Basic precepts of maritime orientation are challenged in the Indo-Pacific, and India needs to compete in the evolving paradigm, Indian Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh said on Friday.
He said against this backdrop, competition in the region is also becoming more diverse, involving levers of diplomacy, commerce, ideology, values, science and technology – apart from the military.
Speaking on “Transforming the Indian Navy to be a key maritime force in the Indo-Pacific” at the United Service Institution of India (USI), he stressed that the most important element of the Indo-Pacific is an idea whose time has come — a region that is the centre of gravity of global interactions.
“Indo-Pacific, by contrast, is maritime by its very nature. And, as the saying goes, seas unite, they don’t divide. Given a predominant maritime orientation, there is a natural tendency for nations to engage, to collaborate,” he said.
He said that with seas as the lifelines of global trade and prosperity, and nearly 50 per cent of global trade passing through the Indo-Pacific, most nations within – and beyond – the Indo-Pacific have a core interest in keeping the region free for commerce.
Which is also why concepts such as like-minded partners, free and open and inclusive seas, have gained greater currency, concurrent with the growing relevance of the idea of Indo-Pacific, Admiral Singh pointed out.
He said that India is fortunate to be blessed with an excellent maritime geography, one that is well-suited to harness the overall maritime orientation of the Indo-Pacific. “But let us remember that, maritime orientation, of and by itself, does not assure global conciliation and consensus,” he said, citing some of the most intense conflicts in history from Athens and Sparta, to Britain and France and the Pacific campaigns of WWII.
“So we have to be aware of the evolving nature of competition and contestation in the region,” he noted.
The Navy chief said that what India is seeing today is some states applying a land- centric approach and territorial mindset to the basic idea of the global commons, attempting to seek greater domination and control.
“And, therefore, the increasing challenge to international rules, regulations and reinterpretation of conventions, which is turning the global commons into contested seas – Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum to Mare Clausum,” he said.
“And when we talk of the jostling, it has taken the form of a complex competition continuum that shapes the Indo-Pacific today.”
In this, three elements stand out, he said. “First we are transitioning to a period of busy peace, where the binaries of peace and conflict are becoming less relevant.”
“We were, earlier used to the idea of war or peace, but this is more diffuse now, with actors using diverse playbook of actions and counter-actions within this continuum on a day-to-day basis, whilst mostly remaining below the threshold of the conflict.”
Secondly there is no linear escalation ladder within this continuum, he said. “Instead, we have an inter-woven spider’s web of escalation, where actions in one domain may be responded by an action in another domain.”
“Thirdly, we must face the fact that autocratic powers enjoy a natural advantage within this competition continuum, applying all the leverages in focussed manner; something we can call ‘Sharp Power’ to undermine and weaken the very sources of power of a democracy – attacking free media, social media, election processes, financial institutions, etc … turning strengths of democratic nations into weaknesses. Work from Inside Out rather than Outside In,” he said.
In sum, Indo-Pacific brings with it attendant and evolving challenges where the rules of the game are changing, he noted, adding: “We need to exist and compete in this evolving paradigm.”
The Navy chief said that Indo-Pacific offers us that prospect, a canvas, on which we can sketch our future progress.
“To my mind, therefore, the Indo-Pacific really is India’s theatre of opportunity that we need to harness,” he said.
About the Navy’s role to protect and further India’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, he said the first line of effort is to collaborate and cooperate with like-minded nations for comprehensive maritime security.
The second is for the force’s readiness to operate in the competition continuum and ‘win the peace’ on day-to-day basis, the third is building maritime domain awareness and understanding, the fourth line of effort is coordinating efforts across government stakeholders, so that we are ready across multiple levers and domains and the fifth is effective long-term perspective planning, which is extremely crucial in a resource constrained environment to develop options across the spectrum of competition and conflict.