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The commissioning of the INS Vikramaditya late last year has made India the only Asian nation other than pre-war Japan to operate more than one aircraft carrier at a time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visits the carrier today, should know that this special moment in Asia’s maritime history will not last too long. India’s ageing carrier, INS Viraat, is now 60 years old and will have to be decommissioned sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, India’s construction of an indigenous carrier is short of funding and woefully behind schedule. Even if New Delhi gets its defence act together in the coming years, India will find Beijing adding more carriers to the first it commissioned a couple of years ago.
The rise of China as a great economic power, the dramatic expansion of its naval might and its growing assertiveness in Asia’s waters are transforming India’s security environment in multiple ways. Delhi, obsessed as it is with land-based threats, has been unable to digest the significance of this extraordinary change in Asia’s maritime space, let alone respond effectively. It is probably fortuitous that Modi has chosen his first field engagement with the Indian armed forces at sea. But he can put the decision to good use by reflecting on India’s long-neglected maritime imperative.
Hailing from Gujarat, which for millennia was at the forefront of India’s maritime trade with the world, Modi may be better placed than his recent predecessors to think of India’s strategic future in maritime terms. Modi is perhaps aware that the origins of the Indian navy can be traced back to Gujarat. It was way back in 1612 that the East India Company established a marine force at Surat to combat piracy in the Arabian Sea and secure British commercial shipping with India. Four centuries later, not much seems to have changed, as most of the world’s major navies, including that of China, are in the Arabian sea in the name of fighting piracy.
What has changed, though, is the volume and strategic significance of India’s trade. While the British Raj integrated India to the global markets across the seas, Delhi, in the early decades of independence, progressively turned sea-blind.
Two factors led India to turn its back on the sea. One was India’s choice of self-reliance as the national strategy of economic development. Once India shunned trade, it was inevitable that its maritime vision would blur. On the security front, independent India had to deal with new borders created by the Partition of the subcontinent and China’s entry into Tibet. The wars with Pakistan and China in the high Himalayas would freeze the continental mindset of the security establishment in Delhi.
It was only when India began to globalise its economy at the turn continued…