India Should Take Leadership Role in Indian Ocean Region

When the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, warned about terrorists potentially using shipping containers for transporting nuclear weapons, he was in a way referring to the need for comprehensive security measures against proliferation by sea, which incidentally is deemed as the most frequented route of proliferators, especially in the Indian Ocean region.

Coming close on the heels of the acquittal of disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who ran a clandestine proliferation network, Mehta's warning was implicit with a message for the government to get its act together even if it meant participating in international initiatives in dealing with proliferation threats.

The fact that the warning came a day after the takeover of Swat Valley by the Taliban, which External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee referred to as the greatest threat for the region, highlights the apprehensions in New Delhi on the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons or resources falling into the hands of extremist elements like Taliban, which has in recent times directly threatened India.

While highlighting these threats, Mehta made references to the navy's interests, as well as concerns, on the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which is among the handful of counter proliferation initiatives launched by the erstwhile Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks to deal with proliferation risks including possibilities of terror groups accessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) resources.

Launched in January 2002, CSI envisages screening containers at foreign ports by US Customs, in conjunction with their host-nation counterparts, before being shipped to US ports. The Initiative intends to create a network of ports across friendly countries where surveillance and monitoring systems would undertake automated non-intrusive screening of containers.

However, national enforcement agencies would be uncomfortable with the presence of US Customs officials in their ports and sensitive maritime facilities. Installing CSI systems would also entail major technological and financial investments as well as delays that can come with cumbersome checks. However, the mere fact that such advanced monitoring technology to detect WMD material would be made available in Indian ports would be a boost to India's maritime interests. Considering the intensity of exports to the US, Indian exporters would prefer to make their shipments CSI-compliant at the first opportunity to avoid procedural hassles and financial losses.

On the Indian side, the main hindrance is purportedly the reservations raised by Indian Customs on the presence of US officials in Indian ports as well as the likely conflict over operational control and jurisdiction over CSI systems. The government has reportedly worked on codes of operational conduct and jurisdictional definitions in order to address these concerns. In July 2007, the government considered granting approval for the CSI's "Declaration of Principles and Basic Implementation Procedures" though a final decision was deferred. Nevertheless, it has been reported that since early 2005, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in Navi Mumbai has been equipped with integrated systems to make it CSI-compliant.

Meanwhile, the CSI is fast emerging as a benchmark for exporters trading with the US as Washington now insists on its imports to be CSI-compliant. Though it is at present an arrangement between the US and partner states, Washington intends to establish a network of CSI ports across the globe, and in the long run expand it into a global benchmark for oceanic trade.

Of equal significance is another US-promoted move - the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) - which is a grouping of over 90 countries partnering to interdict proliferation material in air, on land, or at sea. As an activity-driven initiative, the PSI encourages partner states to use the strengths of their national legal authorities to interdict ships of their jurisdiction individually or in conjunction with other states that could notify the presence of proliferated WMD material in vessels belonging to a flag state.

Though military interdiction per se is not an accepted norm in international law, the PSI draws its strength from the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 and the 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention (Convention for Suppression of Unlawful Activities against the Safety of Maritime Navigation), both of which call for steps at the national and international level to deal with WMD proliferation, including proliferation by non-state actors.

India has been wary of the PSI due to political sensitivities and its potential implications for its security interests. When India was first invited to join this initiative, it had raised questions on its decision-making structures, based on which Washington dismantled the initiative's core group in August 2005.

Another primary concern for India is the reference in the 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention which allows only state parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to undertake legal nuclear trade. Being non-NPT states, India and Pakistan had then opposed such references to the NPT as being discriminatory.

However, with the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver enabling India to undertake nuclear commerce, the doors have now opened for India to consider its participation in the PSI. Being a key player in the Indian Ocean region, which is infested with pirates, proliferators and terrorists, India will have to play a greater role in anti-proliferation activities in the region in sync with its commitment in the July 18, 2005, joint statement issued after the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then US president George Bush.

Though the Indian Navy is known to be interested in the PSI, the government was reluctant despite consistent pressure from the Bush administration. New Delhi has now adopted a wait-and-watch policy to see how the new dispensation in Washington would deal with the controversial initiatives of the Bush administration.

However, President Barack Obama is expected to be equally committal on expanding the PSI's mandate. During the election campaign, Obama had vowed to institutionalize the PSI and ensure its greater permeation as a means to stop shipments of WMD materials and their delivery systems worldwide. Despite being a Bush administration programme, the PSI has grown in strength in the past five years, starting from 11 states to over 90 countries having declared support for the initiative.

With a new administration now at the helm, there is likely to be heightened pressure in the coming days for India to join the PSI. Besides Obama's backing for the Initiative, it has to be noted that the Henry J. Hyde Act, which mandated the India-U.S nuclear deal, had mandated the US government to ensure India's participation in the PSI and acquire support for its Statement of Interdiction Principles.

Being committed to play a greater role in global non-proliferation efforts as a reciprocal step in the nuclear deal, India would find it difficult to stay away from global anti-proliferation initiatives like the CSI and PSI. While ensuring its interests are best served, India could use these platforms to spearhead the movement against terrorism and WMD proliferation and gain a leadership role in the Indian Ocean region.

(A. Vinod Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at vinodidsa@gmail.com.)


More by :  A. Vinod Kumar

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