February 16, 2001


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Experts urge govts to see
importance of seas

Josy Joseph in Bombay

High profile Indian and foreign experts applauded the Indian Navy's international fleet review, while stressing the need for governments to realise the growing importance of seas and the need to secure them.

The experts were speaking at the International Maritime Seminar, which was part of the International Fleet Review underway in Bombay.

The seminar began in the morning with disappointment over the absence of Defence Minister George Fernandes, who was to inaugurate it. The full-day deliberations saw several highpoints as a rare gathering of naval chiefs of several countries, retired Indian naval chiefs, senior officials and others debated on 'Maritime Power - Challenges in the 21st century'.

The seminar was inaugurated by Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sushil Kumar, with apologies for the minister's absence, but he struck a chord with the audience, pronouncing in unequivocal terms the navy's intentions to be a "stabilising force in the region".

He said the navy was honoured to host representatives from 30 countries at the International Fleet Review, the first of its kind in India.

"The Indian Navy for many years had aspired and wanted to announce to the world that we would like to stretch our hands of goodwill and friendship," he said. The navy wants to be a stabilising force in the region, while increasing co-operation with navies of the world, he said.

The naval chief said that the navy has always "stood alone" and has never had a "doctrine led by ideology, nor were we part of any alliance". The navy, he told the gathering, "always stood for the goodwill of the sea".

"I feel proud, I feel honoured and I feel humbled," the admiral told the gathering that had naval chiefs from countries such as Australia, Iraq and Israel.

Narco-terrorism and piracy are among major challenges in the modern sea, the admiral said. ''But I do believe that the greatest challenge or the core challenge we have is to fight it together,'' Admiral Kumar said.

Former foreign secretary J N Dixit, in his paper on 'The Role of Navies in Asia's Regional Security - A critical evaluation' pointed out the need for realisation of the importance of the seas. He said Asian countries lost their economical influence and left naval expansion in the 15th century after the Portuguese and other European navies invaded and turned the course of the region's history.

Varied are the reasons for interests of nations at sea: "The fundamental motive is the desire of all countries to keep access to conventional sources of energy." In that context, he pointed out, the Gulf region was the source of almost 30 per cent of the world's energy.

Over 70 per cent energy and 60 per cent commerce comes through sea. "All navies play a role to safeguard their interests and motivation," Dixit said.

On the importance of the Indian Ocean, which wraps most of Asia, he said major powers like the US, UK, Russia, France and China have a presence in the region. Within Asia, he said, China, India, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan have big navies.

"The presence of many navies can lead to a competitive environment or friendship," the former foreign secretary pointed out. He said the international fleet review was important in advancing friendship among navies in the region.

In the region, he added, nuclear powers like the US, China, India and Pakistan have a direct presence, making the Indian Ocean the most crucial waters.

Challenges in the region are advanced by the presence of the Golden Crescent - Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan - and the Golden Triangle - Myanmnar, Laos and Thailand. And sea piracy is also high in the region, he argued.

He said the importance of the waters was also strategic as among the triad of nuclear platforms, the navy is considered the most undetected and most accurate. He was referring to nuclear weapons launched from submarines.

Among problems faced in the region were disputes over water boundaries between countries, he said.

Professor Bharat Karnad, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, who moderated the session, said Asia had three global navies in embryonic form - India, China and Japan. All are acquiring long endurance, nuclear submarines, big and versatile ships and adequate tankers to turn blue water navies.

He said while during the Cold War, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries developed "co-operation on security" and countries in the region were engaged "zealously over guarding interests and autonomy". For protecting autonomy, they even looked outside for protection, Karnad argued.

For changing this atmosphere of mindless competition, he said that maritime diplomacy should be stepped up. The maritime diplomatic efforts, he said, should lead to "operational compatibility to police trade routes".

Once that stage is achieved, navies could take the lead in resolving issues that are prickly between countries. However, there are several other problems in Asian waters: disputes over blue territory, offshore islands and traditional fishing areas, he said.

"There have to be permanent institutions to bring to dialogue these steps," he said.

Internationally renowned Prof Geoffrey Till, in his paper on 'International Maritime Trends and the Indian Ocean in the 21st century' said the setback to local maritime aspirations first came in the 15th century, when the Portuguese arrived with nailed ships.

Till pointed out that sea power was relative, and said that in these times a country with maritime power could influence others. And India has a great navy, he said.

He said, "Maritime strategy should take stock of technology and experiences of the future." He said revolution in military affairs was dominated by technology changes and a major area of stress was stealth technology.

Technology had led to the creation of larger, multi-purpose ships, for navies that are "getting leaner and meaner". Technologies "that produce challenges also produce solutions."

The importance of navies has improved in the recent times because the "most dramatic changes in the world" have been in the political and economical sphere. "These determine how military power is used and for what it is used," Till said, pointing out multi-faceted roles navies have to play.

He said navies have varied roles in times of peace, tension and conflict.

He called on navies to focus more on maritime resources and protection of the ocean ecology. He predicted that "more naval duties will be on marine resources".

He said attempts by navies and coast guards for such protection and duties was "rarely accorded public and political support and resources".

Isolated terrorists attacks, such as one on USS Cole was also "increasing complexities maritime planners need to think about".

Vice Admiral (retd) A R Tandon, who was commanding the Bombay-based Western Naval Command till recently, said the main battles of the navy was with their governments. Also, the public at large was not as educated about the waters as the land. "Proximity of interest is what matters," he said.

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