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Growing maritime cooperation: ASEAN and India

Growing maritime cooperation: ASEAN and India

In the current security environment, maritime security for India has assumed greater importance than ever before. India is not only the net-security provider for the Indian Ocean but also has an interest in the entire Indo-Pacific because of its increasing demand for trade and economic growth. The South China Sea (SCS)/East Sea (ES) occupies a central position for India’s trade. India’s about 55% sea-borne passes through this region.  Indian Naval strategy too gives importance to the protection of SCS/ES. 

Since the 1990s, when India adopted ‘Look East Policy’, Southeast Asia has come into India’s sharper focus. However, when India adopted ‘Act East Policy,’ the entire ASEAN region became valuable for the growth of commerce and for the development of the Northeast. The connectivity projects were taken up for quick implementation. The progress on the Kaladan water-way is an example of India’s focus on the east, though the road is yet to be completed. India is also trying to complete projects connected with the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. 

The realisation of the importance of maritime security pushed India to look for stakeholders for cooperation in Southeast Asia and to have a new security architecture in the region. PM Modi has been pressing for this in all bilateral and multilateral dialogues. India reached out to ASEAN countries for developing defence capabilities and capacities through training and assistance for search and rescue operations. The Tsunami of 2004 brought to the fore the vulnerabilities of Southeast Asian nations. India engaged Southeast Asian nations particularly Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia under the rubric of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which started in 2008, and is one of the important engagements to integrate the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. India’s engagement with the South Pacific countries as well as with Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste indicates the expanding horizons of India’s Act East policy. 

India believes that the Southeast Asian nations must be able to protect their interests, hence focusing on maritime cooperation with a view to enhance interoperability and their defence capabilities. India has defence agreements with nine out of ten ASEAN countries. India is also carrying out exercises with them. With Singapore, India conducts SIMBEX exercises regularly. With Thailand and Indonesia there have been regular coordinated patrols along the Andaman Sea, which are seen as a signal of their thriving relationship with India. With countries such as Vietnam there have been regular defence interactions at the highest levels and there have been port calls by Indian ships to various ports of Vietnam. Defence relations with Laos and Cambodia have been strengthened. 

The Chinese aggressiveness in the region is also India’s focus. India has been opposing the Chinese encroaching activities into the EEZs of other nations, creation of artificial islands, their militarisation, and coercive actions against the ASEAN countries. It had been consistently supporting the finalisation of the Code of Conduct (CoC) and is pressing that the interests of non-parties to the conflict be protected. Since the 2016 PCA’s Ruling, India has been pressing for its implementation. India’s interest is in peace and security of the region. PM Modi, in the 2021 UNSC meeting pressed for resolution of their disputes on maritime issues through international arbitration mechanisms.   

It is in this background that the first ASEAN-India maritime exercise is taking place. It is a comprehensive exercise comprising two phases-the Harbour phase and Sea phase. The Harbour phase will see navy personnel participate in visit, board, search and seizure, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The Sea phase will witness the participating ships tracking the movement of simulated vessels of interest, cued by alerts from the ASEAN and the Royal Singapore Navy’s monitoring systems. In addition, the participating forces will be practising the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).  In all, nine ships, six aircraft, and about 1800 personnel are taking part in the exercise. 

The Ministry of Defence’s statement says: “AIME 2023 will provide an opportunity for Indian Navy and ASEAN navies to work together closely and conduct seamless operations in the maritime domain.”  Significantly, INS Delhi, India’s first indigenously-built guided missile destroyer and INS Satpura, an indigenously-built guided missile stealth frigate are participating in the exercise. These ships are fitted with state-of-the art weapons and sensors. They will also participate in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX-23) and International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) being hosted by Singapore. The visit of the Indian Naval Chief to Singapore for the exercise as well as to take part in the International Maritime Defence Exhibition (IMDEX-23) and International Maritime Security Conference (IMSC) being hosted by Singapore, reflects importance that India gives to this exercise. India is the fourth country to have maritime exercise with ASEAN after the US, Russia, and China.   

India is showcasing its defence production capabilities with a view to boosting its defence export.  The growth of India’s indigenous defence production capabilities has been exceptional in the last few years. PM Modi at the inauguration of the DefExpo 22 in Gandhinagar-India’s biggest ever defence exhibition- hailed the ‘the strides taken by the indigenous defence sector that marked “new India’s efforts” and it marked ‘the beginning of a new future that will boost India’s security, economy and innovation.’ He also stated that while eight years ago India was known to be biggest defence importer, now India exports defence equipment/ weapons to more than 75 countries. India has an agreement to provide BrahMos missiles to the Philippines and some other countries are showing great interest in this missile. Besides, India has also produced INS Arihant, India’s first indigenous nuclear powered ballistic missile capable submarine. India has also commissioned the INS Vikrant aircraft carrier. It is not only designed and built indigenously but it also has used 76% Indian material, and it constitutes an important landmark in the growth of Indian defence production capabilities. 

India and Vietnam have special relations. During the visit of Indian Defence Minister Sri Rajnath Singh in June last year, India handed over twelve high-speed patrol boats to Vietnam. India and Vietnam also inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Mutual Logistics Support. The Indian Ministry’s statement said: “In these times of increasing cooperative engagements between the defence forces of the two countries, this is a major step towards simplifying procedures for mutually beneficial logistic support and is the first such major agreement which Vietnam has signed with any country.”                

The overall objective of the ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise is three-fold: first, to achieve the highest level of coordination with ASEAN countries in maritime domain for facing non-traditional threats and for coordinated rescue and relief operations; second, to build their defence capabilities by making them aware of new operational manoeuvres; and third, to support the ASEAN countries in obtaining the latest advanced platforms, which India is producing. This is aimed at diversifying their imports of defence equipment. This step will result in significantly developing India’s maritime cooperation with ASEAN countries and ensuring peace and security in the region.