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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 317

Congruence between India’s and Republic of Korea’s Maritime Strategies: Portends for Synergistic Collaboration in the Indo-Pacific

Captain Kamlesh K Agnihotri

India, by virtue of its geospatial location in the Indian Ocean, is preordained to be a maritime nation. Its 7516 km long coastline; numerous outlying islands; vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 2.01 million square km; and 12 major and about 200 non-major ports; provide clear testimony to this truism.  The very economic prosperity and maritime security of India is inextricably linked with the Indian ocean.  A noted Indian historian, KM Panikkar has in fact, summarised this linkage in these words:

 “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas; to India, it is the vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that vast water surface.  No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free, and her own shores are fully protected.”[1]  

The above wisdom-in-hindsight dawned on the national security discourse post-independence, after India had to endure colonisation and total loss of freedom for about three centuries at the hands of European powers because of the proverbial ‘sea-blindness’.[2] The founding fathers of Indian democracy therefore conceptualised the formation of a strong naval force based on aircraft carriers, blue-water ships and submarines; which would be capable of addressing the threats to national security from-, at- or through the sea.

The subsequent wars/conflicts across the land borders in 1962, 1965, 1971 and 1999 did force the Indian decision-makers back towards land-centric threat mindset. However, the temporary shift of national security focus landwards, did not hugely impact the Indian Navy (IN), which continued to modernise at a steady pace.  Consequently, the contemporary Indian Navy as a ‘combat-ready, cohesive and future- ready’ Force is ready to play its designated role in furtherance of national diplomacy – coercive or otherwise. The optimum employment of this potent instrument of State power, however, requires clear and concise strategic directions.

India’s Maritime Strategy

The IN, in recognition of the above imperative, published its first strategic document titled ‘Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy’ in 2007.  Since ‘strategies’ are meant to address the dynamic geopolitical landscape, shifting alliances and evolving threat profiles; these per-force must be reviewed from time-to-time to reflect contemporary realities.  The ‘2007 Maritime Strategy’ of the IN was accordingly revised in 2015 and promulgated as ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’ – hereinafter referred to as IMSS-2015.

The new ‘Strategy’ is meant to respond to the changed geostrategic environment, wherein the Indo-Pacific region has progressively acquired increasingly greater salience. Within this vast seascape, India has clearly defined its primary and secondary areas of maritime interest;[3] within which the Country intends achieve its maritime security objectives. These objectives have been conflated with the following specific strategies, as mentioned in the IMSS-2015:[4]

  1. Strategy for deterrence
  2. Strategy for conflict
  3. Strategy for coastal and offshore security
  4. Strategy for maritime force and capability development
  5. Strategy for shaping a favourable and positive maritime environment.

While the first four strategies largely have an inward-looking orientation; the ‘Strategy for shaping a favourable and positive maritime environment’ inherently envisages an outward approach. This strategy – predicated on three principles of preserving peace, promoting stability and maintaining security – requires comprehensive and coordinated approach from the Indian and other international stakeholders to address broad-spectrum of sea-borne threats.[5]

India’s collaborative Strategy towards Regional maritime security

The Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, encapsulated the collective concept of maritime security and economic progress within the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for the first time in his vision of ‘SAGAR’ – Security and Growth for All in the Region – in 2015 in Mauritius.[6] The mantle of carrying forward this vision and providing full play to it on the ground, has naturally fallen on the IN – by virtue of its reach across the oceans coupled with its sustenance and flexibility.

Accordingly, the IN has incorporated activities related to collaboratively ‘preserve peace, promote stability and maintain security’ as part of its diplomatic, constabulary and benign missions in every maritime doctrine and strategy document commencing with the first Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2004.’[7] Subsequent documents namely,  the Indian Maritime Military Strategy-2007, Indian Maritime Doctrine-2009 and IMSS-2015 also mention these collaborative roles and missions, albeit with and minor reclassification and greater refinement.  These missions range from ‘presence’ and ‘constructive maritime engagements’, to ‘maritime assistance and peace support operations’. These in turn, have been further disaggregated as specific ‘tasks’ for better execution and oversight.[8]

Overseas deployments (OSD) are the most visible demonstration of IN’s ‘presence’ mission in India’s areas of maritime interests – which cover a substantial part of the Indo-Pacific.  OSDs enable the IN ships to be ‘first and rapid responders’ in case of maritime crisis situations – both, man-made and natural – in the littoral. A case in point is the non-combatants evacuation operation (NEO) from Sudan, mounted by IN ship Sumedha in April 2023.  In fact, the resultant goodwill generated by repeated instances of timely and efficient post-calamity HADR, SAR and humane approach by IN ships, has earned India, a well-deserved reputation of ‘preferred security partner and first responder’ within the Indo-Pacific littoral.[9]

The associated ‘constructive maritime engagements’ take the shape of platform and technology transfer; ship refit and maintenance support; personnel exchanges for training and inter-operability; Navy-to-Navy staff talks, maritime exercises, hydrographic surveys and the like.  India presently conducts institutionalised maritime exercises with 11 countries.  Some prominent ones are the MALABAR, INDRA, SIMBEX, KONKAN, VARUNA, JIMEX and AUSINDEX.[10] The inaugural ASEAN-India maritime exercise (AIME-23) conducted in May 2023 off Singapore, with the objective of enabling their navies to operate as ‘an integrated force’ to promote peace, stability, and security in the region, is the most recent addition.[11]

Yet another facet of India’s effort to promote collective maritime security in IOR – and often involving concerned stakeholders from the larger Indo-Pacific region – is the establishment of ‘high-level strategic mechanisms’. Some notable ones are the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), Exercise MILAN and the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives NSA level trilateral mechanism. Other multilateral maritime security mechanisms in which India proactively participates are: the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

In order to develop a common maritime domain awareness (MDA) picture, India established the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in 2018.  As a repository of regional maritime data with the capabilities to collect, collate, fuse and disseminate vital MDA data, IFC-IOR has emerged as a key maritime information resource. With its activities fully aligned with India’s collaborative vision of SAGAR, the IFC-IOR maintains linkages with 25 countries and 35 maritime security centres in the region.  India’s ready willingness to share fused MDA data is reflected in the fact that International Liaison Officers (ILOs) from 11 countries – including Japan, Australia and the US – have been appointed at the IFC-IOR.[12]

Collaborative outlook of Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Maritime Strategy

The very opening remark of the ROK’s  President Yoon Suk Yeol, seeking to “…foster a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region through solidarity and cooperation with major countries including ASEAN” underscores the predominantly collaborative focus of ROK’s Strategy for the Indo-Pacific Region-2022 (hereinafter mentioned as ‘KSIP-22’).[13]  KSIP-22 lists the pursuit of ‘expanding comprehensive security cooperation’ as one of its nine ‘core lines of effort’ towards ensuring a ‘free, peaceful and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific.[14] The gradual expansion of cooperation with QUAD[15] grouping also finds mention in KSIP-22 – with emerging technologies being one of the focus areas.

ROK supports the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) construct which is premised on the centrality of ASEAN towards promotion of cooperative endeavours in the Indo-Pacific. It accordingly engages with ASEAN nations in various ways to secure cooperation in maritime security, MDA, maritime economy and maritime law enforcement.  ROK is also an active participant in multilateral mechanisms like the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and ADMM+. The Country has also acknowledged the benefits of participating in multilateral mechanisms like the IORA – where it is a Dialogue Partner since 2018 – Indian Ocean Commission, and ReCAAP.  ROK has deployed its ‘Cheonghae’ unit in the Gulf of Aden since 2009 for anti-piracy patrols in coordination with China, India and Japan.

Points of Congruence

ROK acknowledges India as a ‘leading regional partner’; and intends to advance ‘special strategic partnership’ with the Country. Natural complementarities also exist between the Korean core lines of effort to ‘strengthen cooperation in critical domains of science and technology’; and its recognition of the Indian proficiencies in cutting-edge information technology and space sciences – both mentioned in KSIP-22.

In the maritime domain, the foremost ‘point of strategic congruence’ between ROK and India lies in similar interpretation of the geographical expanse of the Indo-Pacific – that it extends till the East Coast of Africa.[16]  In fact, most of the Korean concerns with regard to its maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, also mirror India’s concerns in its areas of maritime interest.[17]

The very fact that India and Korea participate in many maritime security initiatives, mechanisms and exercises in the Indo-Pacific, underscores the level of mutual  congruence of interests in the region. Some such forums are the ReCAAP, ADMM+, and coordinated anti-piracy escort duties in the Gulf of Aden.  Further, while ROK has been part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF)/CTF-151 for about a decade and half; India having joined the CMF as an associate member in 2022 will engender closer cooperation between naval forces of both countries within multilateral settings.

Though there have been occasional Navy to Navy interactions between India and ROK; these have not been formalised. These are in the form of ship visits to each other’s ports, passage exercises, as also participation in multilateral maritime exercises. Some such events over last two years are enumerated below: –

  1. February 2022 – Exercise MILAN at Visakhapatnam
  2. June 2022 – RIMPAC-22 Multilateral Maritime Exercise off Hawaii
  3. September/October 2022 – ROK Navy Training Group ships visited Chennai
  4. November 2022 – IN ships visited Busan. Carried out passage exercises.
  5. March 2023 – P-8 naval reconnaissance aircraft in SEA DRAGON Joint Anti-submarine warfare exercise off Guam

Possibilities of collaboration – Recommendations

A survey of above congruences, viz, commonality as regards the spatial extent of the Indo-Pacific region and maritime security concerns therein; complementarities in each Country’s approach to address these challenges; acknowledgement of mutual capabilities and capacities in mitigating such challenges; and ongoing bilateral and multilateral naval interactions; do indicate a huge scope for synergistic cooperation between the two countries.

To start with, the visiting naval ships could progressively increase the scope, scale and complexity of the passage exercises with the host nation’s navy.  The IN and ROK Navy could subsequently commence biennial staff talks at respective headquarters. The fact of IN conducting institutionalised naval exercises with other established Indo-Pacific stakeholders like Russia, Japan, France, Australia and the US; offers logical grounds for the IN and ROK Navy to formalise a similar arrangement.

Since MDA forms an intrinsic part of comprehensive security cooperation agenda in KSIP-22; and India has a fully functional IFC-IOR having ILOs embedded therein; ROK must depute an Officer to this Centre.

The India proposed Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI)[18] offers yet another ready opportunity for ROK work together with India and other like-minded nations for the greater good of the Indo-Pacific. Since ROK has expressed unequivocal support for AOIP, and both mechanisms recognise the centrality of ASEAN in addition to underlying similarities between their objectives and collaborative approach; it makes for a compelling case for ROK to join the IPOI.  Given its intrinsic strengths in high technologies, heavy engineering and port infrastructure development, ROK would probably be the most suitable candidate to lead the ‘Science Technology and Academic Cooperation’ pillar of the IPOI.[19]

Finally, ROK could consider joining the IONS, which since inception in 2008, has evolved as a vibrant multilateral collaborative platform to address all matters maritime in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).  When seen in the context of extra-regional States like China, Japan and Russia having been admitted as observers; ROK definitely has a claim for ‘observer’ status.

Finally, once a few of these suggested collaborative measures come to fruition, India and ROK together would certainly play an important part in charting a collaborative course for multifarious maritime engagements in the Indo-Pacific region.

Captain Kamlesh K Agnihotri, retired from the Indian Navy in 2021, is a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. His current areas of Study include Chinese maritime and high technology issues, Indian Ocean security matters and the complex dynamics in the broader Indo-Pacific Region. His latest Book is titled “Leveraging High Technology Developments in Chinese Military and Maritime Domains: Impact on The Indian Ocean Regional Security”. Views expressed in this article are personal. He can be reached at kkumaragni@gmail.com

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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