Over the last three thousand years, the Indian Ocean has been an essential conduit for trade, culture, religion, knowledge, language, and geostrategic influence. In particular, South Asian influences in heritage, language, and religion, borne across the waves of the Indian Ocean, are evident in Southeast Asia. Even today, Sanskrit remains a legacy in our languages, and influences of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam remain in our belief systems.
The Indian Ocean region holds tremendous geopolitical, economic, and strategic importance. Extending from the eastern coast of Africa to the western coast of Australia, the Indian Ocean accounts for one-fifth of the water on the Earth’s surface. A significant portion of global maritime traffic flows through the Indian Ocean from Asia’s industrialised nations to the rest of the world. More than 70% of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean, as does 50% of container traffic. There is no question that the Indian Ocean is of strategic importance for all of us.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted countries around the world, including those in the Indian Ocean region. We all faced disruptions to our economies, supply chains, connectivity networks, border management, regional security, critical health infrastructure and tourism, just to name a few. We saw how international connectivity is a double-edged sword – while it enhanced international trade, it can also disable trade links. But the crisis also provided an opportunity for countries to work together in both traditional and non-traditional areas, relook existing institutions and regional mechanisms, and revamp them in order to better serve today’s needs. It reminds us even more how important it is to work together, uphold multilateral trading systems and resist protectionist policies.
Amidst the background of other international crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war, there have been major disruptions to trade and critical supply chains, and deep uncertainty has arisen about the future of multilateral institutions. As the world’s major powers become increasingly assertive of their own interests, the hitherto hard-won consensus on international rules and norms is breaking down before our very eyes.
Impact of Climate Change
The countries in the Indian Ocean region are also grappling with the existential challenge of climate change. The Sixth Assessment Report or AR6 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded “with very high confidence” that the Indian Ocean’s surface has warmed faster than the global average. This presents a host of challenges for the Indian Ocean states, including the intensification of monsoon rains, marine biodiversity loss and sea-level rise.
In particular, rising sea-levels have serious cascading effects on many other areas, such as the economy, livelihoods, health and well-being, as well as food and water security. As a low-lying state, with more than 50% of our population living within 3.5 kilometres off the coast, Singapore feels this as acutely as other small island states in the Indian Ocean. Given that AR6 has concluded that it is “virtually certain” that global mean sea levels will continue to rise until at least 2100, we will have to grapple with this problem. Countries in the Indian Ocean region must work together urgently to support the full implementation of the Paris Agreement and strengthen our collective resilience against rising sea levels. From November to December 2023, the UNFCCC COP-28 in Dubai will aim to make progress on raising mitigation ambition and implementation, scaling up adaptation efforts, operationalising the new funding arrangements, as well as boosting climate finance, technology, and capacity building support for developing countries.
Bangladesh and Its Role
Bangladesh’s early history, culture and legacy are closely intertwined with the ebb and flow of its 700 rivers into the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Indian Ocean. The silt-rich waters from the Himalayas flowing through Bangladesh made it one of the most fertile lands in the sub-continent famed for its agricultural resources. Ancient Bengal achieved remarkable influence through a web of riverine and maritime lanes extending through the Bay of Bengal and to points further east. Today, modern Bangladesh is a strategic maritime nation promoting sustainable and equitable utilisation of oceanic resources.
As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Bangladesh plays an increasingly significant role in the Indian Ocean. Major projects are underway in Bangladesh which will improve the overall connectivity in the Indian Ocean region. Among them are the development of the Matarbari deep seaport in Cox’s Bazar, and upgrades to Chittagong Port as the principal seaport handling 92% of the country’s trade. This will put Bangladesh in good stead to provide maritime trade routes and facilities to the land-locked Northeast of India, as well as to Nepal and Bhutan. At the same time, we appreciate Bangladesh’s contributions to regional and subregional cooperation. It played a pivotal role in the formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association.
Singapore’s interest in the Indian Ocean
As a small island state situated at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Singapore’s survival and prosperity have always been inextricably linked to the oceans. Sea-freight accounts for a large proportion of our imports, including of essential supplies. With trade more than thrice our GDP, ensuring the safety and security of key trade routes such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore is of vital importance to Singapore.
Singapore is therefore firmly committed to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out. UNCLOS is fundamental for upholding the right of all States to freedom of navigation and overflight, maintaining open trade routes and sea lines of communication, and promoting the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and their resources. Singapore is strongly committed to working with like-minded partners to ensure that all maritime activities in the Indian Ocean are carried out in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.
UNCLOS has also proven to be dynamic and highly adaptable in responding to emerging issues. On 4 March 2023, the Intergovernmental Conference presided over by Singapore’s Ambassador for Oceans and Law of the Sea Issues Rena Lee successfully concluded negotiations on a new international agreement under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, or BBNJ. The BBNJ Agreement is a landmark achievement in oceans law and will provide a critical boost to global efforts to protect the marine environment.
Southeast Asia lies in the center of the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and serves as a very important conduit and portal to the two regions. We have consistently advocated for an open and inclusive regional architecture and engaging external partners, to give everyone a greater stake in the region’s peace, stability, and development. As the international order increasingly comes under strain, it is even more important that all of us redouble efforts to engage constructively, and uphold the ASEAN-led open, inclusive, and rules-based regional architecture. In 2019, ASEAN Leaders agreed on an ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which outlines ASEAN’s perspectives on how external partners should engage the region on its own merits.
We are all in agreement that we want an Indian Ocean built on peace, stability, and prosperity. We owe it to our people and the future generation to ensure we succeed in doing so. We have remained committed to enhancing dialogue, building trust, and upholding a rules-based international order. We must also continue to engage our counterparts from other regions.
Author Brief Bio: Dr Maliki Bin Osman is the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Second Minister for Education, Government of Singapore.
Note: This article is based on the Text of the Speech delivered by Dr Maliki Bin Osman, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Second Minister for Education, Government of Singapore at the 6th Indian Ocean Conference 2023 in Dhaka on 13 May 2023.