Vietnam is a country steeped in a rich history of defiance of spirit, an unbreakable will, and a strong and resilient people. Vietnam in ancient times was a bustling trading hub, deeply connected with the outside world. It was also integral to the creation of crosscurrents of people, goods, and ideas across the Asian lands and seas. The UNESCO World Heritage site “My Son Sanctuary” which dates back from 4-13 Century CE located in central Vietnam close to the ancient port city of Hoi An, is an exceptional example of cultural interchange, with an indigenous society adapting to external cultural influences, notably the Hindu art, religion and architecture of the Indian sub-continent. Historical texts also reveal that the Funan Kingdom which is said to have comprised parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaya Peninsular and Thailand stood as one of the most powerful kingdoms of Southeast Asia ruled by Kaudinya, a Hindu Brahmin King and Queen Soma. There are parallels we can draw with the Indian Ocean region. This region has for many decades resisted domination by a single power. It has been the lifeline of ancient trading routes. It has also continued to remain a melting pot of civilizations, religions, and cultures whilst retaining its essentially multipolar character. It is only appropriate therefore, that the 3rd edition of the Indian Ocean Conference – IOC 2018 is held at Vietnam.
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is set to define the destiny of the planet in the 21st century. At the centre of this geopolitical turn of events, is the Indian Ocean – an ocean which is increasingly being defined as the Ocean of the Future. In addition, the linkages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans are envisaged to create a maritime super highway that can bring prosperity to all. Those who traversed this great ocean for millennia, the traders, the explorers, the philosophers and religious teachers left behind ideas – ideas that were merged with our own thinking – and began to take a uniquely Indian Ocean character. In the littorals you will find therefore, the harmonious blend of Eastern and Western thinking, systems and approaches. It is in this milieu that a new world order is beginning to take shape. The littorals, by geographic design, are integral partners in this process.
Let me highlight five main global trends that I believe are critical turning points. These turning points will dictate how economic prosperity and development will be disbursed globally. It will also determine the new world order. Firstly, the world order has become more fragile, polarised and unpredictable. Multilateral frameworks are increasingly under pressure. The ability of the collective to manage interdependence effectively, is at risk. The weakening of state structures and the diffusion of power to non-state actors is creating a complex international environment. The multilateral system’s ability to deliver development and growth is being questioned. Movement in multilateral trade negotiations in particular have faced significant challenges. However, for small countries, there is great value in the idea of the sovereign equality of states. It allows us to have a voice in how the world should be shaped. It also allows us to derive benefits from a system of trade and governance for the welfare of our people. The multilateral system advocates temperance, a quality on which the world governance system has effectively functioned in the past few decades. Therefore, the challenges facing a more fragile multilateral system can be highlighted as the first turning point.
Secondly, we are seeing a pushback against globalisation. Trade tensions between economic giants pose significant risk to global trade. The challenges facing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Brexit negotiations to name but a few. The question is – are these signs of a retreat from closer integration? Globalisation and closer economic integration has helped countries across the globe to develop and prosper. Without such integration and market access, it would be difficult for small nations like my own, which follow open market policies, to survive. This turning point is closely interlinked to the future of the multilateral system. For instance the success or failure of the Doha Development Agenda will demonstrate whether countries continue to value common rules and standards and are willing to remain engaged in such a process.
Thirdly, there is growing strategic rivalry and military buildup across the globe spilling on to the ocean space. This is the space in which the next great game will take place. There is competition to build spheres of influence and create overarching architectures and a new strategic order appears to be in the offing. There is an abiding interest in maintaining the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication. In the ocean space you see force posture, buildup of naval and air facilities, and the establishment of military bases. The expansion of military presence of major and middle powers in the ocean space, highlight the centrality of the oceans to future development. With such developments, these players stand poised to take advantage of strategic opportunities or step into any perceived power vacuums.
The geopolitical revolution of the rise of Asia, in both political and economic terms can be termed the fourth turning point. The global economy, hitherto dominated by the West will be driven by new actors. China is projected to be the largest economy in the world by 2050 accounting for 20% of world GDP, with India in second place and Indonesia in fourth. In the period 2016-2050 Vietnam, India and Bangladesh have been identified as the three of the world’s fastest growing economies. Economic cooperation has become another area of Indian Ocean geopolitics. Nevertheless, what many see as competition in the development field, host countries treat as complementary. It is important to identify complementariness from the host countries perception as to their own needs for economic infrastructure, FDI and Trade access. A better way to meet these needs is to welcome such initiatives for economic cooperation as important drivers of Asian Growth. Furthermore, the ongoing discussions between the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), BRICS, on building synergies for growth is an important development. The activation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will also serve as a catalyst for economic integration in Asia. It would be important for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to have a closer engagement with ASEAN on Bay of Bengal trade development. Deepening interactions and integration with the Gulf and East African states, are equally important.
The fifth turning point is the rise of multilayered regionalism differing in range of scale, scope and membership in the Indo- Pacific. These frameworks are attempting to create large economic areas, with multiple new regional leaders driving these processes, giving rise to a truly multipolar world. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), RCEP, the Free Trade Area of the Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP), BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative to name but a few.
There is renewed regional constructs that go beyond economic interests and spill over to the political, defence, security, and strategic domains. Hitherto, regional constructs have tended to steer clear from directly engaging and grappling with these issues, focusing instead on improving trade connectivity, people to people contacts, and social and cultural ties. There is renewed acknowledge-ment of the intrinsic linkage between economic prosperity and security and stability. Another important aspect of these multilayered frameworks is the rise of maritime regionalism.
The multilayered regionalism of the future should push for inclusivity rather than exclusivity and be built amongst countries unrestrained by geographic or other constraints. The multipolar world of the future would be anchored by multilayered regionalism and be built on common understandings, alliances and institutions that are currently taking shape. Maritime Asia and the Indian Ocean Region is central to the rise of multilayered regionalism. These five global trends will have a significant impact on how the world will be shaped in the years to come.
Peace and Stability in the IOR is our mutual interest. This region has enormous economic potential and is the lifeline of global trade. Given its geo-strategic and geo-economic significance the region is constantly being defined and redefined along sub-regional, pan-regional and super-regional lines. The concept of the Indo-Pacific is a case in point. The Indo-Pacific does not as yet have an accepted identification of its territorial limits with the economic and military rise of Asia. Common geopolitical issues have arisen. The Indian Ocean trade is vital to both. For the United States, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India and is a combined economic and security vision. Prime Minister Modi described the Indo-Pacific concept recently as a natural region with ASEAN countries as the main connect between the two oceans in both geographic and civilisational sense. He also stressed that the Indo-Pacific should stand for a free, open, inclusive region that encompass those that are located geographically in the region and those that have a stake in it. Both Japan and Australia have also spoken in terms of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Belt and Road Initiative spearheaded by China is also gathering momentum. In this context of super regional constructs, what is the role of the Indian Ocean littorals? Where do we stand and in fact do we need to take a stand? Both constructs offer opportunities for development for littoral states.
Super regional constructs should not compel the littorals states to choose or take sides. Such constructs should be inclusive and open. They should also be conscious of the aspirations and preferences of the region’s own approaches when being consolidated. The littoral states and the stakeholders must participate in deciding any new regional architecture being proposed. The role of the littoral states in managing great power rivalry and competition is an important one. Within any new construct being proposed, including the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean must maintain its own distinct identity. Even during the World War II there were two commands – South East Asia with British accepting the surrender and the Pacific command with America accepting the surrender. The commands however did not work in isolation.
It is our view that in order to uphold order, mechanisms for cooperation need to be explored. Certain cooperation constructs have emerged such as the QUAD which is weighted towards the Pacific and has no input from littoral states. The other option is to strive at an arrangement where littoral states can actively participate and contribute. For example arrangements such as the CGPCS and the CMF worked well to suppress Somali Piracy. IONS, Shangri-La Dialogue, naval exercises, trilateral maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives and our own Galle Dialogue are important fora which provide opportunities for networking of the security communities at strategic and operational levels. We also believe that there is a significant need for enhanced Indian Ocean Region (IOR) regionalism that focuses on augmenting cooperation across the maritime domain. Such regionalism should strive to create closer linkages between ASEAN, IORA and BIMSTEC given the rising imperative for cooperation that spans the entire Indian Ocean Region.
China’s economic expansion has led to a specific focus on the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean sea routes are vital to the economic interests of China. USA has been in the Indian Ocean since Diego Garcia and has been a key stakeholder. A free and open ocean is vital to Japan and its economy. India is the territorial power with a direct stake in the Indian Ocean. Security and economic challenges arise from both complimentary and competing interests of these large stakeholders as they interact with each other in the Indian Ocean Region. The geopolitics of the Gulf can also spillover and impact on Indian Ocean trade. Littoral states, especially the smaller states oppose domination of the Indian Ocean by the great powers. Such states have an important role to play in managing great power competition. Regional constructs that exist, were constituted prior to these new developments and therefore lacks the capacity to respond to this situation. The preference is for a rules based order in the Indian Ocean that benefits all.
Sri Lanka has been deeply involved in developing ocean governance processes since the time of negotiation of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Located as we are, at the centre of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has significant interest in actively contributing to events that are currently unfolding in the region. Our geostrategic location includes Trincomalee, one of the finest deep-sea harbours in the world. Trincomalee is also the second largest natural harbour in the world, with a 500 metres wide entrance channel. Historical incidents have demonstrated that Sri Lanka’s location can impact on the security not only of the Indian Ocean but also other area such as South East Asia, Middle East, Eastern Coast of Africa and even the Pacific.
Sri Lanka’s initiative on Freedom of Navigation in the Indian Ocean is primarily aimed at maintaining a rules based order. Our aim is not to draft a new code but to initiate a process. Our purpose is to create a platform for dialogue where Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users are able to convene and discuss issues of mutual interest and concern. It is always important to anticipate challenges and work towards practical solutions based on UNCLOS which continues to serve as the Constitution of the Seas. Towards this end, Sri Lanka hosted a track 1.5 dialogue in Colombo on the 11 and 12 of October 2018 on the theme “The Indian Ocean: Defining Our Future”. This track 1.5 dialogue is a lead up to a multilateral diplomatic conference which Sri Lanka hopes to hold in 2019 with the aim of developing a common understanding amongst Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users. Resolving issues concerned will speed up the process of multi-stakeholder dialogue in the Indian Ocean Region. As we progress through these fora let us aim for deeper discussion which would ultimately facilitate a common understanding and decision making amongst the multi-stakeholders with an interest in the Indian Ocean region. It is important for the Indian Ocean littorals to take the lead in this process. I see all these developments, including the Indian Ocean Conferences that have been held thus far in Singapore & Sri Lanka, and the one being held today in Vietnam, as important forerunners and complimentary exercises. The 4th Indian Ocean Conference can be one where we endeavor to move from generalisation to specific modalities of cooperation.
The Indian Ocean is the Ocean of the Future. It constitutes cultures emanating from ocean-based civilisations and colonial era systems, practices and values which are compatible with international standards and norms. Regional institutions as presently constituted lack capacity to effectively respond to the geopolitical developments of the region. Any new regional architecture envisaged should be multilayered and must recognise the distinct identity of the Indian Ocean Region and the intrinsic role of the littoral states. The new regional architecture must also be multi-stakeholder and therefore include the littoral states and those with an interest in the region. It should discuss and resolve issues pertaining to the Freedom of Navigation and also seek to engage with ASEAN as the link to the Pacific.
This is a critical juncture in global history. International relations of the future will be determined in a more maritime and Asia-centric world. The rise of the East also foretells a unique opportunity for Asia to introduce its own model of international relations underpinned by maritime salience of the Indian Ocean Region, its civilizational traditions and historical circumstances. Indian Ocean trade networks date back at least 4000 years and the people of Asia were connected by seagoing commerce centuries before the arrival of Europeans. These robust trade routes with ships plying were unique in that neither nationality, race, religion nor culture were an issue when it came to trade. Voyagers across the Indian Ocean went to the Southeast Asia and the Far East and westwards to the African, European and Mediterranean regions. There were no obstacles to travel or trade. These ancient trade routes clearly epitomised the idea of freedom of navigation and rules based order. Recreating the open and free spirit of trade and commerce that existed in ancient times across the Indian Ocean would be of benefit for global trade and maritime Asia in particular. Should this not be our unique contribution to the new global order? The spirit of maritime trade and commerce that is inclusive, plurilateral, stabilising and rule based and one which empowers the littorals and give them their due place as direct stakeholders.
We are living in transformational times. The future generations depend on us to make the right choices. We can create a world where strategic mistrust and competition is allowed to reign. Alternatively, we can rise above rivalry and antagonism and work together towards recognising that when we do so, we can derive greater benefits for the welfare of our people. Before us is a unique opportunity to create a fair, equitable and prosperous world that leaves no one behind. We should seize this moment.
(This article is a summary of the speech delivered by H.E Shri. Ranil Wickremesinghe,
the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on 27th August, 2018 at the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference,
at Hanoi, Vietnam organised by India Foundation.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of January-February 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)