The Indian Ocean Conference entered its second edition this August in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Organized by India Foundation, New Delhi in association with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and think tanks in Sri Lanka, the Conference focused on the themes of ‘Peace, Progress and Prosperity’. Presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and secretaries, naval officers, strategic affairs experts and scholars from more than 35 countries attended the conference to discuss prospects for a shared Indian Ocean identity and security architecture among the littoral states.
The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest body of water which covers about one fifth of the world’s total ocean area, providing critical sea routes that connect the Middle East, Africa and South Asia with the Asian continent to the east and Europe to the west. The 32 countries around the Indian Ocean littoral for the most part are developing and middle income countries, with varying levels of development, stability and security. Issues surrounding depleting fish reserves, piracy and rise of non-state actors, affect the region as a whole.
External Affairs Minister of India, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, underscored the strategic importance of the region in her opening remarks at the conference Inaugural speech: “Today, the Indian Ocean is the one of busiest and most critical maritime transportation links in the world. Almost a hundred thousand ships a year pass through these waters, carrying about half of the world’s container shipments, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the oil shipments. The fact that three quarters of this traffic is headed for destinations beyond the region underlines the fact that the Indian Ocean is of vital importance well beyond the shores of the littoral states”.
In search of an Indian Ocean identity:
India’s Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar raised the question of reviving the ethos of the Indian Ocean region and lauded the Conference for being an positive affirmation towards this objective. Mr. Sanjeev Sanyal, Principal Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, Govt. of India, too alluded to the need for an Indian Ocean identity, a story narrated by the people within this region that was until now dictated by powers having vested interest in the resource rich and strategic trade pathways of the region. By tracing its history, Mr. Sanyal brought out the nodes and connections that guided trade, religious and cultural contact between the Indian Ocean states. It provided a base for moving towards a common identity that had been broken due to Colonial endeavors and narrower conceptions of boundaries and nation-states adopted after the Indian Ocean littoral states attained independence. Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, Prasad Kariyawasam emphasized the need to promote people-to-people contacts among countries in the region and promote an ‘Indian Ocean region’ identity among citizens of the littoral states.
Rules based (US-led) world order in danger? : Confronting the Dragon in the Oceans and Seas
Delegates and Ministers from Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka reiterated their respective countries’ commitment to upholding and implementing the rule of law in international relations. “We believe in the force of law over force of arms”, reiterated Mr. Toh Anh Dzung, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vietnam and further added that the cornerstone of international relations is being eroded in the South China Sea, thus undermining peace and security within Southeast Asia.
Japanese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Iwao Horii impressed upon the delegates to stand firm to uphold freedom, democracy and the rule of law in the Indian Ocean region. Speaking just two days after North Korea launched a missile that flew over Hokkaido, Japan, triggering grave security concerns in the region and the lingering tensions in the South China Sea, Mr Horii exhorted countries to “raise their voices collectively and oppose all activities that threaten the rule of law”.
These sentiments were echoed by Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, who called for a rule-based order in the Indian Ocean as a necessary precondition to preserve peace and security in the region.
There was an unspoken fear among the participating countries, of a South China Sea like conundrum emerging in the Indian Ocean, leading to palpable concern over the region becoming a potential flashpoint for a new type of Cold war geopolitics. If the dragon in the room was not named on the first day, the second day of conference saw that spell broken, when General James S. Hartsell, representing Admiral Harry Harris of the United States Pacific Command, launched his attack on China for attempting to break the rules based international order.
Reiterating the importance of the Indian Ocean region from the perspective of trade and security, General Hartsell laid emphasis on the rules based international system as the primary reason for peace and progress in the region. “However, this very system is being challenged by certain countries who choose to reject the accepted frameworks of norms standards, rules and laws that are foundational and have underpinned the international system and the inclusive security network that supports it and instead pursue a more self-serving path”, he noted.
Pointing to the behaviour of China in the South China Sea, he argued that China is using its military and economic power to dampen freedom and navigation there, thus eroding the rules-based international order. By building combat power and positional advantage in an attempt to assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features and spaces in the South China Sea, he noted that China is fundamentally altering the physical and political landscape. It is doing so by creating militarised man-made bases using “tone-deaf propaganda” to justify these unprovoked aggressions as intended for rescuing wayward fishermen. Angst and uncertainty are on the rise causing alarm among neighbouring nations, he assessed.
Asserting the United States’ authority to counter China, General Hartsell reiterated with conviction that the United States forces will continue to fly and sail and operate throughout the globe in accordance with international law to ensure that the privilege that’s afforded to all nations is not superseded by any one country. He called for the world to cooperate with China where possible and underlined the basis of cooperation that begins with and ends with norms and international law.
Appreciating India and PM Modi’s conduct in the international seas and acceptance of international law, he positioned India as a leader in regional security, thus explicitly acknowledging Indian leadership in the Indian Ocean as an effective counter to a growing Chinese presence.
China’s strategic game plan in the Indian Ocean:
There seemed an obvious mismatch between the looming Chinese presence in the IOR and their delegation in attendance during the Conference. While there was no ministerial representation from China, Mr. Ruan Zongze addressed the gathering on the second day, beginning with a disclaimer. His speech would reflect his view and not that of the Chinese government, he stated. However, being a former Chinese diplomat and currently associated with the China Institute of International Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry, PRC, it was difficult to accept such a claim at face value.
Throughout his speech, Mr.Zongze made attempts to impress upon the audience that China indeed is a “nation of the Indian Ocean” and a South Asian nation”. Using the crutches of history, China was presented as being traditionally tied to the Indian Ocean through trade and cultural contacts and in contemporary times through the OBOR initiative.
China today is the number two oil consumer and ranks first in crude oil imports in the world. More than 70 percent of China’s oil imports come from the Gulf and African regions. As a nation aiming to take centre stage in the world politics, China’s growing energy needs are being used to build a narrative that the Indian Ocean is of vital interest to China, first to strengthen its energy security and secondly as part of its two-ocean strategy. The two-ocean strategy suggests that China needs to get back control of waters surrounding it and this includes not just the near-seas consisting of East and South China Sea, the Yellow Sea but also the “two-oceans” i.e. the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Opportunities and Challenges for India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR):
The Indian Ocean is not just a vast ocean but a living entity having nurtured many trade voyages, cultures and religions. The diversity of such a boundary within which lie the nation-states with different political, economic and social dispensations, at once presents a challenge and opportunity to build a common Indian Ocean identity.
This conference outreach to cement Indian Ocean identity and security architecture comes in wake of China weighing in heavily on minds of India and the region’s littoral states. Genuine fears of a South China Sea like situation in the region already fraught with contentions could hamper the developmental prospects of these nations, affecting overall stability of the region.
The conference facilitated a broad consensus among all the countries in the Indian Ocean region that the Indian Ocean would not be reduced to an Ocean of one country and that rule of law and freedom of navigation would be upheld. In effect it signalled a strong resolve to work in tandem towards ensuring that the region does not succumb to China’s grand plans in the region.
It also signalled that the littoral countries acknowledged India’s leadership in ensuring the region remains free of potential competition and India’s role in bringing together nations to forge a common identity in times of uncertainty. India’s SAGAR –“Security and Growth for All in the Region”, seeks to outline a clear articulation of its vision for the Indian Ocean.
These are enhancing capacities to safeguard land and maritime territories & interests; deepening economic and security cooperation in the littoral; promoting collective action to deal with natural disasters and maritime threats like piracy, terrorism and emergent non-state actors; working towards sustainable regional development through enhanced collaboration; and, engaging with countries beyond Indian shores with the aim of building greater trust and promoting respect for maritime rules, norms and peaceful resolution of disputes.
The principles enshrined in SAGAR provide India with a coherent framework to address some of the challenges relating to economic revival, connectivity, security, culture and identity, and India’s own evolving approach to these issues and further cementing support for India’s leadership in the region.