Articles and Commentaries |
July 3, 2023

Addressing the needs of the Indian Ocean Region

Written By: S. Jaishankar

Bangladesh released its Indo-Pacific Outlook on 24 April 2023. By doing so, Bangladesh joined a number of countries ranging from ASEAN and East Asia to Europe and North America in articulating its thinking on this important subject. Indo-Pacific is a reality and becoming more so with each passing day. It is a statement of our contemporary globalization and an underlining that we are getting past the framework of 1945. There are obviously nations who have a vested interest in perpetuating the past. As indeed they have in larger international relations, including the structure of the United Nations. But time does not stand still for anyone; change has to be recognized. And I am truly glad that Bangladesh has joined the company of those who have done so.

The four Guiding Principles and the fifteen Objectives of Bangladesh’s outlook and its respect for the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) needs to be highlighted. It is essential for the credibility of the global order that such foundational regimes are respected and scrupulously observed by all signatories. The views of Bangladesh are particularly noteworthy because of its standing as a progressive and successful developing economy that is making its fullest contribution to regional growth and prosperity.

Because the world is understandably seized of the larger domain of the Indo-Pacific, we should not underplay the issues and challenges of one of its core constituents – the nations of the Indian Ocean. Our historical experience is somewhat different than those of the Pacific, even if we are joined at the hip. There are distinct issues that arise from regional identities, colonial experiences and geo-political relationships. Many nations of the Indian Ocean still address developmental challenges that may no longer be relevant in the Pacific. So, even while impressing the essential coherence of the Indo-Pacific, I would urge that we also focus determinedly on the Indian Ocean nations and their challenges.

Within the Indian Ocean, we must recognize that there are distinct regions and ecosystems. The Bay of Bengal is a very good example. The countries in this geography have their particular aspirations and agenda, as well as their respective pathways towards progress. We are members of the BIMSTEC, an organization that is increasingly coming into its own. Amongst ourselves, we are very cognizant of the challenges, we face in governance, modernization and security. And we are confident of dealing with them through deeper cooperation and shared efforts. It is by nurturing such building blocks that we will make the Indian Ocean – indeed the Indo-Pacific – stronger and more resilient.

The requirement of simultaneously addressing the needs of the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean and its constituent regions is today the task before us. These are not alternatives but actually self-supporting activities. Naturally, there are aspects of specificity; but equally, there are broad principles that apply to all. For example, the importance of adhering to law, observing norms and respecting rules is a natural convergence point. It is not possible to build a stable international order without these pre-requisites. This is especially so in a continent that has seen so much growth and so much change. When nations disregard their legal obligations or violate long-standing agreements, as we have seen, 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.

A significant shared concern through the Indian Ocean is that of unsustainable debt generated by unviable projects. There are lessons from the last two decades that we ignore at our peril. If we encourage opaque lending practices, exorbitant ventures and price points that are unrelated to the market, these are bound to bite us back, sooner rather than later. Especially so when sovereign guarantees have been proffered, not always with due diligence. Many of us in the region are today confronting the consequences of our past choices. This is time to reflect and reform, not one to repeat and reiterate.

Connectivity is a particularly crucial issue for all of us. This is because the era of imperialism disrupted the natural linkages of the continent and created regional silos to serve its own ends. In many cases, the hinterland was disadvantaged to the benefit of the coastal areas. Building back in the post-colonial era is a long, painful and arduous task. It is still very much work in progress. How to restore, indeed enhance flows between distinct regions is today of the utmost priority. For a nation like India, this means a land-connect to South East Asia. And a multi-modal one to the Gulf and beyond. Central Asia offers its own distinct challenges due to obstacles in between. Collectively, the more we work on facilitating smooth and effective connectivity, the better off we all are. And obviously, we need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity while doing so. Let me therefore underline that from India’s perspective, efficient and effective connectivity to ASEAN in particular will be a game-changer. We accord this the utmost priority.

As nations of the Indian Ocean, we are united in our interest in the maritime sphere. Here too, there is much that we who inhabit this ocean must reflect on. The era where maritime spaces would be secured by others is now behind us. With each passing day, this is increasingly our shared responsibility. We must discharge that, sharply aware that global good should not be sacrificed at the altar of any national dominance. To do so, we must put in place the bilateral, plurilateral and regional tools and mechanisms to achieve our ends. It would mean exchanging information on white shipping, cooperating on coastal surveillance or collaborating on maritime domain awareness. Diplomacy cannot rest content merely by articulating positions; it equally needs practical action to back it up.

There are some global challenges that also merit regional considerations. Chief among them are climate action and counter-terrorism. The universality of these concerns is by now well recognized. It is essential that our conversations aim to encourage common positions. We must also be conscious of the threats to social fabric posed by extremism and fundamentalism taking advantage of democratic openness. The costs of not doing so are also starkly apparent to all of us today.

Nations of the Indian Ocean are among those who lead the rise of Asia and the re-emergence of Africa. They have the responsibility today of shaping the narrative, shaping it about values, practices and correctness. It is essential that their culture, history and traditions are presented to the world. If we are to compare the relative weight of littorals, that of the Indian Ocean still has to play catch-up. Our challenge, indeed our responsibility, is to hasten that process.

India is committed to the well-being and progress of all nations of the Indian Ocean. We have dedicated bodies like the Indian Ocean Rim Association or the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, with their specific mandates. We expand on that belief through the Neighbourhood First policy, the SAGAR outlook and our approach to the extended neighbourhood. Beyond that, we believe that a seamless transition into an Indo-Pacific is to our collective advantage.

Author Brief Bio: Dr. S. Jaishankar is the External Affairs Minister, Government of India.

Note: This article is based on the Text of the Speech delivered by Dr. S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, Government of India, in the Inaugural Session at the 6th Indian Ocean Conference 2023 in Dhaka on 12 May 2023.

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