Chairing a meeting of the UN Security Council, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says that maritime disputes should be settled peacefully and on the basis of international law.

The UN Security Council is the most consequential international body in the world, which is why it is a surprise why earlier Prime Ministers of India did not chair any of its meetings, leaving that honour to Prime Minister Modi. On August 9, 2020, Prime Minister Modi became the first Head of Government in India to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council. This was a welcome step, as it indicates that India still has faith in the UN system, despite its being overlooked not just in the matter of the composition of the Permanent Members of the UNSC but subsequently as well has failed to be included. In the UNSC, among the P-5, only China opposes India’s candidacy as a Permanent Member. The other P-5 members support the admission of the world’s most populous democracy to their ranks. Given this attitude of the PRC, as well as then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s refusal during the discussions on the composition of the UNSC to include India, it was perhaps no surprise that the British and Chinese Heads of Government were conspicuous by their absence from the UNSC discussion on maritime security that was chaired by Prime Minister Modi. While President Putin of the Russian Federation, President Kenyatta of Kenya, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Le Drian of France attended, not even the Foreign Ministers of the PRC or the UK attended the first meeting chaired by the Prime Minister of the country that has a sixth of the population of the world, and which in purchasing power parity terms has become the third largest economy on the globe. This when it was clear that a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi would have at the least hugely consequential discussions, and very possibly, important outcomes.

What was enunciated in the brief but pointed introductory address of the Session Chairperson, Prime Minister Modi, was nothing less than a Maritime Freedom Charter that every country in the world who values peace and prosperity ought to support. This is an era when a certain country that has inter alia laid claim almost to the entirety of the South China Sea solely on the basis of its nomenclature (if we are to set aside the imaginary dashes and maps that have been produced in support of a claim of ownership on what are clearly part of the global commons). While certain countries that are working to impose through threats and bluster Zero Sum solutions to several issues that have already been settled in international law, such as land and sea boundaries, the PM spoke about the need to ensure a Win-Win outcome, rather than the colonial era approach of a single country gaining all the benefits at the expense of the rest. He spoke about how the ancients were wise enough to ensure freedom of navigation (and indeed, an absence of visas for travel), and called for the removal of barriers to maritime trade and traffic. The need to respect the rights of sailors was emphasised, India contributing over 10% of the sailors on the high seas at any particular time, who have been facing problems that have their origins in a contempt for international law by a particular country that became the world’s second largest economy precisely because of the freedoms that it is now seeking to trample upon. Inclusivity was the watchword and the outcome sought, never exclusion (such as that practiced in the UNSC by a country that has long been opposed to the inclusion of India as a Permanent Member). If there is to be tranquillity and prosperity, there must be growth and security for all, said the Prime Minister. The entire global community rather than any cabal of states needed to design and implement a framework for a maritime environment that is sustainable, stable and secure.

It was important, Prime Minister Modi pointed out, that the resources devoted to individual projects should not be such as to result in financial disaster for a country. Or, in other words, become a debt trap, in the manner that several schemes that have been implemented under the supervision of a member of the P-5 have become. The need to respect the rights of all, and to always ensure that disputes were settled peacefully, were reiterated. Some of the suggestions made by the PM in his Maritime Freedom Charter could also be incorporated in an Indo-Pacific Charter that could be signed between the four members of the Quadrilateral Alliance. Just as the Atlantic Charter heralded the flowering of the Atlanticist era, the Indo-Pacific Charter would set the parameters for the Indo-Pacific era. In the meantime, Prime Minister Modi, joined by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, needs to work on securing the broadest possible Coalition of the Willing on the Maritime Freedom Charter that in outline has been presented by Prime Minister Modi in his address to the UNSC. When some powers act in an irresponsible manner, it is important for those having a sense of commitment and responsibility towards ensuring a secure and prosperous maritime come together to build a permanent framework for the vision presented by the Prime Minister and by the other Heads of State and Government as well as Cabinet members of a diverse array of countries who spoke at the UNSC meeting chaired by PM Modi. The direction has been set, but the work only begins now.