India’s leadership role to enhance maritime security through international cooperation

Updated: August 19, 2021 2:03 PM

This was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister presided over a meeting of the UNSC and also the first where MaritimeSecurity was discussed as an exclusive topic“Enhancing Maritime Security – A Case for International Cooperation”

india maritime securityThe UNCLOS, also called Law of the Sea Treaty, sets the guidelines for the use of the World’s oceans and marine life. (Represenataional images: Indian Navy)

By Milind Kulshreshtha

India’s tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC)  on Maintenance of International Peace & Security Commenced from January 1, 2021 for two years. The first presidency as a non-permanent member of the Security Council started in early August 2021. This was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister presided over a meeting of the UNSC and also the first where MaritimeSecurity was discussed as an exclusive topic“Enhancing Maritime Security – A Case for International Cooperation”.

A large number of dignitaries, including a total of 4 Heads of State and Governments, 10 Ministers and a personal attendance by the Russian President and US Secretary of State, signified the concerns world places on the emerging maritime threats . During the meeting, India highlighted five principles i.e. removal of the maritime trade barriers, peaceful resolution of maritime disputes under the ambit of International Laws, joint efforts in tackling maritime threats (emerging from non-state actors and natural disasters), conservation of the maritime environment and for responsible maritime connectivity to boost maritime trade.As per the UNSC Presidential Statement, UNSC reaffirmed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the guiding legal framework for the maritime activities.

Indian Navy

Law of the Sea – UNCLOS

The UNCLOS, also called Law of the Sea Treaty, sets the guidelines for the use of the World’s oceans and marine life. This initiative was formalised in the early 1980s and came into force in 1994. India ratified the UN Convention in 1995 and by 2016, about 167 nations and the European Union had formed part of the UNCLOS. Numerous international institutes like IMO (International Maritime Foundations), International Seabed Authority (ISA), ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea), CLCS (Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf) and others support in the implementation of the UNCLOS guiding principles. The ITLOS is an independent judicial body that adjudicates disputes arising out of the UNCLOS guidelines, whereas, CLCS deals with the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles. The technological innovations shall continue to play a crucial role for implementing UNCLOS to realize the goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, through which countries shall benefit from inclusive and sustainable ocean economies.

Some of the important aspects within UNCLOS which have recently been in the news,especially in the South China Sea region due to expansionist approach by Chinapertains to EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and rights within 200 mile zone along the shoreline. In fact, during the UNSC meeting   presided by India, China has already raised a concern that the forum is not a “suitable place” to discuss South China Sea issues, even though China as a member of the permanent five members of the UNSC had backed the resolution to adopt the UNCLOS.

India and UNCLOS

UNCLOS already empowers India with an  exclusive jurisdiction to explore the coastal regions of its EEZ to obtain various resources like hydrocarbons from continental shelf and, also, mine for polymetallic nodules, cobalt, hydrothermal sulphides etc. in the international waters per allocations made by UN’s International Seabed Authority. India too has been strictly adhering to the UNCLOS guidelines as an official stand by GoI for harmonious coexistence, especially when India shares maritime boundaries with seven countries viz. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Maldives. In 2009, Bangladesh had approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague seeking judgment under the dispute clause of the UNCLOS. In July 2014,after due arbitration process, the Court gave a ruling in favour of Bangladesh and awarded 19,467 sq km of the total 25,602 sq km sea area and leaving. The judgment allowed Bangladesh a 200-mile EEZ, the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile economic zone and access to the open sea.This judgement was accepted by India in order to maintain and enhance goodwill amongst the two nations. Similarly, the Enrica Lexie case involving the Italian Marines detained by India after the incident off the coast of Kerala was arbitrated by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (under International Court of justice) when Italy approached them in 2015.

India’s Ambitions in Deep-Sea Mining Plans

The UN institute of International Seabed Authority (ISA) includes 167 Member Statesand the European Union. As per UNCLOS mandate, ISA regulates mineral-related activities in the international seabed zones so as to not only ensure appropriation but also to ensure protection of the marine environment from harmful effects arising from deep-seabed related activities. ISA has issued three Regulations viz. Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Nodules in the Area, Prospecting and Exploration for Polymetallic Sulphides in the Area and Prospecting and Exploration for Cobalt-Rich Ferromanganese Crusts in the Area. In 2002, the Authority finalised15-year contracts with 29 agencies for exploration for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the deep seabed. For the exploration of polymetallic nodules, GoI is one of the contractors (along with six others) and was allocated a 75,000 Sq.Km.  area in the Indian Ocean For exploration from 2002-2017 (extended up to 2022 now). In a separate contract, India was allocated 10,000 Sq.Km. Area in the SouthWest Indian Ridge from  the year 2011-2026for the exploration for Polymetallic Sulphides. China too is actively involved in the deep-sea exploration activities in the IOR, mainly via two ISA enlisted contractors viz.  China Ocean Mineral Resources Research Association and China Minmetals Corporation.

Recently, NIOT (National Institute of Ocean Technology) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, announced a breakthrough achievement by successfully carrying out underwater seabed mining at depths of over 5km. As part of the seabed mining activity, the NIOT team led by  Chief Scientist GopaKumar Kuttikrishnan also achieved the world’s deepest underwater locomotion trials of an indigenously developed seabed crawler based mining machine. This seabed crawler forms a crucial part of any deep sea mining expertise and is being developed indigenously for harvesting the polymetallic nodules from the depths of 6 km in the allocated Area.


The South China Sea is a thoroughfare for about 30 percent of global trade and free open maritime trade routes in this region are critical. India has taken the leadership role in the global Maritime Security as the blue economy shall always be important for India’s growth. India has already initiated multiple maritime security platforms like SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region)  and QUAD Security Dialogue  in the Indo-Pacific. However, the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific is time and again evolving as a disputed zone where applicability of UNCLOS guidelines is ambiguous. The contradiction here is that China even though has ratified the UNCLOS in 1996, holds its own claims of EEZ, Continental Shelf etc., in the region. On the other hand, the US has not ratified the UNCLOS to-date but is steadfast towards Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and other places as per its own prerogatives. Meanwhile, while disputes regarding the maritime territorial claims are ongoing, modern technologies are spurring the underwater mining to become a viable option within this decade. It is only a matter of time that newer forms of maritime security challenges in the high seas would soon emerge from activities like illegal mining, encroachments and piracy etc. Hence, while India’s vast 2.37 million sq. km EEZ is being safe-guarded by Indian Navy, for India to remain relevant as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region, GoI needs to focus towards continuously expanding the Indian Navy as a blue water navy for extended operations on the high seas farther away from IOR.

(The author is a Strategic Analyst with a keen interest in technology related to C4I solutions and Multiplatform Multi-sensor Data Fusion (MPMSDF). Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online)

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