Intro: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent trips to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka has brought the Indian ocean diplomacy to the fore.
India, of late, has woken up to realise the importance of oceans, more particularly the one in its vicinity. Better late than never, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a humble beginning for integrating with countries in the Indian Ocean rim. While security in the region remains a major concern, another recipe for integration is the call for cooperation in the development of Blue Economy—A business model that will shift society from scarcity to abundance with what is locally available.
Modi in his recent visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka urged for cooperation in Blue Economy which is a multi disciplinary approach for exploitation of hydrocarbons and other marine resources, deep sea fishing, preservation of marine ecology, mitigating climate change problems by addressing environmental issues and disaster management. India with its advancement in science and technology is in a position to lend its expertise in deep sea bed activities, hydrographic surveys, weather predictions. India has a long record of hydrographic surveys of Seychelles and Mauritius. The agenda for combating climate change and stress on renewable sources of energy are likely to gain support from many small island economies and littoral states.
Indian Ocean region is strategically important as vital Sea Lane of Communication (SLOCs) pass through this region from Hormuz Strait, Suez Canal, Red Sea and Persian Gulf to Strait of Malacca to South China Sea. These most critical trade routes carry almost two-third of global energy trade, half of world’s containerised cargo and a third of global bulk cargo. Security is, therefore, an important aspect. Maritime piracy, threats of terrorist attacks, possible attacks by private mercenaries, money laundering are the issues that needs to be dealt with cooperation.
Launching of the coastal surveillance radar project, assurance for giving another Dornier aircraft, agreements on hydrographic survey and development of infrastructure in the Assumption Island and other development assistance are the recent initiation of hydro-politics with Seychelles by Prime Minister Modi. He in his recent visit to Mauritius also gave similar gestures through the joint commissioning of the offshore patrol vessel Barracuda—An Indian built naval petrol vessel; an agreement to develop Agalega Island and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on ocean economy alongwith other development assistance. He invited both Seychelles and Mauritius to join the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral naval exercise. Will these two countries be prepared to join the trilateral? Of course Prime Minister Modi could not have scheduled his visit to Maldives owing to internal political problems leading to the arrest of its former President Mohammad Nasheed. However, India-Maldives relations have not reached a level of
embitterment to cause much concern. But, New Delhi should still remain cautious in its approach.
After President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office in Sri Lanka there are new hopes for improving ties with India. New Delhi wants to give some more time to Sirisena to resolve the Tamil issue and problems relating to Indian fishermen that have been aggravated after the accords signed in 1974 and 1976 leading to the loss of territorial waters and Katchatheevu Island to India. Setting up of a joint task force on ocean economy, apart from other development cooperation and assistance are among the
gestures, New Delhi extended to its immediate island neighbour for cooperation in the Indian Ocean rim.
Prime Minister Modi has, thus, ventured to initiate a new hydro-politics in the Indian Ocean gluing both security and Blue Economy. He expressed his intention to
rope in more countries in the region as partners in the existing India-Maldives-Sri
But the umbrella multilateral fora, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) needs revitalisation to attain desired vigour. The IORA, set up in March 6, 1997 and based on open regionalism, has only 20 member states. There is a need for all countries in the rim to be members. Even Egypt situated on the banks of Suez Canal is not a member, but
Comparatively, the other voluntary organisation Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) launched in 2008 has 35 member states. Out of IONS membership, 13 are members of IORA. Pakistan which is a member of IONS is not a member of IORA. There is a need to include all members of IONS as members of IORA, and Egypt which is a member of IONS should be cooped as member of IORA. There should also be an absolute synergy between IORA and IONS to raise IORA to the level of summit level talks.
India being a major littoral state in the Indian Ocean needs to take additional initiative. Under the banner of IORA, India hosted the first Indian Ocean Dialogue in 2014 in Kochi. The key takeaway from this dialogue was that “IORA members should address security issues themselves rather than relying on international forces.” This should be the real intention of IORA and it should maintain its own centrality as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) does in the Pacific. Only a strong centrality and solidarity of IORA can prevent any possibility of poaching by external powers. Already there are attempts by China to extend its “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean. China game plan for using warm waters of the Indian Ocean can be seen through its proposal for Maritime Silk Route, One Belt-One Road and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.
Apart from the US “pivot” to Asia-Pacific, there are also the Chinese “pivot” and Russian “pivot”. With a view to foil the negotiations for Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) proposed by ASEAN and others, the US has come up with Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Similarly, China has proposed Asia-Pacific Foreign Trade association (FTA) and has set up an Asia Infrastructure Development Bank. Russia wants to propose a separate security architecture. All these attempts by extra-territorial powers may impact ASEAN which proposes to move towards an economic community by January 2016 and subsequently towards ASEAN Political Security Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Considering that centrality of ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific is in the best interests of the region, India should continue supporting it.
Moreover, Indian Ocean is a viable link to the Pacific and endeavour should be made to strengthen the IORA and IONS. India on its own also needs to take initiatives on security issues as enshrined in the Indian Maritime Doctrine 2009 and Maritime Strategy 2007. The maritime doctrine stresses on primary areas of security concerns like northern Indian Ocean including those of its contiguous Persian Gulf, principal international shipping lanes and choke points in the Indian Ocean. The secondary areas of security concerns are southern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and Western Pacific. It is evident that the area of India’s maritime interest encompasses maritime space of Asia, East Africa and Australia. The Maritime Doctrine has however left out the South Atlantic Ocean which can be a matter of interest in India’s relationships with South American and Caribbean countries and ensure further South-South cooperation.
The first wake up call to strengthen its navy came after 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008. Prime Minister Modi has initiated a new process of multilateralism in ocean politics by gluing security and Blue Economy; yet much action is still awaited on the ground.
Ashok B Sharma (The writer is a senior columnist)