Changing geopolitical scenario in Indian Ocean Region, important to protect our interests: NSA Ajit Doval

Maritime domain is a multilateral construct, a nation cannot unilaterally decide, says the National Security Adviser

Maritime domain is a multilateral construct, a nation cannot unilaterally decide, says the National Security Adviser

The changing geopolitical scenario in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) had led to “international rivalries, competition and clash of interests” and it was important for India to protect its interests in this area, said National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval on Wednesday, while calling for seamless coordination among all stakeholders involved in the maritime domain. He stated that the maritime domain was a multilateral construct and a nation “cannot unilaterally decide” in the maritime domain.

He was addressing the first meeting of the Multi-Agency Maritime Security Group (MAMSG) chaired by the newly appointed National Maritime Security Coordinator (NMSC) Vice-Admiral Ashok Kumar (Retd.) which for the first time brought together maritime security coordinators from all 13 coastal States and Union Territories (UTs) as well as other stakeholders.

“In the national security discourse, maritime security has its own specific emphasis,” Mr. Doval said. Stating that land borders and maritime borders were very different, he said conventional land border got a place of prominence. And that had been the primary focus. Not only because all wars were fought on the land borders. Land border and maritime border were very different.

“Maritime borders cannot be fenced. We cannot have the concept of zero per cent tolerance for intrusion. So we need technology and other ways of countering it,” he said. “Concept of sovereignty on land is territorial and integral. But in the maritime security front it is calibrated, where territorial waters are sovereign territory but as we forward to contiguous zone and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) there is clear demarcation of rights and duties.”

He further noted that the EEZ was not part of sovereign state but one had pre-eminence over the resources. In this regard, Mr. Doval elaborated, “Disputes and settlements of land borders are mostly bilateral. The two sides sit together and decide where the border should be…”

The maritime domain was a multilateral construct where there were laws of seas which were not bilateral, he noted. “A nation cannot unilaterally decide in the maritime domain. The process is complex…,” he said and an international, near consensus was needed, for example the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.

However, he stressed, “Just because the focus is less. But it’s important and challenges are more than land borders.” The interests in the maritime domain were much more, strategic, geopolitical and economic.

Last November, the Union Cabinet had approved the creation of the post of NMSC, under the NSA, at the National Security Council Secretariat fulfilling a long-standing recommendation of the 2001 Group of Ministers (GOM) Report on ‘Reforming the National Security System’.

‘Seas are areas of rivalry’

Stating that “seas are areas of rivalry”, Mr. Doval said India had got some unique advantage in the maritime domain. “It is the largest littoral state in IOR. We are also centrally positioned. We have over 1,300 islands…,”

Stating that there was great economic potential, he pointed that important trade routes passed through. Around 60-65% of international trade passed through the region and over 95% of the country’s trade.

Seamless coordination stressed

In the backdrop of the complexities involved and interests, the NSA underscored the need for seamless coordination at all levels and said the NMSC was part of the larger national security apparatus.

While India being a peninsular position was a great advantage, the cardinal principle was the country’s vulnerabilities were directly proportional to assets, Mr. Doval said adding that the more India developed, the more assets it created, the more trade and commerce increases, greater would be the threat and vulnerability in the maritime domain.

Noting that India had seven important maritime neighbours, the NSA stressed that it was important for the country to protect its interests in this arena. “We have certain responsibilities, responsibilities towards our maritime neighbours like disaster management, security assistance and such other things,” he said.

New threats

He also flagged new threats — sea, cyber and space — while stating that threats of yesteryears would play a definite role as also the growing threat non-traditional security threats. “Technology will play a very big role…” he stressed as also investment in human resources. “Economic interests and coastal infrastructure are critical to exploit our maritime resources,” he added.

The MAMSG is envisaged to provide a standing and effective mechanism to ensure coordination of all aspects of maritime security, including coastal and offshore security, as well as fill the institutional, policy, technological and operational gaps in meeting present and future security challenges. Importantly, the group will also address maritime contingencies requiring an urgent and coordinated response, officials said.

On the discussions, officials said that a number of crucial policy issues on maritime security were taken up, including “mapping of existing orders and policies on maritime security to identify gaps, review of standard operating procedures for maritime contingencies, security of ports and coastal infrastructure, creation of a national maritime database, capacity building of coastal States and UTs and promotion of blue economy.”

India is a maritime nation with interests that extend well beyond its maritime zones. 95% of Indian trade by volume is maritime and routed via 12 major and over 200 non-major ports. Also, over 90% of the hydrocarbon requirements are met through seaborne imports and offshore production. With over three lakh fishing vessels, the marine fisheries sector is also a major contributor to the economy and livelihood of the fishing community.

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