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Full text of Keynote address delivered by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd)

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

At the 50th anniversary Commemorative event on “Coastal Security, Indian Oceanic Nations & Coastal Community”


Article No. 70/2018

(The following is the full text of the Keynote Address delivered by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd), Director Chennai Centre for China Studies and Regional Director NMF (TN) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkeeya Mahavidyalaya held from 27th October to 29th October at the 50th anniversary commemorative event on “Coastal Security, Indian Oceanic Nations & Coastal Community”  jointly organised by Jawaharlal Nehru Rajkeeya Mahavidyalaya and ICSSR)


Respected Principal Dr. Francis Xavier, Mr. Manikandan, Secretary Education A&N Islands, Dr. Upendra Chaudhary, Secretary ICSSR, Prof. Swapan Biswas, other delegates, the vibrant student community, ladies and gentlemen. First and foremost, I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me for this event and for all local arrangements for the visit. I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to be part of the commemorative event. It is a great pleasure to extend my heartiest congratulations to the principal, faculty, staff, support teams and students on achieving this milestone in the annals of JNRM history, completing five decades of outstanding service to students and the academic community in a place of vital strategic significance for India. The seminar itself has been very well conceived and am sure that the takeaways would be of great relevance to the strategic, academic, intellectual community in the century identified as the century of the seas.


The theme chosen for the conference is apt and very interesting one, as it does not focus on the challenges of Coastal security alone, but expands the scope to discussions on the maritime neighbourhood of India. This space is assuming increased relevance and importance in the backdrop of emerging power play in the Indo-Pacific area. In addition to examining these two areas, rightly the role and responsibility of the coastal community who are major stakeholders have been included for discussion. It will be my endeavour to flag some important issues that would help in establishing the focus areas for discussion.

First and foremost, on the list is the importance of coastal Security. It is well known that the entire gamut of coastal security witnessed a paradigm shift post the Mumbai terror attack, in which some 164 Innocent civilians including foreigners lost their lives. The mindless seaborne attack orchestrated, by Pakistan on 26th November 2008, exposed the chunks in our armour. This was not the first time, though, that the seas were used by anti-nationals and terrorists. In an earlier occasion, in 1993, Mumbai was subjected to well-planned multiple coordinated bomb attacks. A large quantity of RDX a sophisticated explosive was smuggled through the porous sea routes on the west coast of India and used with destructive impact in Mumbai. Operation Swan was launched on the west coast to increase the surveillance efforts using both surface and aerial platforms. Likewise, Operation Pawan was launched on the East Coast to keep close checks on the activities of LTTE and to prevent the misuse of the coast for unlawful purposes. Unfortunately, it takes such catastrophes to wake up the stakeholders and spur them to action.


As for as preventive measures are concerned, the Kargil attack and the subsequent recapture of the strategic heights with great valour, improvisation and of course at considerable loss of lives in 1999, also paved the way for certain improvements in addressing the issue of vulnerable borders and the lacunae faced by the security establishment. The gap in providing timely intelligence on the land, in the air and along the coasts was also a major issue to be addressed. The Group of Ministers (GoM) committee formed at that time made very relevant recommendations for revamping the coastal security. Unfortunately, here again, though the recommendations for creating of the Coastal Security Group(CSG) was made by GoM, the implementation was tardy and waited for another terror attack in Mumbai in 2008 to gain momentum.


It only posts the Mumbai terror attack, that long overdue measures for revamping the intelligence setup, placing the Navy at the Apex of the coastal and oceanic security, and creation of additional Coast Guard Regions in North East and North West was initiated. The Coast Guard also inducted the Air Cushion Vehicles for overcoming terrain restrictions in shallow waters and in swamps.


Secondly, it is cutting-edge technology that can come to the aid of challenges for a country with a long coastline of some 7516 kilometres and far-flung Islands on both flanks. Providing seamless surveillance and proactive intelligence is indeed an onerous task. It is to the credit of the establishment that various measures are in place today to provide what is increasingly referred to as National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) initiative.


Essentially, the use of Automated Identification system, Long Range Identification and Tracking devices, Vessel Traffic Management System, Exclusive Economic Zone patrols by both surface and air units were integrated into the surveillance architecture. The need for providing collated analyzed information was felt and the Information Management and Analysis Center (IMAC) was conceived in 2012 and executed thereafter. This was inaugurated in November 2014 and is working well to meet the demands of real-time surveillance of our areas of interest. It is the nerve centre of the National Command Control Communications and Intelligence Network (NC3I) and the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NMDA) initiative. The Coastal Security scheme involved a project taken up to install radars and thermal /Fiber Optic devices on old lighthouses and other structures to feed continuous integrated surveillance picture in real time and launch counters as may be warranted based also on intelligence.


Assertive action by Stakeholders

There are other areas of great importance to the maritime security agencies which are to be able to obtain the details of legitimate ships in the seas around us and track them. This would obviate the need to examine every contact in the areas of interest. This effort is extremely important to be able to differentiate between the good and bad guys and to eliminate potential threats. The farther the detection of such a threat, the greater the chances of investigation and neutralization of such threats to our coasts and assets. The Coastal Surveillance System started taking shape by way of integrating all the coastal radars into an information chain and is an important means of providing continuous surveillance.

This again has been addressed by having the white ship agreement with many maritime nations that exchange passage details of ships when they pass through Indian EEZ. This would help in differentiating the chaff from the grain. The setting up of the Regional Cooperative Agreement on Armed Piracy and Robbery (ReCAAP) in Singapore, some eleven years ago, not far from A&N has provided a mechanism to closely monitor the acts of piracy and armed robbery in Asia. The Piracy Reporting Center (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur has been collating and disseminating such data for decades. PRC data and analysis has helped seafarers and security agencies to observe the trends and methods. The Data Fusion Center (DFC) in Changi in Singapore and the Integrated Fusion Centre (IFC) provides the mechanism required for providing an integrated picture in the areas of interest regarding shipping, unlawful activity, piracy and such like.


Thirdly, coming to the Indian Oceanic nations which are part of the maritime neighbourhood of India, the new term Indo Pacific is the flavour of the day as the entire oceanic area from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific has now been identified as one single entity. There were never any doubts about the importance of the Indian Ocean for connectivity, security, stability, trade, commerce and prosperity. This has been so for centuries and the entire colonization process of the subcontinent happened through the sea routes. With the recorded history, which clearly illustrates that those who did not understand the importance of the oceans in shaping the destiny of nations lost out in the big power play.


China the Elephant in the Room. There is hardly a debate that excludes the role of a rising China and also that of India which is an emerging economy. It is acknowledged that the 19th century belonged to the British, the 20th century belonged to the Americans and the 21st century belongs to Asia and is also identified as the century of the seas. The developments of this century which have seen a phenomenal rise of China and now of India as well as other Asian economies has tilted the balance of prosperity to the Indo Pacific region(IPA). With competition for resources,  influence and power, it also sets in motion, a  new stratagem by big and small powers.


The growth of China and its economic and military clout has raised many concerns amongst its neighbours. Tensions have flared up after the creation of artificial Islands in the South China Sea based on false claims. These rocks and reefs now stand as military assets on artificially built Islands causing deep consternation among other disputants in the region. China has disregarded the award in favour of Philippine by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague demonstrating utter disregard for the provisions of UNCLOS and international legal instruments. There has been a call for ensuring freedom of navigation and right of overflight. USA has been undertaking air and sea sorties in the SCS emphasizing the need to have unimpeded access as enshrined in the UNCLOS. India has legitimate concerns and has also demanded that there have to be unimpeded passage rights through the global commons.


Belt and Road Initiative

As part of China’s grandiose ambitions, it has embarked on a massive connectivity-cum-infrastructure scheme – The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI was launched some five years ago by Xi Jinping with lots of fanfare. The oceanic segment is called the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) which passes through all the traditional areas of influence of India where China is investing in ports and infrastructure. India has not joined the initiative as it considers this move as a unilateral one without any consultation. Also, in addition, the alignment of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor violates the sovereign claims of India.


This has the potential to alter the status quo in the region in favour of China which is increasingly looking at the Indian Ocean as a new sphere of influence to serve its economic and strategic interests. China ultimately aspires to be the number one country in global affairs by displacing the USA. Increasingly, the countries on the MSR are worried about the potential of such large investments on huge loans which would turn in to debt traps. The classic example of Sri Lanka which had to give away Hambantota on a lease for 99 years to overcome the debt burden has unnerved other smaller nations.Pakistan also is looking at IMF to bail out from the economic distress that it is facing.


China’s Dream

With the increased economic and military clout, China is expanding its influence far and wide and is also aiming to capture new markets to sustain its own GDP. It also strives to meet its long-term strategic objectives by using economic leverage.  The Indian Ocean is the new fulcrum of stability and security. That explains why China is increasingly looking at creating facilities in the Indian Ocean through its MSR, and also through investments in Asia and Africa. All these initiatives are aimed at achieving China’s dream as visualized by Xi Jinping. It has also militarized the IOR by acquiring a naval base in Djibouti and has maintained a constant presence in the IOR since 2008 when it commenced its anti-piracy missions.

China’s outward expansion has altered the maritime relations and equations in the Indian Ocean. The immediate maritime neighbourhood of India which is affected includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar which are close neighbours with a glorious past. Mauritius and Seychelles who are in the extended maritime neighbourhood, have excellent historical relations and enjoy goodwill due to the predominant Indian connection from the colonial times. However, for a long time, India was not proactive to build and sustain these historical relations and slowly started losing out to China which came with big investment plans and wooed the neighbours resulting in a tilt towards China. The Maldives is a classic example of how a trusted ally for decades suddenly started moving away from India under Yameen. Sri Lanka likewise, under Mahindra witnessed a significant shift to China and perhaps has reached a point of no return in economic dependence on China due to the heavy debts that it has incurred on Chinese projects in Sri Lanka.


Coastal Community

Fourthly, all the discussions above though very important will be rendered meaningless unless the well-being of the coastal community is achieved. All over the world, the enterprising community in any nation congregate towards the coast. The blue economy initiatives which complement the sustainable development goals are expected to provide imaginative ways of harnessing the oceans without endangering the marine environment. Various activities that go with Blue Economy initiatives include fishing, cruise tourism, development of ports and infrastructure, waterways, Renewable Energy from offshore installations and the seas, extraction of minerals and other non-living resources. There is a great opportunity for providing employment in the related fields and ensuring that the coastal community is not left out of the blue economy drive.


Woes of Fishermen, major stakeholders

When one talks of coastal security, the challenges faced by the fishermen along our coasts are immense and the hardship that they face in pursuing their livelihood means are indeed serious. The regular occurrences of cross-border intrusion by fishermen of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan into each other’s territory has caused immense misery on all sides. Fishermen routinely try to cross over into rich fishing areas irrespective of where the International Maritime Border Lines (IMBL) are located.  Mumbai terror attack brought out the dangers of small craft being commandeered for launching such attacks from the sea. The Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is a phenomenon that is assuming serious proportions. The Indian EEZs are poached by the fishermen of neighbouring countries and only regular monitoring and a sound mechanism will prevent poaching by other nations. Our own fishermen have not ventured out to deep sea fishing in a big way and that has allowed other fishers with better vessels and technology to exploit the fishing wealth of India. The extensive use of trawling close to the fishing grounds has also caused the destruction of fishing grounds.


Some Measures

While surveillance and prosecution is one answer for IUU, the need of the hour is to facilitate deep sea fishing by our fishermen who need to be provided with modern deep sea fishing vessels, with skill sets and training for multi-day fishing.  The need to develop an eco-system for promoting the entire industry through cold storage, handling and hinterland transportation facilities for access to markets is necessary. The case of TN fishermen reinforces the recommendation that they need to be facilitated to move away from the coast and also from trawling which has caused immense harm to the marine environment by depleting the fishing grounds. What needs to be also remembered is that many of the fishers venture out far from the shores without even basic safety and communication equipment. The Ochki brought out that many lives were lost due to the inability of these fishers to communicate and also survive at sea in adverse sea and weather conditions.


While discussing shared prosperity initiative SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) as a novel idea is worthy of mention.  If India and its neighbourhood have to prosper together while also providing certain strategic dividends SAGAR has to work at many levels. The neighbourhood first policy of the present Government is a great initiative which is likely to have a huge impact and restore the traditional balance in India’s favour.  SAGAR, therefore, will need to include all this to ensure that the coastal community is facilitated and equipped to derive rich benefits of well-planned initiatives. The fishers are the most affected community in view of dwindling stocks and keen competition for resources. Skill development and training to engage in deep sea fishing is an inescapable necessity. The Center and the State need to work in tandem to ensure that the fishermen start looking beyond their shores in the EEZ for productive fishing.  From the security viewpoint, the fishermen can be effectively used as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the nation in unmonitored areas and also to provide early warning of unlawful occurrences and incidents at sea. This is being achieved by the Navy and the Coast Guard by Community Interaction Programs (CIP) which are effective. The recent natural hazards/storms such as Ochki, Titli and the recent floods in Kerala and Karnataka have brought out many lessons in terms of preparing for such disasters and for preventing loss of lives and property due to lack of preparation by the concerned agencies.


To counter the Chinese influence, India and Japan are working together to create the Asia Africa Growth Corridor that would provide alternative options to the smaller economies who would like to benefit from the connectivity projects from Asia to Africa and beyond ensure that the benefits of blue economy reaches all. USA, Australia, France, European Union, ASEAN and other regional players are examining fresh innovative ideas to counter the Chinese spread and influence in the IPA.


Andaman & Nicobar in the scheme of things

Finally, while participating in a conference in the all too important strategic Island of Port Blair, my talk will be incomplete if it does not mention the strategic importance of A&N Islands to India’s maritime security posturing in areas of interest in the Bay of Bengal and beyond Malacca Straits.  The proximity of the Tri-Services command to a happening area in South East Asia and the western Pacific is a great advantage to India’s Maritime Domain Awareness needs. The C4ISR structure here in the Islands is indeed critical to being able to thwart any surprises from our adversaries. It is here that there is a greater need for increased efforts to ensure that the sensitive Andaman seas are not used for illegal activities including dumping. All the three services and the Coast Guard have a vital role in providing the necessary tools to enable the Tri-Services to face the challenges both during peacetime and during hostilities.  With the location close to countries that are constantly under threat of Tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones, A&N will be the first responder as has been proved time and again from the time the Tsunami stuck in 2004. The well-trained agencies should also be in a position to provide the necessary help for SAR and HADR by closely working with the neighbouring countries in the region. The loss of MH 370 brought out the need to coordinate with other surveillance means both military and civil in the region to provide continuous surveillance of aerial activity purely for SAR purposes.


In conclusion, I must say that each of the flagged issues is of great relevance and lend themselves to even more detailed discussions. There are unique challenges along the coast of India and in the Island territories which have the potential to provide the wherewithal for security, livelihood, prosperity and stability at many levels. India’s security is enhanced when its maritime neighbours also prosper and join hands with India for promoting joint initiatives notably through SAGAR which is a novel scheme.


The littorals in the Indian Ocean are facing unique challenges due to the emerging nature of power play in the IOR which has become the new arena for competition. In this context, it is ‘COOPETITION’ a new term that denotes that there has to be cooperation even in the climate of competition. China’s moves and its ability to dig deep into its pocket to woo the smaller economies is a cause of concern. India cannot just look back and say we had a glorious past. The need of the hour is to have proactive measures that would aid India’s positive growth trajectory by using all that the oceans have to offer.


I have no doubts that this forum will provide ample opportunities to debate, discuss and arrive at practical implementable solutions in the face of serious challenges. I would like to wish the conference a great success in the lively deliberations in the next two days.

Jai Hind.


(Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd.) is the Regional Director NMF at Chennai and the Director C3S.  The views expressed by the speaker are his own and do not reflect those of the institutions he is affiliated to. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com)

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