In his eminently readable account of the history of the Indian Ocean and its invaders, Richard Hall begins by declaring that “Now the monsoons of history are blowing afresh, as the balance of world power swings back to the East. The start of the twenty first century is seen as ushering in a new ‘Age of Asia’, in which the natural unity of the Indian Ocean can once more assert itself.” Reflecting on this observation may well a good way of beginning the Indian Ocean conference.
Hall’s remarks raise a number of questions. Is the Indian Ocean more than geography? Was it really so before and can it be so again? Should it be so and in whose interest? What does it take to create a stronger Indian Ocean identity? How do we address the challenges of connectivity, economy, security, politics, culture and identity – all of which are critical elements to its possible re-emergence? And of course, what are India’s views, interests and capabilities in this process? These are some of the issues that I will address in my remarks.
There is considerable historical evidence to suggest that the Indian Ocean ‘world’ did have an essential unity that was based on maritime trade rhythms. We also know that it was indeed a self- sustaining world, albeit with natural and flexible boundaries, that set it apart from other proximate worlds. The association of maritime trade with cultural influence was both graphic and pervasive across the ocean. As a result, traditions, practices, faiths and commerce created a virtual connectivity that overcame distance. Yet, it must be admitted that the romance of history gave way to the realities of international relations. The arrival of the Europeans fragmented the ocean and its littoral. The post-colonial world also created new national, and thereafter, regional identities that put the ocean in the shade. Moreover, economic activity and cultural habits specific to the coast in the Indian Ocean did not always extend very far inland. This lack of depth perhaps also contributed to the reduction of an entire eco-system into a water space.
Before addressing the challenges of reviving the Indian Ocean as a geo-political concept, let us examine the arguments in its favour. It is not coincidental that Hall was connecting the unity of the Indian Ocean to the age of Asia, or indeed to the balance of world power. If we all accept, as I assume we do, that there is a global rebalancing underway driven by Asia’s revival, then we must definitely examine the contribution that Indian Ocean can make to this process. Is the Asia we promote merely a littoral one or should its progress and prosperity extend into the seas that are part of it? Is our continent better served by a fuller identity or a narrower one? If both the world and Asia are heading in the direction of greater multi-polarity and multilateralism, is a broader spectrum not in our collective interest? And looking beyond, surely a more integrated view of the Indian Ocean also brings the proximate continents of Australia and Africa at its two ends much closer. Let me also make a security argument: are we not safer if Asia’s sense of itself extends seamlessly to the waterways so essential to our commerce? Or for that matter, are narrow nationalism and sharp regionalism not better harmonised in a pan-oceanic framework? There is even an economic argument today to look at the Indian Ocean in a more composite way. The blue economy is an important ‘over the horizon’ opportunity that is waiting to be tapped. In essence, the case for approaching the Indian Ocean in a less disaggregated manner is strong. The challenge is to translate these arguments into a regional order.
A key step in that direction is to create the connectivity that promotes a sharper Indian Ocean personality to emerge. It is obviously unrealistic to just fall back on the past monsoon-driven one, though we should not underestimate the attractions of soft connectivity. The problem is that littoral nations, in the last five decades, have each joined a regional grouping, some of them more than one. Encouraging them to work towards a composite Indian Ocean one is, therefore, not easy. None probably would be opposed but few actually have the necessary enthusiasm or appetite. At a diplomatic level, promoting greater interaction among these groupings would itself make an important contribution to the Indian Ocean. But more important, it is necessary to bridge physically the boundaries between them. A good example is the India-Myanmar border where the SAARC meets ASEAN. While land connectivity is obviously critical, we must also recognise that the under-development of maritime infrastructure is itself largely responsible for the profile of the Indian Ocean.
No less significant is hinterland development. Part of the Indian Ocean’s limitation was the narrowness of its coastal culture. As unified national societies emerged in Asia, the psychological distance from the ocean has also narrowed. Hinterland economies have increasingly become linked to maritime trade. It is apparent today that the development of their infrastructure that can be a game changer in elevating the importance of the Indian Ocean. Let me offer examples from India itself in support of this line of thinking. We are working on ambitious plans for port and port-led development that would make our 7500 km coastline more relevant to the future of the Indian Ocean and India. We are similarly looking at more aggressively developing some of our 1200 islands. Road and rail development projects are improving internal logistical efficiency. Of particular significance is the steady unfolding of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. We expect this to be followed by an eastern corridor and a southern one covering Bengaluru to Chennai. If you juxtapose these infrastructure initiatives with the ‘Make in India’ programme, the implications for the Indian Ocean are quite evident.
We know that historically, the Indian Ocean was a ‘highway’ linking great multitudes across vast geographies. As our connectivity vision and capabilities expand, this critical role can actually be played once again. For the Indian Ocean to attain its true potential, it is imperative that India, which is its centre of gravity, should be a facilitator rather than an obstruction. That requires a smoother movement of goods and people within India but also to its immediate neighbourhood. And beyond. Not coincidentally, stronger connectivity is at the heart of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of the Modi Government. Whether it is the Kaladan transport project leading to Sittwe port in Myanmar; or the Trilateral Highway to Thailand; railway modernisation, inland waterways, coastal shipping, or port development in Bangladesh, or in Sri Lanka; today, better logistics is the dominant theme of India’s neighbourhood outreach.
Our experience towards our west is less positive for reasons you all appreciate. Nevertheless, the understanding on the Chahbahar port project with Iran and the sea access it can provide for Afghanistan represent important openings. We appreciate Iran’s considerable potential as a transit corridor even to Eurasia and Europe. Among the projects we are working on with them is the International North-South Transport Corridor for which a test run was just done in transporting goods all the way to St. Petersburg. India is also desirous of joining the Ashgabat Agreement that connects the Indian Ocean to Central Asia.
It would, therefore, come as no surprise to all of you that we see the re-energising of SAARC as one of our key foreign policy priorities. India is very conscious that South Asia is among the least integrated regions of the world. This not only damages the growth prospects of SAARC members but is also a drag on the larger rise of Asia and the Indian Ocean that I have spoken about. Consequently, we are pressing now to broaden cooperation among SAARC members, including through new initiatives in fields like weather forecasting, disaster management or satellite capabilities. As I underlined, we also are working towards greater connectivity and promote expanding people-to-people contacts. Admittedly, there are challenges as not all SAARC members are on the same ambitious page. To overcome that, we have also conceptualised groupings like BBIN that plurilateraly take forward sectors like motor transport and railways. BIMSTEC is another relevant grouping with reference to the Bay of Bengal. We look forward to its developing a more robust agenda.
Our interest is not limited to the immediate region. We positively evaluate the prospects of working with Japan on the Mekong-Dawei initiative that could further connect to southern India. Studies are already underway on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM corridor. And in the ocean itself, our interest in enhancing maritime logistics in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles remain strong and will extend further in due course.
The overall contribution that connectivity can make to economic growth and development is hard to overstate. The examples I have cited in my own country and beyond make a powerful case for an open mind in this regard. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that precisely because improved connectivity opens up so many new possibilities, it can also have strategic connotations. Consequently, it is vital that trans-national initiatives should be the outcome of broad-based consultative processes. It is also very important that the yardstick to judge their viability should essentially be a commercial one. At the end of the day, connectivity should contribute to the cooperative spirit of this region.
A resurgence of the Indian Ocean must necessarily be predicated on its economic revival. Only then would any expectation of coherence and cooperation in the Indian Ocean become realistic. There is a strong case for greater intra-ocean trade and investment and indeed, some progress to report in that regard. If India’s economic growth in the last two decades has been catalysed by its ‘Look East’ policy, it can be taken to new levels by a ‘Think West’ one that leverages the huge energy assets in the Gulf region. In recent months, the two fronts are competing vigorously for attention. Taken together, they help politically shrink the distances that were elongated by the past fragmentation of the ocean.
For a community sense in the Indian Ocean to grow, more effective intra-regional cooperation is as important as the inter-regional one. This realisation is increasingly sharply felt in Indian policy and we are among the most prominent development assistance partners of our immediate neighbours. To illustrate, grants and loans extended to Bangladesh are estimated at over USD 3 billion, to Sri Lanka at USD 2.7 billion, to Myanmar at USD 1.75 billion, to Mauritius at USD 960 million, to Maldives at USD 128 million, to Seychelles at USD 60 million. In addition, we have a USD 10 billion line of credit to Africa offered last year that follows upon an earlier one of USD 5 billion. People-to-people exchanges accompanying the development assistance is equally strong. It is reflected in training and professional exchanges, as well as in medical treatment. Programmes offered formally by the Indian Government cover thousands and are further supplemented by market-based efforts. We believe that these efforts respond to local conditions and requirements of our partners, thereby strengthening a sense of solidarity and goodwill.
Growing awareness of the ocean’s economic potential when combined with sustainability and localisation concerns has given rise to blue economy initiatives. India is already engaging many of our neighbours in that regard, underlining our commitment to SDG 14. The OECD report ‘Ocean Economy by 2030’ brings out its tremendous economic and employment potential. We consequently seek to work more closely with others on marine bio-technology, exploitation of ocean minerals and harnessing ocean energy.
The centrality of the Indian Ocean to global trade and development is not a new development. After all, it covers one-fifth of the world’s total ocean area and encapsulates coastlines of almost 70,000 kms. But more than the expanse, it is about location. With Asia’s economic revival, whether we see the region as markets or production centres, transportation of goods has only acquired greater salience. The flow of natural resources is correspondingly growing with this ocean now accounting for two-thirds of the world’s maritime oil trade. We are also all aware that more than two-fifths of the world’s population lives around the ocean.
Ensuring the smooth and uninterrupted flow of one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and half its container traffic is not a small responsibility. With the passage of time, it must also become an increasingly collective one. India takes this challenge seriously and is prepared to shoulder its responsibilities fully. We have started to conclude white shipping agreements and cooperate on coastal and EEZ surveillance with some of our immediate neighbours. India participates in arrangements like the ReCAAP and the SOMS mechanism for maritime safety. We have also taken an active role in fighting piracy, both to our west and east. Since 2008, we have continued to conduct anti-piracy patrols in Gulf of Aden and other maritime routes in the region. The Indian Navy has undertaken about 50 anti-piracy escort missions. It has contributed overall to greater maritime safety in the region and enabled the reduction of the High Risk Area in December 2015, thereby reducing shipping insurance costs.
Not all threats are traditional and in recent times, the importance of HADR operations in the Indian Ocean has been increasingly appreciated. Building on its 2004 tsunami relief experience, India today has undertaken a wide range of HADR operations, from major evacuation efforts in Yemen to bringing drinking water to the Maldives and providing relief supplies by air to Fiji and Sri Lanka.
Security challenges in the Indian Ocean are addressed by different countries in different ways. In India’s case, they are essentially an outcome of national capabilities, buttressed by participation in relevant regional platforms. The ASEAN Regional Forum, in particular, is evaluated highly by us as a forum to share perspectives. Closer to home, we are developing trilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives. Where naval interests are concerned, the steady growth of the 35-nation Indian Ocean Naval Symposium over the last decade has been a very encouraging development. It has helped to promote a shared understanding of maritime issues, enhance regional maritime security, strengthen capabilities, establish cooperative mechanisms, develop inter-operability and provide speedy HADR responses.
Moving from policy to performance, we also believe that navies working together in pursuit of shared security goals have a stabilising impact. India participates in a number of bilateral exercises with Singapore, Sri Lanka, France and Australia amongst others. In addition, we partner the US and Japan for the Malabar set of exercises. The Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean that was agreed to in January 2015 during President Obama’s visit to India is another example of our openness to international cooperation in this sphere. With some of the Indian Ocean island states, notably Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles, we have supplied naval equipment, provided training and undertaken hydrographic services. We remain open to working with other partners in this ocean, including in East Africa.
Recognising the growing importance of maritime trade in an increasingly globalised world, India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS. India also believes that States should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability. Sea lanes of communication are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. As a State Party to the UNCLOS, India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans. In that connection, the authority of Annex VII Tribunal and its awards is recognised in Part XV of the UNCLOS itself. India’s own record in this regard is also well known.
If the Indian Ocean is now to occupy a more prominent place in the global political discourse, its best hope is the further development of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Over two decades, it has harmonised multiple diversities to create a common ethos. With its 21 members, 7 dialogue partners and two observers, IORA is the most obvious platform for trade, socio-economic and cultural cooperation. It creates common ground for regional economic cooperation and provides opportunities to develop shared interests. It also encourages close interaction of business, academic institutions, scholars and the peoples of the member states. India is committed to building up IORA in line with its own expanding bilateral ties in the region. We will be supportive in the expansion and further invigoration of its activities, from renewable energy and the blue economy to maritime safety and security, water science and greater institutional and think-tank networking.
Given the history and traditions of the Indian Ocean, it is but appropriate that any serious effort at promoting its coherence would address issues of its unity and identity. We must take full advantage of the ties of kinship and family that span the Indian Ocean and are an important part of its history. But more active initiatives are also needed and I would draw attention to Project Mausam, whose very nomenclature based on the distinctive wind system of the Indian Ocean signifies our interest in the characteristics of the region. The project promotes archaeological and historical research on cultural, commercial and religious interactions. It has become a vehicle for knowledge exchanges, networking and publications. If this is an example of a contemporary initiative to revive the ocean’s identity, let me emphasise that there are many other supporting endeavours that contribute to the same objective. By raising interest in traditional knowledge and practices such as ayurveda and yoga, by rekindling interest in the journey of faiths like Buddhism or Sufism, or by utilising powerful symbols like Nalanda or Ramayana to promote human exchanges, we are step-by-step adding to the consciousness of an eco-system that was once secure in its vibrancy.
In any defined framework in international relations, those who constitute it generally expect and are expected to shoulder primary responsibility. There is no reason why the Indian Ocean should be any different. Yet, in this day and age, reality must also take into account expressions of globalisation. Acceptability is as much a function of following norms and rules as it is in developing an interest. Why the behaviour of some states is more reassuring than others – a subject that was incidentally commented upon by Lee Kuan Yew – is worth reflecting upon.
In March 2015, Prime Minister Modi, while visiting Mauritius, laid out our vision for the Indian Ocean region. He declared that it was rooted in advancing cooperation and using our capabilities for larger benefit. This vision had four key elements:
- To safeguard our mainland and islands, defend our interests, ensure a safe secure and stable Indian Ocean, and make available our capabilities to others.
- Deepen economic and security cooperation with our maritime neighbours and strengthen their capacities.
- Envisage collective action and cooperation to advance peace and security and respond to emergencies, and
- Seek a more integrated and cooperative future for the region that enhances sustainable development.
We stand ready to work with all nations on that basis to create a prosperous, secure and developed Indian Ocean.
(Edited version of keynote address delivered by Dr. S Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary, Ministryof External Affairs, Government of India at Indian Ocean Conference, September 1, 2016, Singapore.)