Fleet Reviews are a mix of might, pride, pageantry and signalling. The tradition of fleet reviews is as old as fleets itself, when the Commander in Chief personally sailed past the formation to ascertain preparedness and build morale. The information age has reinforced its signalling role where its gets quicker and wider publicity than ever before. This signalling isn’t limited to realpolitik understanding of navies, but extends to multiple domains, like getting to know other navies and developing a shared understanding of global commons. These are crucial building blocks in developing a shared narrative about sea that is vital for all. In essence, such reviews reflect the versatile spectrum that the warships represent-as a goodwill ambassador in a moment and sovereign might at the other. These become important when oceans are acquiring a greater role in global affairs, especially in the Indo Pacific.
MH Rajesh comments it is more an overall maritime resurgence, than naval, to an analysis by Geoffrey Tills piece at this link
The International Fleet Review hosted by India in February 2016 at Vishakhapatnam must be seen in that broader context. A total of 48 nations attended this review. 24 ships representing 21 different nations dotted the coastline off Vishakhapatnam that day. Some nations like China, Oman and USA sent two ships to the event. 22 countries were represented by their naval chiefs themselves. Those nations which were not represented by Chiefs sent a delegation or a representative, thereby taking the participation to 48 nations. Interestingly, representatives of at least two countries without a coast line, namely Switzerland and Turkmenistan attended the review. Their presence added a certain grace and highlighted an oceanic nuance that is less understood. After all every nation irrespective of its geographic location have certain rights over the global commons.
Every five years, which is the term of a President, a fleet review is held in India. This International review held after a gap of 10 years is only the second such international event and also the second review on the East Coast of India. It heralded a few other things apart from its core objectives mentioned earlier. It also saw the resurgence of a great maritime city. Vishakhapatnam, the host city was ravaged by a devastating cyclone, the fiercest in a hundred years in October 2014. The city had sprung back to life again, like phoenix, stepping up to the requirements of a review. That was a very significant and heartening aside of the review. There are very few Indian cities that adore and has adapted the Navy into its own urban, civil narrative as much as Vishakhapatnam. That it also looks east adds flair to that fact!
Living up to the theme of ‘united through oceans’, it brought together naval representatives of nations that would otherwise not be generally seen together like Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was also significant that it brought together countries like Israel, Sudan, Qatar, Israel, Djibouti and Bahrain who are currently not members of both Indian Ocean based organisations like IORA and IONS. Such an achievement of maritime diplomacy, to get otherwise reclusive oceanic neighbours together, should be furthered in a time when Indian Ocean so vital to global prosperity is rife with non-traditional threats like terrorism.
It also highlighted the renewed Indian perspective about the oceans, a sentiment that gathered pace in recent past, wherein islands, diaspora, energy lines, domestic transportation matrix, all are getting that much needed fillip. The flawlessly executed IFR has been a great cog of continuum in that trajectory. The occasion also saw the announcement of Maritime India Summit 2016, the maiden global summit being organised by the Ministry of Shipping in April, to unleash the potential of Indian Maritime Sector. More than 50 other maritime nations have also been invited to attend that Summit- that would address the other side of coin-maritime commerce and economy. The sea, therefore is gently acquiring its apposite niche in New Delhi’s mind map, it is not only a naval moment- but a point of maritime inflection affecting commerce and economy.