Indian Navy’s MILAN ’18: Towards Steadier Waters in Indo-Pacific 

The theme of MILAN ‘18 includes focus on the imperative of ensuring ‘good order’ at sea.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Indian Navy soldiers used for representational purposes.
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India is hosting its week-long biennial naval engagement, MILAN 2018, in Port Blair on Tuesday, 6 March, and 16 navies from across the Indo-Pacific oceanic continuum will be a part of this demonstration of maritime camaraderie.

The first MILAN (meaning ‘get together’ in Hindi) was held in 1995, and emerged from a consensus that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with its disparate nations – big and small – could be envisioned as a community with a common objective; this being the security and stability of the extended regional maritime domain.

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Towards Maritime Good-Order & Steady Regional Ties

One recalls the concept of an Indian Ocean ‘panchayat’ being mooted by the Indian Navy in the early 1990s at an international conference held in Delhi and this later took the shape of the first ‘MILAN’ in 1995, where four regional navies were hosted by India in Port Blair.

Over the years, ‘MILAN’ has acquired a distinctive profile, in that it brings together a wide swathe from across the maritime arc encompassing Asia and the eastern seaboard of Africa for a week of professional engagement, sports fixtures and deliberations at the flagship seminar that the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command hosts.

Regional geo-politics cannot be divorced from such events and given the sequence of developments related to the Maldives over the last few months, the island nation has conveyed its inability to join ‘MILAN 2018’. However, the other nations include Australia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, New Zealand, Oman, Vietnam, Thailand, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Cambodia.

The theme of this year’s ‘MILAN’ seminar is ‘In Pursuit of Maritime Good Order: Need for Comprehensive Information Sharing Apparatus’ and it is expected that the deliberations will distill some inputs for policy formulation towards nurturing maritime ‘good order’ and enhancing regional cooperation for combating unlawful activities at sea.

Facing an Assertive China

The subtext of the challenges posed to the prevailing consensus about the contour of maritime ‘good order’ and the stability of the global commons is symbolised by China and its provocative actions in the South China Sea.

The post Cold War (1992) international global strategic framework is a largely US-led template and the last quarter century has been shaped by this orientation. This is now being contested by an authoritarian Beijing and a differently turbulent-petulant-inconsistent Trump administration is contributing to the dismay and disarray in the liberal-democratic cluster.

Against the reality of an assertive China (which has just increased its defence budget to USD 175 billion), India is perceived as a democratic bulwark in Asia but of a lesser comprehensive national capability – both economic and military.

China has a GDP that is almost four times that of India and this is reflected in the military sector also. At USD 175 billion for its defence budget, China is now second only to the USA, which allocates close to USD 700 billion for the Pentagon's global military machine.

China’s Increasing Footprint

The maritime domain, with specific reference to the extended Indo-Pacific, is now the focus of a latent contest and competition between China and the US-led regional alliance, that includes Japan, South Korea, Australia and an uneasy ASEAN.

It is against this backdrop that ‘MILAN’ acquires a certain specificity, where the symbolism is inversely proportional to the substantive content of the 16 navies meeting under one umbrella. As former prime minister Manmohan Singh had once noted in a pithy manner – the world wants India to emerge and grow strong. The contrast with the anxiety triggered by the rise of an assertive China is palpable across South East Asia.

This unease is now spreading to Africa and Australasia too, where the scale of the Chinese footprint and the intensity of its penetration in various domestic sectors, including shaping the political domain in Beijing’s favour, is leading to increasing consternation.

The theme of ‘MILAN 2018’ is a combination of the imperative of ensuring ‘good order’ at sea and the need to share information in a comprehensive manner. The participants include distant nations such as Kenya, Tanzania and New Zealand, apart from other navies who have been part of ‘MILAN’ for the last two decades. This mix is indicative of the politico-diplomatic comfort level that a democratic India induces in an existential manner.

Steering Towards Steadier Waters in Indo-Pacific Region

China and its comprehensive profile are part of a reality that Asia and the rest of the world are coming to grips with in a varying manner. It would be invalid to suggest that the response to an assertive Beijing, under an extended ‘Emperor’ Xi Jinping tenure, must be a binary option of creating an anti-China coalition led by the USA and the western alliance.

But signalling to Beijing that other permutations and combinations (not devoid of a latent political and strategic import) are feasible, is a prudent path, and MILAN 2018 could be interpreted as steering such a course.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have both exuded a certain maritime affinity in their policy formulations. If Xi is associated with the ambitious BRI (belt-road initiative), Modi has advocated SAGAR (security and growth for all regionally) in the IOR, as also an Asia-Africa corridor with Japan as a major partner.

Harmonising these initiatives in a consensual and cooperative manner could lay the foundation for a less discordant Indo-Pacific community – 16 of whose members will steam away from Port Blair on 13 March at the concluding Pasex (passage exercise), till they congregate again at the next MILAN in 2020.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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