate, Maritime History Society (MHS)
“India will always be a voice of moderation, an advocate of dialogue and a proponent of international law”
Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, UNSC Presidency, 2021
Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi on August 09, 2021, via video conferencing at United Nations Security Council chaired the High-level Open Debate on ‘Enhancing Maritime Security – A Case for International Cooperation’ that focused on ways to effectively counter maritime crime and insecurity and strengthen coordination in the maritime domain. The discussion witnessed the participation of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace, and many more notable ministers.
With taking over of the Presidency at UNSC, India has called for a “framework of mutual understanding and cooperation” on maritime security, in line with the Indian Prime Ministers vision of Panchsheel (5 approaches) ‘Samman (Respect), Samvaad (Dialogue), Sahyog (cooperation), Shanti (Peace) and Samriddhi (Prosperity), which has also been India’s stand on tackling global maritime challenges. In cognizance, it is therefore of significance to understand India’s historical contribution at the UN in a holistic manner, which today has led it to take a prominent role at UNSC.
Prime Minister Chairing the UNSC High-Level Open Debate on
“Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case for International Cooperation”
The focus of the presidential statement was on the primacy of international law, noting that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the legal framework for all activities in the oceans. In the past, when the UNCLOS was adopted, it gave significant new rights to states, but it also established duties for the safety of activities at sea, the fight against crimes at sea and the protection of the maritime environment. It was evident at that time that many states lacked the capacity to execute their rights, perform their duties and contribute to the protection of the global commons. Building such a capacity has been an ongoing challenge ever since.
In the same vein, India has a multi-millennial history of maritime influence across the Indian Ocean, which has acted as a prime confluence to make the sea more secure and a largely conflict-free space. This has been the case since time immemorial when we consider King Rajendra Chola’s naval expedition of the 10th century, or Indian Navy’s more contemporary Humanitarian Relief and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions like the assistance provided during the 2004 Tsunami, the 2020 HADR missions including Operation Samudra Setu, all of which displays the Indian Navy’s remarkable capacity to ensure peace and mitigation of humanitarian crisis in the littorals of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Prime Minister also presented a roadmap at the UNSC meeting for maritime security cooperation. This roadmap primarily outlined five principles as listed below
- To resolve maritime disputes according to international law.
- To remove barriers to promote legitimate maritime trade.
- To ensure cooperation between nations in dealing with maritime threats posed by non-state actors and natural disasters.
- To protect the maritime environment and resources.
- To expand maritime connectivity.
As maritime security was the prime focus at the UNSC debate, the ensuing discussions had a stronger connection with India’s maritime history. This article attempts to recall the roots of India’s maritime growth and traces how the oceans have played an important part in India’s history right from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. Sardar KM Panikkar had once said, “It is the geographical position of India that changes the character of the Indian Ocean”. Therefore, the renewed emphasis on the development of maritime security, coupled with India’s unmitigated stand on the same as the President, UNSC, has to be understood based on India’s historical connection to maritime security.
PM Modi presiding over the open debate on maritime security at UNSC
Source: India Today, Aug 10, 2021
In the same strain as above mentioned five principles at UNSC, since ancient times, India has adopted an inclusive approach to shape its maritime security and solve the issues that pertain to the seas that have a bearing on the nation’s security. Historically Indian maritime dynasties like the Cholas had complete control over the parts of the Indian Ocean. Even K.M Panikkar in his seminal work, ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History’ contended that prior to the 15th Century, there was no power strong enough to challenge the Indians in Indian waters.
India’s maritime security and naval capacity building can be traced to the pre-modern era ruled by the Cholas in the southern part of ancient India. Chola’s naval supremacy did not entirely focus on expanding its naval power but to maintain the good order at sea, they controlled the growing menace of piracy in the waters of Malacca and Singapore Straits. Apart from the powerful Navy, they had kallarans—reformed pirates—who were deputed informally to keep a watch on rogue elements in the seas, which further led to the formation of a coastal defence system. The maritime foothold of ancient kingdoms like Cholas explains that since time immemorial, India’s Maritime Security has been multidimensional and it has stretched its spectrum by protecting the sea lanes and maintaining good order at sea. These strong roots of India’s maritime history also make us understand India’s strong stance for Maritime Security at the International level.
In conclusion, India’s leadership in the debate on maritime security has boosted its standing as a key player in the shared commons and hence, it is very important to reflect upon the key historical nuances that have strategically shaped India’s maritime domain. In cognizance, one of the key tasks of the Council President at the UNSC is to represent their government’s priorities, while also making a significant contribution at the global stage. This perhaps explained India’s push to adopt the UNSC’s first-ever presidential statement on ‘Maritime Security’. Navigating the path of the presidency will provide a much-needed fillip to a pan-regional development of capabilities, which is India’s core strength area. This will also help develop the capacities of IOR nations, which are in line with India’s core defence deliverables. This effort would go a long way in strengthening India’s position as a ‘First Responder’ and the region’s ‘Preferred Security Partner’ while promoting stability, enhancing security and preserving peace in the Indian Ocean Region.
United Nations. “Issuing Presidential Statement, Security council Underlines Importance of Maritime Safety, Safeguarding Oceans for Legitimate Use”. UN Press Release, August 9, 2021. Retrieved from, https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14598.doc.htm
Ministry of External Affairs, “Prime Minister to chair UN Security Council High-Level Open Debate on “Enhancing Maritime Security: A Case For International Cooperation”. MEA Press Release, August 08, 2021. Retrieved from, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/34149/Prime_Minister_to_chair_UN_Security_Council_HighLevel_Open_Debate_on_Enhancing_Maritime_Security_A_Case_For_International_Cooperation
Mandira Nayar. “ Lord of the Ocean”. The Week, December 27, 2020. Retrieved from, https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2020/12/17/lord-of-the-ocean.html
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Shringla, Harsh Vardhan. “From Lothal to the horseshoe table: India’s maritime journey”. Economic times, August 11, 2021. Retrieved from, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/from-lothal-to-the-horseshoe-table-indias-maritime-journey/articleshow/85221398.cms?from=mdr