Adding new dimensions to the Indian Ocean region
It’s good that the Eastern powers are uniting to project leadership in the Indian Ocean region. However, bottlenecks are not in availability of resources but in the formulations of policies
An ocean which is geologically the youngest and physically one of the most complex regions of the world governs the lives of almost 45 per cent of world’s population. Waters of this ocean carry half of the world’s container ships, one-third of the world’s cargo traffic and two-third of the world’s oil shipments. In addition, 80 per cent of the world’s container traffic has to transit through this ocean to reach its destination, thus, making Indian Ocean the lifeline of world’s trade and economy from time immemorial.
It is to reignite the spirit of a common Indian Ocean identity that India Foundation along with its partners initiated — the Indian Ocean Conference. The first edition of the conference was held in Singapore along with partners from Singapore and Bangladesh and was themed around ‘culture, commerce and comity’ in the region. Taking the cue further, the second Indian Ocean Conference was organised from August 31-September 1 in Colombo along with partners from Singapore and Sri Lanka. This year the theme of the conference was ‘peace, progress and prosperity’.
Peace: While conflicts and rivalries were not new to the region after the exit of the colonial powers, there was a need to declare these waters safe to keep the inter and intra regional trade going. It was in 1971 on the resolution put forward by the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Sirimavo Bandaranaike, that the 26th session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to declare the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’.
Today, the Gulf is currently the area that poses the highest risk of a serious military conflict. In South Asia, the conflict in Afghanistan, the multiple conflicts within Pakistan and India’s rise and growing influence within the region point to renewed sources of friction between India and Pakistan and between India and China. While neither of these is likely to spiral towards a nuclear war, the broad regional competition for influence between Iran and the Arab states, the risk of asymmetric war in the Gulf, a major conventional arms race, and Iran’s build-up of major ballistic missile forces remains a source of concern.
Terrorism and sea piracy are still a threat to the region and need immediate attention. Increasing presence of foreign powers in the waters of the region also pose a major threat to the peace and stability of the littoral nations. Towards this end, deliberations were held on freedom of navigation and over-flight, cooperation in anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations and deradicalisation and capacity building.
Progress: The Indian Ocean region covers three continents and thus, is the habitat to people of multiple cultures, traditions and identities. Confluence and convergence of these traditions and practices is vital for the progress of the region. In ancient times, the ocean was also referred to as the free sea by the inhabitants of the region owing it to the free movement of people and culture across the waters of the ocean.
Traces of these links of common historical legacy are also visible in the architecture of the coastal towns and cities of the littoral nations. Examples of racial integration are also widespread across the region. Zanzibar Island, on the eastern coast of Africa, though ruled by two generations of Omani rulers followed by the Arabs has imprints of Indian architecture. A most typical example of this are the Indian styled hanging balconies that are attached to almost every house in the island nation.
Greater emphasis needs to be laid on replenishing the people-to-people ties amongst the populace of the countries of the region. This can be done by encouraging youth exchange programmes, academic sojourns and cultural expeditions. A new impetus to people-to-people ties will not only open the channels of track II diplomacy but will also renew the common historical linkages of the region.
There are numerous groupings in the region which engage with the other countries on various bilateral and multilateral platforms in areas of security, strategy, trade, commerce and culture. However, what is needed today is a common platform to bring all the voices together and put up an Indian Ocean multilateral forum to build up on the common identity and shared past. The institution will function as a platform for the nations to come together and voice their concerns pertaining to the challenges faced by the region at large and create new opportunities for a brighter future for the larger populace.
Moving from people-to-people, there also needs to be greater engagement on a Government to Government level. It is important for the countries of the region to establish amongst themselves an ‘Indian Ocean Parliament’, on the terms of the European Parliament to exchange good governance practices. The Parliament would be one which would provide political leadership and not get hurdled by bureaucratic issues. At a younger level, there could also be a parallel youth parliamentary forum to identify and edify the youth leaders from amongst the masses.
Prosperity: The region built around the third largest of the oceans of the world accounts for only 30 per cent of the global intra-regional trade, though 80 per cent of the world’s shipments transit through its waters. There has been a slight increase in the trade volume from $400 billion in 2005 to one trillion dollars in 2014; however, it is still poor by global standards.
The Strait of Hormuz on the West, and Strait of Malacca on the East are the two major economic choke points of the ocean. While Hormuz carries 15.5 million barrels of oil through it each day, Malacca is the world’s second busiest lane, carrying 80 per cent of Japan’s and 60 per cent of China’s oil supplies. An estimated $70 billion worth of oil passes through the straits each year.
The region has abundance of raw materials, including oils and hydrocarbons which are vital for the development of major manufacturing industries. Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading producers of natural rubber in the world. Reasonably, large deposits of manganese, which also contain nickel, cobalt, copper and iron, have also been found in the Eastern part of the Indian Ocean, off the coast of India, Mauritius and Madagascar.
Apart from that, an interesting trend has also been observed in the beds of this ocean that there has been no decline in the fish stock of the region over a consistent period of time indicating the underutilisation of the resources available, at a time when the other water bodies are facing extreme scarcity.
Clearly, the bottlenecks are not in the availability of resources but in the formulations of the policies concerned with the region. To harness the potential of the available resources, it is vital for the stakeholders to come together and deliberate on the idea of having free market, free trade, better connectivity and policies to encourage economic growth and integration, in turn encouraging economic prosperity amongst the littoral and non-littoral nations of the region.
Thus, the Indian peninsula, which is just 1,980 kms into the Indian Ocean with 50 per cent of the ocean basin lying within a 1,500 km radius of India, is now staking its claim on the region. Alfred Thayer Mahan once quoted, “Whoever attains control of the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia” and it is to this end that the Eastern powers are uniting to project leadership in a region which is truly theirs.
(The writer is, Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation)
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