“I am honoured to be amidst you today. Over the years, the Shangri-La Dialogue has grown into an important forum which enables wide ranging discussion on security issues relevant to the regional and global community. This event brings together a wide spectrum of participants who play important roles in the defence and security developments. It provides us an opportunity to reflect on the major security challenges of our time and contributes significantly to the strengthening of processes to address these important issues.
I must thank the International Institute for Strategic Studies for inviting me to share my thoughts on the issue of Maritime Freedoms, which has attained a high and urgent resonance in the current global security paradigm.
I begin with a reflection on the genesis of the maritime freedoms debate which has become so salient in our security discourse today. The interplay between the concepts of the Closed Seas and the Open Seas was linked to the changing needs of the powers which sought to control maritime trade. The revival of the concept of ‘Open Seas’ gained relevance when the needs of the Industrial Revolution in the West had to be fuelled by supplies from Asia and Africa.
Unlike in the previous centuries, maritime freedoms cannot be the exclusive prerogative of a few. Large parts of the common seas cannot be declared exclusive to any one country or group. We must find the balance between the rights of nations and the freedoms of the world community in the maritime domain. Like individual freedoms, the fullness of maritime freedoms can be realized only when all states, big and small, are willing to abide by universally agreed laws and principles.
It has been widely recognised that maritime security is an indispensable and fundamental condition for the welfare and economic security of this region and the global community. There may be different perspectives of maritime freedoms in history, but for us in the 21st century, it is important to reaffirm the importance of maritime security and freedom of navigation for all, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is the essence of maritime freedoms in the age of interdependence and globalization. These freedoms are needed by all and their observance is in the interests of all, given the multifarious threats to maritime freedoms.
Today, the threats and challenges to maritime security and maritime freedoms arise from piracy, terrorism and organized crime and also, from the conflicting interests of countries – these may arise from the quest for political influence or military dominance, maritime territorial disputes, competitive exploitation of marine resources or environmental challenges.
India’s own security and prosperity is intimately tied to the security and prosperity of the extended Indian Ocean Region, which also includes the Asia Pacific region. A significant percentage of our global mercantile trade – almost 90% by volume and 77% by value – is carried by sea. India has a coastline of over 7500 kilometres; the chain of the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands to the West and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the East, cover more than 600 islands, the northern most tip being just 10 nautical miles from Myanmar and the southernmost tip 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. Our EEZ is more than 2.5 million square kilometres and the mining areas allotted to us under UNCLOS are about 2000 km from our southern most tip. As in other parts of the world, the seas around us are now believed to have substantial hydrocarbon potential. As we seek to satisfy the growing demand for mineral resources to meet our growth and development aspirations, we will seek to increase our investments in the exploration of our maritime domain.
Given India’s geographical location, extensive maritime interests, dependence on the seas for trade and the evolving asymmetric threats in the form of maritime terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking, maritime security issues have become a strategic priority for us. There are two different aspects to this imperative. The first is the concern for safeguarding of our territories and our adjacent waters against seaborne threats. The second is the desire to ensure that the traditional freedoms at sea are preserved to ensure access for all.
As a matter of national policy, India has always championed and advocated adherence to the international regime which governs maritime freedoms, even while asserting our national sovereignty where it is applicable. We believe that in an era of globalisation and interdependence, the balance between the rights of States and the freedoms of the larger global community, to which I referred earlier, is vital for international trade and global security.
In the light of the challenges we face and the security and economic interests at stake, it is natural for all countries to enhance their capabilities to protect their national interests. In our own case, particularly in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack, we have taken a number of measures to develop our coastal and maritime security capabilities.
However, as countries seek to bolster their capabilities to respond to perceived challenges in the maritime domain, there also arises a need to avoid conflict and build consensus. In this connection, keeping in view the issues which have arisen with regard to the South China Sea, India has welcomed the efforts of the parties concerned in engaging in discussions and the recently agreed guidelines on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties between China and the ASEAN. We hope that the issues will be resolved through dialogue and negotiation.
The growing menace of piracy needs to be thwarted and suppressed by robust anti-piracy operations, as well as through speedy prosecution of the guilty. A permanent solution to the threat of piracy will require sustained and concerted efforts by the international community, at sea and on land.
I am encouraged by the cooperative approaches we have seen between nations when it comes to defending our collective freedoms against the activities of pirates, whether in the Malacca Strait or in the Gulf of Aden. We have ensured that our navies have engaged in communication and dialogue to better coordinate anti-piracy operations. The Indian Navy which has been operating in the Gulf of Aden, has provided escort to a number of ships of non-Indian flags. The same is true of some other Navies operating in the region.
There is a need to extend this spirit of cooperation to de-conflict contentious areas in the maritime domain. This is possible only through the process of dialogue and consensus building, within the framework of accepted principles of international law. In particular, it is essential to remain sensitive to the problems of smaller nations and ensure that their rights, as equal members of the global community, are not overlooked or compromised.
India is actively engaged in the process of constructive dialogue on security issues with a number of countries, especially with the ASEAN community, many members of which are our immediate maritime neighbours. We have wide ranging bilateral exchanges with the ASEAN nations in the area of defence and security. We also support ongoing initiatives like the ARF and the ADMM Plus mechanisms in building an inclusive security architecture which would foster a spirit of consensus on all issues which have common resonance. The Suez and the Gulf of Hormuz are also vital arteries of world trade. We also maintain a regular dialogue with the countries of the region. We will continue to contribute to the strengthening of fora like the IOR-ARC and the IONS to promote cooperation among the IOR and rim countries.
To conclude, I will reiterate that India has vital interests in the maritime domain and we will make our contribution, as a responsible member of the international community, for the evolution of an open, transparent and inclusive maritime security architecture that would ensure the protection and preservation of maritime freedoms”.