A nnumber of noteworthy developments pertaining to the Indian Ocean region have taken place over the last one year. My remarks are broadly aimed at analyzing those contextual happenings, while also explaining India’s evolving thinking on this important subject.
Some months ago, at an interaction on this subject in this very city, the significance in geo-politics of oceans in general and the Indian Ocean in particular was raised. It was brought out that we do not think of oceanic spaces as we do of continents and instead regard them more as a neutral, characterless vacuum to be filled by those most active. The granular complexity that a large landmass would present does not automatically extend to equally substantial maritime space. Some of that is understandable because it does not have the same population density. But somewhere in our thinking is the assumption, probably reinforced by the colonial period, to regard the seas as passages to transit and not an arena of activity by itself. The point I wish to underline is that perhaps the time has come for us to devote more energies and attention to a greater understanding of maritime activities and cultures and not regard them simply as an adjunct to the littoral.
Now, even as oceans go, the Indian Ocean is one that has been particularly disadvantaged in recent history. The irony actually is that it has long had an essential unity that is based on the monsoons. In fact, if anything, it is relatively unique in that regard. No other part of the maritime world has its fundamental economic activities so directly derived from cycles of nature. This unity was expressed over the ages primarily through maritime trade rhythms, that then carried over into migration, traditions, practices and faith. As a result, this ocean evolved its own special identity that is based on mobility, acceptance and inter-penetration. This historical inheritance is visible across its expanse, whether it is Hindu temples in Bali and My Son, in fact all the way upto Zhengzhou in Arab communities in Aceh and Eastern Sri Lanka or the Waqwaq settlers in Madagascar. Indeed, there are few more striking examples of global trends being expressed through the region as local presence. Remnants of influence after so many centuries only give us a partial sense of the intensity and vibrancy of what must have been one of the most active economic highways across this enormous geography. That they still tell their tale testifies to the fact that the overall ethos of the Indian Ocean was one of co-existence and adjustment, where respect for diversity was intrinsic to the promotion of trade. If we are to revive a sharper sense of its own identity, it is important to appreciate and foster this multi-chromatic picture of the Indian Ocean.
If pluralism and syncretism are deep historical traits in the recent past, they have been strengthened by liberalism as well. When we stop and think about it, the Indian Ocean is the most populous English speaking lake in the world, larger than the Atlantic. The colonial era did much damage to this ocean community. But it did leave some good behind in institutions, practices and values that today are naturally supportive of international norms and rule of law. My point, therefore, is that a combination of history – both ancient and more recent – provide the foundation today to build a more contemporary region with its own personality.
The reasons why we do not readily appreciate this unity of the Indian Ocean are complex and worthy of a debate by themselves. In part, it was the effect of the lateral fragmentation of the region by external powers. Colonial powers certainly created artificial firewalls through their administrative jurisdictions that diluted centuries of natural movements and contacts. Their dominance also saw an accentuation in the divisions between the ocean and its littoral societies with a shrinking of local maritime practices and capabilities. As these inherent traditions of sea-faring diminished due to the pressures of European presence, we were left with a less active visualization of this vast global commons. Decolonization and emergence of modern nation states again put such a strong emphasis on territoriality that it further reduced the salience of regional and trans-regional cooperation and flows. The Indian Ocean was thus seen as less intrinsically coherent than, say, the Atlantic or the Pacific. Even its constituents like the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea are not deemed to have a culture like the Mediterranean, the Caribbean or the North Sea. The questions which arise – and are no doubt subjects for this Conference – are whether we should revive the ethos of the Indian Ocean region, whether we can, and if so, how do we do it?
The case for investing more effort into the revival of the identity and community of the Indian Ocean is now gathering greater support. It could be said that our collective presence at Colombo is itself an affirmation of those objectives. There are a number of reasons that explain this trend. To begin with, the littoral countries have generally developed strongly in the last few decades, with higher economic growth, better social indices, greater political influence and more confident postures. Together, they have lifted the overall region to greater prominence in world affairs. It is their aggregate national development, when combined with the progress of East Asia, that has led to the resurgence of Asia in global politics. The practical consequences of this growth have been a very marked increase – both from the demand and supply side – of goods and commodities through the Indian Ocean. As a result, the Ocean may well be on track to reclaim its historical reputation as the world’s primary economic highway.
Now, it is rare for opportunities and benefits to come without challenges or responsibilities and the Indian Ocean is no exception. We have already seen greater threats of piracy at its extremities. There are other factors that could also impede the regular flow of commerce. The Ocean and its littorals are particularly vulnerable to the threats of radicalization and terrorism. They are also feeling the consequences of climate change while being susceptible to pandemics. It is evident that responses must come from the neighbourhood itself. Both natural and man-made disaster and humanitarian situations can and will occur in a part of the world where fault lines of various kinds run deep. From the perspective of Indian experience, we have seen that recently in the civil war in Yemen, in the earthquake in Nepal, water crisis in Maldives and landslides in Sri Lanka. Today, we cannot realistically expect that distant societies that are increasingly engrossed in themselves would react to emergency situations far away. This is an era of dispersed power arrangements that call for self-help and burden sharing. The Indian Ocean, like many other regions, must find more solutions within.
Reconstituting a community identity in the Indian Ocean will be a painstaking endeavour. In its structured format, it would require oceanic forums like the Indian Ocean Rim Association to acquire greater content and higher profile. But that perhaps is an overly formal way of approaching what is a complex challenge. At the end of the day, getting a large number of countries with distinctive histories and diverse cultures to collect around a shared ocean space requires institutional and informal, regional and global, economic, cultural and civil society solutions. Building blocks do exist, once we start thinking of them in that manner. From the security perspective, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium offers a broad-based platform for exchange of views. We have initiatives like ReCAAP and SOMS in South East Asia and CGPCS (Contact Group on piracy off the coast of Somalia) and anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden at the western extremity of this ocean. In addition, there are national, bilateral and plurilateral cooperative endeavours in play in the fields of maritime domain awareness, coastal surveillance and white shipping that contribute to larger oceanic security and safety. In this uncertain world, if there is a point of agreement, it is that the salience of alliances is decreasing. It is equally apparent that old fashioned military rivalries are giving way to more subtle and complicated competitions for influence. The future is to get nations whose interests are aligned or even overlap to work together on global and regional challenges in a non-formal but effective way. That would mean somewhat different agendas and conversations, with a more open mind and an appreciation for what each player can bring to the table. This trend is visible already in naval exercises, strategic consultations or infrastructure projects. Stability and order cannot be built only on the strength of capabilities. It must be tempered by the discipline of law, in this case respect for UNCLOS which was recognized by IORA as the constitution for the oceans. Freedom of navigation and over flight must be a given.
At the same time, let us not forget that this region boasts of established regional organizations, foremost among them being the ASEAN. The GCC in the Gulf, SADC in Africa or the BIMSTEC in Bay of Bengal can each make their contribution felt towards a larger cause. In fact, it could even be contemplated that larger global organizations like the Commonwealth could collaborate to strengthen capacities in the Indian Ocean region. Another promising avenue of exploration are initiatives like the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) whose vision document was unveiled at the recent meeting of the African Development Bank, or the International North-South Transport Corridor that promises to reduce transit time and costs to Europe. Connecting these many dots and lines to create a greater sense of coherence is a growing necessity.
Clearly, much depends on how the possibilities of connectivity unfold in Asia. There are today various approaches and initiatives that offer choices to the nations of this region. Many would understandably like to make the best of all these opportunities. But the experiences of the last decade underline the importance of making mature and considered decisions in this regard. There is a growing understanding that following universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, transparency, openness and equality are essential for better outcomes. Even more critical is observing principles of financial responsibility, ensuring transfer of technology and promoting a sense of local ownership. The ethos of the Indian Ocean is a consultative one and in the long run, it is the people-centric initiatives and projects that are likely to be more sustainable. While we tend to think of connectivity in physical terms, let us not forget that it has its softer aspects that are actually no less important. People-to-people contacts, religious travel and exchanges, heritage conservation and cultural promotion are all enabling factors that can contribute to a greater sense of bonding among societies. It is, therefore, essential that we approach the connectivity challenge with a holistic perspective – community centered not transactional – that has a purpose of common good as its primary driving force.
India’s particular contribution to the prospects of the Indian Ocean region was spelt out in detail by the External Affairs Minister yesterday. I would categorize them into four broad themes: (a) hinterland linkages and strengthening regionalism (b) maritime contributions and support (c) linking South Asia to South East Asia through an Act East policy and to the Gulf through a Think West approach, and (d) assume larger responsibilities as a net security provider with an integrated approach, reflected in the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) vision. Each of these aspects is by now sufficiently advanced to be appreciated by those who have an interest in this region’s future. I would particularly emphasise that India is today devoting greater resources and energy and assigning greater priority to building connectivity, contacts and cooperation at the heart of its Neighbourhood First policy. This is evident in progress in areas like power generation and transmission, rail and road transport, port and waterways transport and in educational and health exchanges with virtually all its neighbours. In parallel, we have endeavoured to ensure the safety and security of maritime traffic through the ocean by strengthening skills and logistics of our southern neighbours like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. In this context, let me also emphasise that states with necessary capabilities have an obligation to ensure that smaller states are made more secure through EEZ surveillance and that their full rights are established through hydrographic cooperation. We will be guided by the development and security priorities of our partners and our approach will focus on the big picture, rather than be driven by narrower reciprocal considerations.
No analysis of the Indian Ocean would be complete without capturing the development at its extremities, be they the eastern coast of Africa or the Pacific islands. The holding of Pacific Islands Summits and the enhancement of our engagements and development projects is as important a development as our shared goal of climate justice. The story of India’s development assistance to Africa has similarly not got the attention it deserves, partly because it does not play to the gallery. On the contrary, its focus on people-centric economic and social activities has given it a lower profile though broader support. In the last few years alone, projects financed and built by India span a wide range of sectors across this vast geography. They include water projects from Tanzania to Sierra Leone, hydel and thermal power plants in Congo and Zambia to Sudan, rural electricity networks in Mozambique and Gambia, sugar factories in Malawi and Ethiopia and IT projects and vocational training centres across the continent. We are today closely engaged with the East African countries on the Indian Ocean periphery with whom we have longer historical contact and closer proximity.
A few words about the IORA. In 2011, we had proposed at the 11th Council of Ministers Meeting at Bengaluru that cooperation focus on maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk management, academics and S&T, and tourism and cultural exchange. Our focus currently is to ensure that initiatives announced at the 2016 Bali COM meeting are expeditiously implemented. Five of them – the Blue Economy dialogue, the Indian Ocean seminar, the International Relations conference, the SME workshop and the initiative to set up a centre for medicinal plants – have progressed. Plans are underway to deliver on commitments on water, science and technology, water security and sustainability, women’s entrepreneurship, innovation exposition, maritime safety and security, media exchanges and renewable energy.
The Indian Ocean is about people, culture and commerce. Appreciating its complex texture and intricate nuances is essential to nurture its growth and resurgence. It must be approached with empathy, not as a business. It must be treated as a partner, not as an arena. The goal must be inter-dependence, not dominance. An authoritative account of this region noted that while the monsoons may no longer dictate when ships can travel, yet its rhythms still pervade the lives of billions of people. The Indian Ocean is renewing its status as a zone of encounters and a cross-roads of culture. The time is approaching for it to come back into its own.
*This article is a summary of the address delivered by Dr. S. Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary, Government of India, on 1st September, 2017 at the 2nd Indian Ocean Conference at Colombo,
Sri Lanka organised by India Foundation.
(This article is carried in the print edition of November-December 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)