The IONS decadal celebration culminated with a "tall ships" group sail from Kochi to Muscat
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Nov 18
Underlining growing acceptance of the Indian Navy’s leadership as a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), representatives of 28 countries – including 11 naval chiefs – gathered in Kochi on Tuesday and Wednesday to commemorate ten years of the founding of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).
In 2008, in a foray into military diplomacy, the navy had established IONS as a multinational Indian Ocean platform for coordination on issues such as maritime security, piracy, disaster relief and the unfettered access to commons like the international sea lanes that transit through these waters.
Welcoming IONS delegates to Kochi, navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba announced that a master control facility would soon come up near Delhi to track commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean. This high-tech “maritime domain awareness” initiative would fuse data from multiple sources like satellite, radar, airborne surveillance and White Shipping inputs from multiple countries.
“The Indian Navy will soon be operationalizing the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region. The IFC-IOR will be staffed by personnel from multiple countries. It will analyse all inputs pertaining to maritime security in the IOR and pass on relevant information to the participating countries within an actionable time frame,” said Lanba.
Lanba told Business Standard that the navy would approach a number of “like minded countries” to participate in the IFC-IOR. The countries that would be invited were being worked out with the government.
India has already concluded White Shipping Agreements with 18 countries, of which 11 had already been operationalized. This agreement binds member countries to share information about commercial shipping that enters or leaves one’s ports or is transiting through its waters.
Lanba expressed satisfaction at the headway IONS has made in a decade. We put in place a Charter of Business in just six years. In comparison, the WPNS (Western Pacific Naval Symposium, a similar body in East Asia) took close to 15 years to get a Charter of Business going.”
IONS has also set up three working groups to examine ways of increasing coordination on maritime security, humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) and information sharing and interoperability. Now there is a possibility that members might vote on adding a fourth working group – on training.
Even while playing an outsized role in IONS, the Indian Navy has taken pains to create an environment in which smaller littoral states – whether in West Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa or the Island states – enjoy equal status, a rotating chairpersonship and voting rights, with all decisions taken by consensus.
This method of working has its downside. The US is keen to obtain observer status in IONS, but has been blocked by Iran – and in the most recent vote, by Pakistan.
Given the vast geography IONS covers, there is deft diplomacy required in handling friction amongst members. Saudi Arabia did not attend the IONS commemoration, because IONS is currently chaired by Iran.
China attended the gathering, having received an invitation from New Delhi. Sources say the navy was open to the idea of inviting the Pakistan Navy chief, but the ministry of external affairs shot down the idea.
Addressing the gathering, former naval chief, Admiral Arun Prakash (Retired), highlighted the many reasons for promoting IONS: a large number of natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, on-going piracy in half a million square kilometres of maritime space and joint efforts in events like the search for MH-317 – the still missing Malaysian airliner.
“Seven regional navies operate submarines, which are subject to accidents. India has just acquired a Deep Submergence Rescue Vessel. We would be glad to assist IONS members if required”, said Prakash.
Highlighting the growing appetite for Indian initiatives, it was suggested during the IONS commemoration that the Indian Navy could consider playing a larger role in training regional navies. Last month, the navy’s sea training department conducted the “work up” (progressive training) of two Royal Malaysian Navy warships. Now other countries are interested in benefiting from the same.
The culmination of IONS will be a “group sail” of “tall ships” (sailships) from Cochin to Muscat to highlight the ancient maritime trade routes in the region.