‘Firmly uphold navigation and overflight freedom in South China Sea’

By Manohar Parrikar
SINGAPORE: For India, located as we are at the centre of the Asian landmass astride the Indian Ocean, any reference to Asia implies its fullest geography ranging from the Suez to the shores of the Pacific.

This is a vast area with many complexities.

As we are aware, large parts of West Asia have been grappling with a new and dark variant of violent conflict.

Closer home, to India’s west, the brave Afghan people continue their efforts to revive their nation and rebuild their state in the face of terrorists nurtured in the neighbourhood.

Today, I will, geographically speaking, limit myself to what is now aptly and increasingly referred to by the strategic community as the Indo-Pacific.

I come from a coastal state of India. It is natural for me to have a bias towards the maritime domain. Seriously speaking, this is also the domain of India’s “Act East” policy in all its dimensions – cultural, economic and security.

The theme of this session (Managing Military Competition in Asia) suggests that we are confronted with a new challenge. A broad look at trends in the region suggests that countries in the Asia-Pacific are spending more on defence. If you look at recent figures, Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Vietnam, all appear to be spending more on military capabilities.

A closer look suggests the picture is more complex. In some cases, there is a catching-up happening after years of neglect of capital expenditure in defence. In other cases, there are new challenges and new roles for the armed forces.

Regardless of what view we take, I believe that we cannot reach a definitive conclusion that we are witnessing emerging military competition in the region based on figures of military expenditure.

What really matters is the manner in which military capabilities are developed and how they are deployed. These two aspects – you may simply call them transparency and behaviour – are perhaps more important than expenditure alone.

This is not to dismiss the challenge. Given the destructive nature of current military technologies, it is obvious that we should take any signs of an Asia-Pacific wide military competition seriously.

However, I believe that we should stay focused on the equally important challenge of creating and nurturing frameworks to manage security issues. These frameworks should promote transparency as well as the right behaviour. They should help us build mutual trust and confidence to avoid conflict.

Scholars tend to divide security challenges neatly into traditional and non-traditional sources of insecurity. I am a practitioner. For me a traditional threat is one of low probability but high impact risk. Non-traditional threats are continuous, daily occurrences and their impact can vary from the negligible to the dramatic.

In some cases, terrorism being the most serious example, the distinction is literally academic.

In my view there are three main security challenges facing the region.

First, the traditional threat of disputes over territorial issues escalating to military conflict. The way forward here is for the parties to these disputes to renounce the threat or use of force against other states.

While no single region has a monopoly on nationalist rhetoric, we need to pay special attention to its linkages with territorial disputes and alternate readings of history in this part of the globe. Regional frameworks for security management must enshrine a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes without the threat or use of force.

Second, even if you wish to describe it as a so-called non-traditional threat, terrorism remains the foremost challenge to our region. Networks of radicalism and terrorism as well as their support structures in the region and beyond continue to pose a threat to all peace-loving societies.

We need to oppose terrorism resolutely everywhere, de-legitimise it as an instrument of state policy and cooperate unreservedly to locate, thwart and destroy terrorist networks. The security frameworks in our region still do not give enough attention to terrorism. This must change.

The third challenge arises in the maritime domain, which is a key enabler of our prosperity. It is in this domain that we see most clearly a continuous spectrum of threats.

By virtue of its geographical location, the Indo-Pacific is the crossroads of the world’s maritime traffic. Over half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through these waterways. The Strait of Malacca alone carries approximately 25 per cent of all traded goods and all oil that travels by sea. At its narrowest point just south of Singapore, not far from where we are meeting today, the Strait of Malacca is only a few nautical miles wide, making it one of the world’s most sensitive and strategic waterways.

And these waterways are vulnerable. Terrorism visited us from the sea in Mumbai in November 2008. Piracy on the Eastern shores of Africa impacted the insurance premiums for all our ships. At the other end of the spectrum, the situation in the South China Sea continues to be viewed with concern.

We have traditional links with the countries in the South China Sea. More than half our trade passes through its waters. While we do not take a position on territorial disputes, which should be resolved peacefully without the threat or use of force, we firmly uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in accordance with international law, in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

All countries in the region need to recognise that our shared prosperity and the enviable rates of growth that we enjoyed over the past decades will be put at risk by aggressive behaviour or actions by any one of us. All of us will suffer, irrespective of whether we are big or small states. We need to work towards actions to lower the temperature, and prioritise developmental and growth considerations above all else.

Prime Minister Modi’s vision for the Indian Ocean as captured in the acronym SAGAR or Security and Growth for All in the Region encapsulates India’s approach to the broader Indo-Pacific region.

We are not only committed to safeguard India’s land and maritime territories and interests, but we will also make our capacities available to other regional countries. Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief or HADR is a major focus of our efforts.

The evacuation of citizens of a number of countries from Yemen, post-earthquake efforts in Nepal and the assistance provided to Sri Lanka as the first responder following recent floods are examples.

Collective action and cooperation is the way forward to deal with maritime threats like terrorism, piracy and natural disasters. This will also improve trust and confidence and reduce the scope for military competition.

India is contributing actively to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) here in Singapore as also projects on safety and security of navigation as part of the Straits of Malacca Mechanism (SOMS). The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) has brought together the navies of the region in a collective endeavour to strengthen maritime security.

The International Fleet Review earlier this year with participation from over 50 countries was another major effort to build cooperative linkages among regional and global actors in the maritime domain.

Recently, we have launched maritime security dialogues with Australia, China, France, Japan and the United States. These allow us to share security perspectives and explore possibilities of cooperation.

Going beyond the traditional notion of security, we are also building economic cooperation with maritime neighbours to reap the benefits of the Blue Economy.

The Indo-Pacific is a heterogeneous region with a diversity of political systems, security perspectives and developmental choices. There is no doubt that it will remain the driver of global prosperity for decades to come. India’s contribution, as the fastest growing major economy in the world, which is the result of energetic efforts of my government, will be a significant factor in ensuring this. I am equally confident that the countries of the region will rise to the challenge and find the will and the means to tackle the security threats it faces.

We have a foundation of regional and sub-regional arrangements to build upon. Bilateral dialogue and confidence building can usefully supplement these regional and sub-regional mechanisms. ASEAN has built several mechanisms which can play a central part in the regional security framework.

Even as we recognise that security in Asia is primarily the responsibility of Asian countries, the interests of non-Asian countries in a growing and increasingly connected Asia cannot be ignored. The East Asia Summit provides a broad matrix to engage with the relevant actors.

The security frameworks in the Indo-Pacific should also promote the well-being of people by taking a broader view of security. They should help us promote and maintain seamless connectivity stretching across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, guaranteeing freedom of navigation, over-flight and unimpeded commerce in accordance with international law and knitting our people together in peace and prosperity.

The Shangri La Dialogue has established itself as Asia’s premier forum on defence and regional security issues. Participation this year is again very impressive, reflecting the growing salience of this Forum. It is also a tribute to the tireless efforts of the organisers. My participation reflects India’s recognition of this platform as a useful forum for our engagement with security issues facing the region.

(Excerpted from the speech delivered  by India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4, 2016)

Author: indostrat

IndoStrat is a media outfit that brings you news from the Indian defence and strategic sectors. If you are an avid watcher of India's military, diplomacy and strategic affairs, this is the place to come to for satiating your appetite for latest news, opinions, facts, tidbits and some informed gossip.

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