A week into India’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) month-long presidency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a debate on maritime security.
The debate, titled, ‘Enhancing Maritime Security — A Case for International Cooperation’, had heads of state or government in attendance, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta and Premier of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh.
The UNSC adopted a ‘Presidential [India’s] Statement’ which reaffirmed that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) establishes the legal framework for maritime activities.
Prime Minister Modi outlined a five-principle framework for the debate. The first was removing barriers to maritime trade. In this context, Mr Modi highlighted SAGAR (‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’) — a 2015 Indian framework for regional maritime security.
“For free, maritime trade, it is also necessary that we fully respect the rights of the seafarers of other countries,” Mr. Modi said.
Second, Mr. Modi said, maritime disputes “should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law,” adding that this was “extremely important for promoting mutual trust and confidence, and ensuring global peace and stability.”
“It was with this understanding, and maturity, that India resolved its maritime boundary with its neighbour Bangladesh,” the Prime Minister said.
Mr. Modi underlining the need for maritime disputes to be resolved peacefully is presumably aimed at China’s actions in the South China Sea, where it has militarised islands and unilaterally enforced its claims over disputed waters. That was also a point Mr. Modi had underlined in his speech on India and the Indo-Pacific at the 2018 Shangri La dialogue, where he said India supported “a common rules-based order for the region” that “must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “rules and norms based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few”, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes.
The third principle Mr Modi proposed at Monday’s debate was that countries jointly tackle maritime threats from non-state actors and natural disasters.
“India’s role in the Indian Ocean has been that of a net security provider,” he said.
Fourth, he said the maritime environment and marine resources needed to be conserved, highlighting pollution from plastic waste and oil spills.
Fifth, Mr Modi called for responsible maritime connectivity, saying a structure was required to boost maritime trade, with the development of global norms and standards.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar chaired the meeting after Mr Modi. Several speeches, including that of Mr. Modi, Mr. Putin and Mr. Blinken were interrupted or overlaid in parts by a non-muted microphone.
Putin-Blinken spat Mr Putin was the only Head of State/ Government of the Permanent-5 or P-5 members of the UNSC who participated in the discussion.
“Russia has always played an important role in global maritime security. It is an important player in global security, safety and prosperity,” Mr. Modi said after Mr. Putin’s remarks.
This was in sharp contrast to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comments on Russia later in the debate.
“In the Black Sea, Kerch Strait, the Sea of Azov, we see continued aggressive actions against Ukraine with dangerous incursions on the sea and in the air, and the harassment of vessels, which are disrupting commerce, and energy access,” Mr Blinken said, in a reference to Russia. He suggested China was violating maritime laws and he held Iran responsible for the attack on MV Mercer Street.
“Somebody asserts that resolving the dispute in the South China Sea is not the business of the United States or any other country that is not a claimant to the islands and waters,” Mr Blinken said. “But it is the business. And even more — the responsibility — of every member state to defend the rules that we all agreed to follow and peacefully resolve maritime disputes,” he said.
“What’s more, when a state faces no consequences for ignoring these rules, it fuels greater impunity and instability everywhere,” he added.
The U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS but recognizes it as international law.
China was represented by its Deputy Representative to the UN, Dai Bing. Referring indirectly to the Quad — the grouping of India, Australia, the U.S. and Japan — Mr Dai slammed the formation of “exclusive groupings” and pointed out that the United States has not signed UNCLOS.
“The UNSC is not the right platform for a discussion on the South China Sea,” Mr Dai said, referring to Mr Blinken’s remarks.
He also referred to several instances in which marine life was affected by the industrial actions of major powers, calling out Japan for releasing the radioactive water of the Fukushima nuclear reactors.
The African Union was represented by the DRC’s s Christophe Lutundula Apala PenApala, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. India has been a proponent of greater representation of African interests at the Security Council.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the maritime domain has emerged as a theatre for new generation of challenges and urged greater cooperation among the members of the UN Security Council to deal with the issue. He also condemned the attack on MV Mercer Street, as did UK’s Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace who was present at the meeting.
“Like India, the UK has a vision for a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific. That is why the United Kingdom’s recent Integrated Review of Foreign, Security, Defence and Development policy set out the importance we attach to the Indo-Pacific,” Mr. Wallace said.
“Whatever happens there, matters to the world,” he said.