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January 7, 2019

The Maritime Advantage Remains Unsurpassed

Historical Basis

Singapore is pleased to be a founding co-partner of the Indian Ocean Conference, which it believes will help shape a common vision for the Indian Ocean, a subject of increasingly vital importance over the years. It helps to start by taking a longer-term look back in time. Over the last three thousand years, the Indian Ocean has been a platform for the exchange of knowledge, culture, and religion across an enormous diversity of our states. South Asian influences in language and religion, borne across the waves of the Indian Ocean, are clearly evident here in Southeast Asia. Even today, we see the legacy of Sanskrit in our languages, as well as the influences of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in our belief systems.

While the overland Silk Route has been more famous historically, the Indian Ocean has also been a crucial conduit for maritime trade. It linked the East African coast to the Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and across the South China Sea to China. This thriving trade has been chronicled by travellers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta in the 13th and 14th century. The Indian Ocean today is even more vital. It enjoys a privileged location at the crossroads of global trade, connecting major engines of the international economy all the way from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific.

Maritime Advantage

The “maritime advantage” needs to be emphasised. We live in a time where many people think of connectivity in terms of air, digital fibre optics, high-speed rails, and overland routes. However, it is worthwhile remembering that, even today, maritime routes offer greater economies of scale. Take the average container ship with a capacity of 20,000 TEUs. If you were to unload this one ship and put each container onto a train, the train you would need to move this load would be 100km long. For those of you who are interested in numbers, that is even longer than the Panama Canal. Even in today’s modern day and age, the maritime advantage is still unsurpassed.

Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean

There is another reason why the maritime dimension is so important. If you take a flight, you have to traverse air traffic controls, take instructions, and seek approvals. But on the high seas, even in territorial waters, exercising the right of innocent passage, a ship can go literally anywhere it wants in the world. It is point-to-point transport, unrestricted, with complete freedom of navigation. This is a key advantage of the maritime dimension that all the other modalities of transport do not offer us.

Therefore, it is not a surprise that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that 80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent by value is transported by sea. Most of us here will know that a significant portion of that traffic actually flows through the Indian Ocean. Just another example – 40 percent of the world’s oil supply travels through the entryways in and out of the Indian Ocean. As a result, there is no question that the Indian Ocean is of crucial strategic importance to all of us. One of the central questions of our time, is how to address the opportunities and challenges that will present themselves in this vital arena?

Singapore in the Indian Ocean

Singapore is foremost a tiny city state and a port. If you look at the map of the world, it is actually at the Southern-most tip of the Eurasian continent. As a result, Singapore is one degree fifteen minutes north of the Equator. If you took a ship from India to China, or even to the Pacific Coast of the United States, the shortest route is via the Straits of Malacca, pivot around Singapore, through the South China Sea then the Pacific Ocean. Singapore is also unique because its trade volume is three times of its GDP. No other country has that ratio. Singapore represents a perspective of an open trading port that lies at the pivot point of this vital waterway.

A couple of principles which shape Singapore’s views of the Indian Ocean, which are drawn from its experience at the tip of the Straits of Malacca are as follows.

Open and Inclusive Regional Architecture

We need an open and inclusive regional architecture. The key words here are “open” and “inclusive”. We want to have substantive relations and remain interconnected with the rest of the world. As India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, we want an interdependent world with investments flowing in all directions. We do not want to be forced to make false choices. We do not believe that it will be to anyone’s benefit for the region to come under the exclusive dominance of any single great power or to be split into rival blocs or become an arena for proxy wars.

Like the countries of the broader Indian Ocean region, ASEAN is an association of 10 very diverse countries. ASEAN countries will always be affected by what is happening around them. Their short history in the last five decades have brought home this point very pointedly. The challenge is whether ASEAN allows external events and the overall strategic change in global balance of power to overwhelm and divide them. Or, indeed, whether they can raft their destinies together and build a more stable, seaworthy ship which will keep them out of danger and give them sufficient ballast to withstand the waves and the winds that will come their way.

That is why they have always sought to give everyone a greater stake in the region, as well as mutual interdependence and prosperity. This is why ASEAN has always engaged external partners throughout its history. Starting with the Post Ministerial Conferences and Dialogue Partners in 1978, they moved on to the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, the ASEAN Plus Three in 1997, and the East Asia Summit in 2005. When this writer meets superpowers, his usual line to them goes like this: “It is in your own long-term interest to see ASEAN succeed. Ultimately, in the decades to come, ASEAN will become your biggest trading partner and a greater and more compelling zone for your investments.”

The key concept, therefore, is interde-pendence. We believe that this is the way to secure peace and maintain prosperity in our region. By promoting interdependence, we can demonstrate to everyone that, in reality and on the ground, we gain more by working and trading together, as well as investing in one another rather than by engaging in zero-sum games and superpower rivalries. We all hope for win-win outcomes. The opposite scenario of dividing into rival blocs, insisting in narrow independence, engaging in zero-sum competition, and becoming part of proxy wars is not the way for peace and prosperity. Therefore, economic and political interdependence must be our mantra.

Regional Economic Architecture

ASEAN has always sought a regional architecture that articulates a complete, coherent, and consistent economic strategy. In other words, trade is strategy. We must look for every opportunity to facilitate trade and mutual investment, enhance connectivity, and invest in infrastructure. The global consensus for free trade and economic integration is fraying. All leaders in democracies have to stand for elections. One can no longer stand at a political rally and say he stands for free trade and expect everyone to subscribe to it. The truth is, we live in an age of anxiety and the general sense is that the case for free trade has not been adequately made. In an age where people are worried about global competition, job security, and inequality, some parties would say that free trade has lowered levels of protection for the most vulnerable and increased prospects of inequality within society. Therefore, politicians who want to make the argument for free trade will have to demonstrate to their domestic electorates that this is a recipe which creates jobs, as well as maintains economic relevance, competitiveness, and peace between countries. This is actually a political argument and one that has to be made to and decided by domestic electorates.

In Singapore’s case, as said earlier, its trade volume is three times its GDP. It cannot afford to build walls and protectionist barriers because Singapore would clearly not be viable in a world without free trade. Nevertheless, it believes that free trade and economic integration has to go beyond Singapore and include ASEAN. Looking beyond ASEAN, we are focused on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If we succeed, the RCEP will include all 10 members of ASEAN plus India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. This puts together about 45 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the world’s GDP. It will be the single largest free trade zone. If we get the RCEP right and continue to build economic bridges to Africa, South America, and across the Pacific to the US, Mexico, and Canada, we may hopefully and possibly succeed in the long run with a Free Trade Area of the Indo-Pacific. That is why this effort, these difficult negotiations are so important.

Rules-Based World Order

The third point is a rules-based world order. This again comes from the perspective of a small, tiny, city state. By definition, we cannot believe that “might is right”. We have to believe in a rules-based world order with multilateral institutions setting multilateral rules and having access to peaceful resolution of disputes. In the maritime field, you will understand why, therefore, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is such a sacred document for Singapore. It keeps the sea lanes free, open, peaceful, and allows small states like Singapore as well as Sri Lanka to have an equal say even when we are dealing with much bigger political and economic entities.


The Indian Ocean has always been a vital artery for peace and prosperity. It has become even more so now. The maritime dimension has always been important. In this modern day and age, it is perhaps even more so.      We need these three ingredients: one, a free and open regional and international architecture; two, a clear economic agenda; three, a rules-based world order. If we can do this, we believe that the Indian Ocean will be another cradle for a new burst of energy and a new golden age for all countries big and small.

(This article is a summary of the speech made by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Hon’ble Minister for
Foreign Affairs of Singapore, on 27
th 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.)

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