It is my privilege to welcome you all at this Conference on the Indian Ocean. Spearheaded by The India Foundation, this effort, in partnership with the Rajaratnam School for International Studies in Singapore (RISS), the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) and the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BISS), is based on our deeply held conviction that the world is a family. Sensible families sit together to find solutions. Land has boundaries; oceans have none, but that hardly means that they are not the source of disputes. Shared space needs shared intellect for a route map that can ensure equitable prosperity.
India has travelled through the Indian Ocean from a time beyond surviving historical records carrying its literature, learning and trade both to the east and the known west. India has contributed what might be described as a philosophical diaspora in the region, highlighting the advantages of common wisdom, fair trade and syncretic culture. The rest of the world understood the importance of this ocean. Ptolemy’s Geography, written around 150 AD, described the Indian Ocean as “an enormous lake, with southern Africa running right round the bottom half of the map to join an increasingly speculative Asia east of the Malaysian peninsula”. Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun commissioned the first known world map in the first quarter of the 9th century; it showed the Indian Ocean running into the Pacific.
Oceans, the most powerful and creative force and gift of nature, have been a source of prosperity when ruled by the philosophy of cooperation; they have become regions of confrontation, conflict and conquest when misused by nations in search of domination. Domination has disappeared from the agenda of world affairs in an age of equal nations infused by the democratic spirit. History indicates that dynamics of the Indian Ocean can lead in both directions. The sea-lanes of the future must avoid both conflict on the surface and dangerous currents below in order to create new communication lines towards collective prosperity.
The greatest threat to the sea has been from inhabitants of land. The Indian Ocean straddles the vast land mass called Asia [the wife of Prometheus, the god of forethought who gifted fire to man]. Asia is at a unique moment in the evolution of its geopolitics.
Asia has split into two horizons. India sits in the middle.
Look east from India to Japan: there is a diverse range of people, religions, languages, cultures, polities and nations. But there is one powerful factor in common: each nation is rising from problems of the past in the search for economic growth, stability, social order and cohesion. This is the Phoenix Horizon.
Look west from India: from its immediate western neighbour to West Asia and northern Africa. Within the variety of nations and peoples the one focal factor is conflict, with some islands of relative calm struggling to retain their composure in a region pockmarked by war and terrorism. The rise of contemporary terrorism originates with sanctuary provided to the most vicious and barbaric terrorist individuals and organizations by our immediate western neighbour. This is compounded by radicalisation, terrorism, quasi-religious, multi-ethnic and tribal contradictions; while seepage and spread of a radical ideology that distorts Islam has incubated groups like Daesh. This is the Toxic Horizon.
India, geopolitically in the centre, has become the Pivotal Power of Asia. India is the western frontier of peace, and the eastern frontier of war.
The world must recognize India’s critical role in both the quest for prosperity, and the existential struggle to eliminate what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has eloquently described Terrorism as the gravest threat since World War II. India’s dual ability to emancipate the Asian economy in partnership with those who seek a better life; and its determination to confront today’s merchants of death, will determine whether the 21st century belongs to Asia.
India has the strength and conviction to stop the spreading scourge of radicalisation because India also has an ideological answer to this menace, for we offer the template of a democratic polity and modernity to counter regressive jihadism and terrorism.
Prime Minister Modi knows his mind; he recognizes the dimensions of both challenge and opportunity. He is the leader that India needs at this swivel moment in our individual and collective fortunes. He has reached out with his Act East policy; and he has no illusions about the threat from terrorism and its malevolent sponsors, who seem to be unaware that they are committing strategic suicide.
Geography is a constant. But I would also like to suggest that the real dynamism of India as the Pivot Power comes from its contribution towards the demographics of the region; its promise in both productive capacity and as an enormous market. This complements the traditional trade routes, and the rising aspiration of partner nations willing to work in harmony. The Phoenix Horizon is blessed with comity and cross-cultural influences that have grown into identities along the Indian Ocean over centuries. India both complements and protects rising Asia, with its powerful economies like those of Japan and China and, even more so, the growing capacities of the littoral nations across the Indian Ocean, to foster economic growth and stability through mutually beneficial cooperation.
I can say this for my country: only those who do not know India, underestimate India. India will tilt towards its deepest philosophical and historical traditions, towards peace and shared prosperity.
Common sense insists that this search for prosperity must be driven by best practices across the Indian Ocean. India’s policy objectives are transparent: we seek measures that will facilitate the natural flow of peaceful inter-action and consequent growth through cooperation. We do not believe that regional confrontational attitudes are helpful in the ocean, or extended regions like the South China Sea, to give one instance. Law must be respected; after all, law preserves order.
I hope that our discussions will deliberate on both the heritage and the reality of the Indian Ocean as we look to comity, commerce and culture as the core elements that cement and strengthen economic growth, peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region.
(This article is the gist of the welcome address made by Shri M.J. Akbar, Hon’ble Minister of State for External Affairs, Govt. of India at the inaugural session of the Indian Ocean Conference at Singapore on 1st September, 2016)