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"Thousand-Ship Navy": A Reincarnation of the Controversial P.S.I.?

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 28, 2006

    Among the foremost security concerns of the US after 9/11 is the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) by terrorists on its territory and their proliferation through inimical states. The global stretch of the predominantly maritime threat and the 'overstretch' of the US Navy have led to the initiation of a series of American initiatives like Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), Container Security Initiative (CSI) and Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), all aimed at mobilizing global support to secure the US 'homeland'.

    A "Thousand-ship Navy" (TSN) is another novel concept; recently defined by the US Navy's Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Mike Mullen as "a global maritime partnership that unites maritime forces, port operators, commercial shippers, and international, governmental and nongovernmental agencies to address mutual concerns." He added that it "isn't just about the US Navy having relationships with 10 countries and adding up all those ships. It's the fact that these nations have relationships contributing to a greater global maritime security." The TSN is thus showcased as a benign initiative, aimed at obtaining the co-operation of "friendly navies" (including the Indian Navy), primarily through information exchange, to enhance what the US Navy calls its "maritime domain awareness".

    What imperatives led to the TSN after a series of similar initiatives? What is its import and implication for India in case the Indian Navy joins it? Answers to these questions are probably linked to the initiatives that precede TSN. The PSI has not succeeded in garnering sufficient support, particularly from the key states located astride the likely proliferation sea-routes. The reasons are that maritime interdictions under PSI are neither within the ambit of the UN Charter nor within that of the UNCLOS; and more importantly, its agenda of targeting "states of proliferation concern" is perceived to bear an escalatory potential (currently in the context of North Korea and Iran). Through the RMSI launched in mid-2004, the US intended to deploy its Marines and Special Forces on fast boats in the Malacca Straits. While the stated aim of this initiative was to counter piracy and terrorism, its hidden agenda was again to further PSI in the vital waterway used by more than 60,000 ships every year carrying a quarter of global trade. Given that a major portion of the Malacca Straits falls within the territorial-sea limits of the Straits-littorals, Indonesia and Malaysia rejected it outright stating that it would violate their national sovereignty.

    The TSN is thus evidently an effort to remove the contentious facets of PSI, and yet continue with the goal of counter-proliferation. The concept therefore negates the possibility of the US deploying its forces in the territorial waters of other states. It does not speak about interdictions of suspect vessels in the high seas. Furthermore, it does not target state actors. The 'carrot' to these "friendly navies" is the benefit they would derive through access to information on maritime threats that directly impinge on their security. Only time will tell as to what extent it would translate into 'practical terms', because the US may be unwilling to part with much of the intelligence data that is sensitive.

    Notwithstanding that the TSN amounts to 'PSI by other means', India's support to the concept could be favourably considered. Although the TSN is another exercise by the US that projects itself as a 'globo-cop', it would contribute to arresting the increasing disorder in the maritime realm. New Delhi's principal objection to the PSI has been its conflict with the international legal regime, which is not the case with TSN. By backing TSN, India would be enmeshed within the US intelligence grid, for whatever it may be worth. Finally, but not the least important, is the dividend that would accrue to India in terms of politico-diplomatic goodwill and symbolism in being a partner in managing the gravest global threat of proliferation and possible terrorist use of WMDs.

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