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VOLATILE WATERS

Sea change

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The seas hold the key. In case, just in case, the world does not end this weekend, we will be looking at a very interesting 2013. Emerging conflicts or emerging alliances around seas are likely to determine security networks among key countries in the world. Large swathes of blue will be the theatre for some serious geo-political action going forward.

Try this for size - the uncertain part of the world now is not the badlands of Pakistan-Afghanistan, but sundry island chains in Asia-Pacific. In Af-Pak, the world will be pleasantly surprised if things take a turn for the better, so nobody is holding their breath. But up in east Asia, the cast of characters in a potential conflict are some of the top economies of the world. Although India is not a party to the disputes roiling these freezing waters, we are smoking something really strange if we think conflict or confrontation here will not affect us deeply. Like it or not, India needs to craft out a detailed policy on everything from the Sea of Japan to South China Sea and all the way up to the Straits of Hormuz.

Up in northeast Asia, Park Gyeun-Hye, who just won a handsome victory, promises a path of more equitable economic growth for Koreans. But her foreign policy is likely to be more conservative. As east Asia's first woman president, Gyeun-Hye is circumspect about cosying up to the North Koreans, but unlikely to junk them outright. That opens up different possibilities about dealing with this hermit kingdom, starving but with a growing nuclear arsenal. Among her first tasks will be to define her approach to Japan and China. This could affect how she deals with missile-happy Pyongyang, carve out a defence agreement with the US, or be sitting atop a simmering eruption on the Dokdo/Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan.

Tokyo turned right this week when Shinzo Abe rode back into town with a massive election victory that may finally give some political peace to a troubled Japan. Abe has two important tasks at hand, both of which have implications for India. He needs to get the Japanese economic engine fired up again out of its Rip Van Winkle state. Second, he will want to put some meat on the bones of Japanese defence structures. That particular decision will have enormous implications for Japan's force projection in its neighbourhood, as well as in helping the international cause of keeping sea lanes free for navigation. How will a militarised Japan affect its neighbourhood ? How will China react? Or others who have their own histories with Japan? India will quietly endorse a stronger Japan,

In the ASEAN region, the South China Sea dispute between China and several southeast Asian nations will define the 45-year-old organisation for some time to come. Here, India has not only commercial interests, in terms of oil exploration blocks, but strategic interests as well. During the ASEAN summits which peppered the last couple of months, including the one in Delhi this week, countries like Vietnam and Singapore raised concerns. A chance comment by our Navy chief was great news for Philippines but drew fire from China.

It's important therefore, for India to craft a position that can roll off the tongue as easily by the soldier as the diplomat. It can only come after an honest assessment of its strategic interests and concerns over the coming decades, based on its capacities and future power projections. This week PM Manmohan Singh readily added "Indo-Pacific" to India's strategic vocabulary. If India has to quantify this term, New Delhi had better start sharpening pencils.

India's claim to the Indo-Pacific can only hold water if India has a credible, achievable strategy on the Indian Ocean. India needs to be the primary care-giver and custodian for this body of water. How it articulates and achieves its goals here, how it resources its security strategy here and how it can collaborate with interested nations, will determine India's strategic future. Sri Lanka, Maldives, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, Tanzania and Mozambique, will all play key roles and India will need to marry its security, diplomatic and economic interests along the Indian Ocean Rim.

If the Straits of Hormuz present clear and present concerns because of Iran's troubles with the US, how should India address, for instance, the potential opening up of the Arctic Ocean? It's unlikely that Indian ships would venture that far. But that's not the point. The opening up of the Northern sea route, and it will happen over the next few years, will completely change the strategic environment for a large part of the world, including India. Check out the figures. This year, over 46 vessels sailed the route, compared to 34 in 2011 and only four in 2010.

When the Northern Sea Route is fully navigable, China or Japan's reliance on volatile seas in the south may be significantly reduced. What will be the stakes for India then? How will Indian interests be affected? We need a plan.

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