Recently, I happened to attend the 6th Indian Ocean conference ,2023 in Dhaka which was organized by the India Foundation in collaboration with Ministry of External Affairs of India and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh among others.
Earlier editions were hosted in Singapore, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi among others. The theme of the conference was Peace, Prosperity and Partnership for a resilient future. Indian Ocean is the 3rd largest water body with 36 littoral states covering the Asian and African continents from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca straits with important choke points whose freedom of navigation remains a major concern for the world and more so for the littorals and island nations are threatened and may be submerged in a few decades if not years due to rising sea levels.
India has traditionally been a resident power as it encompasses over 40 percent of the surface area of the ocean and almost wholly depends on its energy imports through the ocean sea lanes and over 2/3rds of her trade using the maritime routes . Hence it is obvious that it takes initiatives that ensure the regional security in all its strategic and common sense dimensions.
But with the advent of Chinese unbridled hegemony and the US ‘s Indo-Pacific focus and policy, often implying containment of a malignant China, has brought about new elements of uncertainty and the predominance of geo politics and geo economics closer home to the Indian Ocean community. Indo-Pacific doctrines, especially since the QUAD (with India, Australia, Japan and USA) became more active and functional with Summits and specific and focused initiatives, have become rather frequent both from the regional and extra regional powers alike.
The most recent one was by the host country Bangladesh which follows a foreign policy dictum of ‘Friendship with all; Malice towards none’ as was laid down by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. In fact Bangladesh had conceived the idea of a maritime order and importance some six years before the UNCLOS – the constitution of the seas was charted out in 1982. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina hit the nail saying that ‘”The theme becomes all the more relevant in the light of the recent Covid-19 pandemic, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and consequent sanctions and counter-sanctions.
These have posed unprecedented challenges for all nations world over.” She advanced the six points mantra which included ‘Foster maritime diplomacy; cooperate to overcome Climate change vulnerabilities; Mutual trust and respect among countries; strengthen existing mechanisms for maritime safety and security; and promote a culture of peace and people centric development; promote open, transparent and rules based maritime order and multilateral systems “. President of Mauritius and Vice President of Maldives and scores of Ministers underscored the challenges specific to themselves and sought greater regional cooperation.
India has also actively advanced the interactions and several initiatives through the Indian Ocean Rim Ocean (IORA) and her SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region). There are other important organizations like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi sectoral Cooperation which are coming of age and have a unique centrality to the Indian Ocean as the ASEAN has for the Indo-Pacific.
Like wise there are competing organizations with overlapping memberships like the China led RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and US floated IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Forum) mostly focusing on the geo economic contestations. How do they harmonize their quest and cross cutting objectives will be a challenge that the nations will have to deal with if they are intending to have a cordial Indian ocean community and their own secured future, howsoever idyllic it may sound.
Indian Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar underscored that the Indian Ocean has its own unique characteristics and challenges for which regional cooperation and convergences are essential in addition to what happens in the Indo-Pacific domain.
He specified “ while the world has seized the larger domain of the Indo pacific the issues and challenges of each core constituents or each nation in the Indian Ocean cooperation should not be underplayed highlighted that many nations in the Indian Ocean still address developmental challenges that may no longer be relevant even while impressing the essential coherence of the Indo Pacific, and therefore those in the Indo Pacific should focus determinately on the Indian Ocean nations and their challenges.”
He reiterated India’s commitment to the welfare of all in the Indian Ocean region while highlighting “We have dedicated bodies like the Indian Ocean Rim Association or the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), with their specific mandates. We expand on that belief through the Neighborhood First policy, the SAGAR outlook and our approach to the extended neighborhood”.
He however did not discount the other regional challenges while mentioning ‘when nations disregard their legal obligations or violate long-standing agreements, the damage to trust and confidence is immense. “It is therefore essential that all of us take the long view of our cooperation, rather than a tactical one of our interests.” He further added that better connectivity with respect for sovereignty of nations is best way forward.
More over as Ram Madhav, a leading thinker and strategist commented in Daily Star that most countries in the region from Indonesia to Iran and from East Africa to Asean share historic civilizational bonds that are cherished to this day. This is clearly evident in the enthusiastic participation of the member countries in growing and securing the Indian Ocean and its resources from Blue Economy to Circular Economy and climate smart development while ensuring the security of the marine life.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who is retiring next month, and her deputy recounted various US initiatives in the region and their commitment to the Indian ocean and Indo-Pacific is for the long haul. Whether it is for geo politics and geo economics is a moot question that often becomes too stark to be ignored.
UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Seas) since 1982 is the ‘Constitution of the Seas’ but ironically while China does not abide by it the United States does not even recognize it. How do you bring about an international rule based maritime order when major powers become the biggest defaulters. Free and Open Indo-Pacific becomes a hoax.
As such the Indian Ocean like others is facing tremendous challenges with Climate Change, Plastic dumping and pollution, piracy and terrorism, damage to marine life, illegal and unreported fishing, maritime security concerns, drugs and human trafficking which have a destructive impact on the ocean itself . Oceans have become the carbons sinks of the world.
As Suresh Prabhu a former Indian Minister rightly said that although the Indian Ocean has saved and sustained the humanity for so long but now it is crying for help to save it from indiscriminate human profligacy and madness. Oceans are a life line for our very existence and we can meddle with them at our own peril.
Can the world fight against climate change and terrorism by forgetting geo politics and geo economics even if in the short term to try and retrieve what already seems unrecoverable.! And that is the moot and gaping question for the world leadership who in reality are short changing the global goods and commons for their myopic expediency while overtly talking of Peace, Prosperity and Partnerships as the ultimate goal. Let’s wake up and smell the coffee.
This article was first published in The Indian Observer as Trigs on Track -Diplomacy Unwound: Indian Ocean – The Future, if preserved on May 17, 2023.
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