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19 January 2017, Gateway House

‘Blue Diplomacy’ to boost Blue Economy

The first ever summit of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, to be held in Indonesia in March 2017, will cast light on how India and other like-minded nations can develop oceanic resources sustainably. This event offers scope for India to mould outcomes

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Indonesia’s historic decision to convene the first ever summit of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), in March 2017, will heighten awareness about the  Blue Economy, a subject that has generated some buzz, even if it has been muted so far.[1] The event makes it imperative for India and other like-minded states to focus more purposefully on giving substance to the Blue Economy, a phenomenon of the current decade.

It’s for years that a handful of diplomats and scholars have been pointing out the value of holding this summit to reinvigorate the 20-year-old IORA, but it took a strongly motivated leader, President Joko Widodo, with his conviction about the vital importance of oceans, to host it. A key endeavour at the Jakarta Summit will thus be to develop for the member states a roadmap for cooperation relating to the Blue Economy.

Scholars constantly compete to come up with the all-encompassing and the most complete definition of the Blue Economy. This is quite unnecessary. The Blue Economy is all about the sustainable development of oceanic resources.

The earth’s reserves are limited and shrinking rapidly, while humankind’s needs – and the population itself – are expanding. The seas can meet the burgeoning supply deficit for food, medicines, energy, income generation, job growth and socio-economic development, in general, if we husband them rather than exploit them mindlessly for our short-term benefit.

How can this goal be achieved? The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) took a laudable step a few months ago when it set up a special task force, comprising select experts and business leaders, who have been holding consultations with the relevant stakeholders in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. The task force’s report is expected to highlight the multi-dimensional nature of the strategy required and the need for a public-private partnership as also for generating new investments to leverage available opportunities.

The Blue Economy may hold immense potential, but we first need to craft an approach that is acceptable to both environmentalists and business. The one will advise caution, the other will want to examine profitable future prospects.

A two-pronged approach, therefore, seems to recommend itself. India first needs a national plan to develop the Blue Economy. This includes traditional sectors, such as, fisheries and aquaculture, port development, marine tourism and shipping, with its related services. Now, there are also sectors, like deep-sea mining, ocean energy and marine biotechnology, that need policy attention.

Stakeholders in all these sectors and the coastal communities need to be consulted. The authorities grappling with these issues in our coastal states have enormous experience that needs to be tapped. Many ministries and agencies of the central government deal with Blue Economy issues, but there is no single policy window currently. Niti Aayog though, has begun to take some interest in this domain.

What is needed is an in-depth and sustained dialogue among the various players for  a multi-sectoral and pan-Indian understanding to emerge and for devising a practical and implementable blueprint on the Blue Economy.

A further step forward is to set up an Indian Forum on Blue Economy (IFBE), composed of officials, independent experts, business and civil society leaders, who can help draft the Blue Economy plan for the next decade or so.

Also, tangible international cooperation is essential for securing meaningful progress. Geopolitical strife on issues, such as the South/East China Sea, is ostensibly about territorial and maritime claims. Behind them lies, at least partially, the belief of contestants that those oceanic regions are rich in petroleum, mineral and other resources. Hence, the temperature around these conflicts needs to be lowered. Moreover, nations that are newer to the concept of the Blue Economy need to emulate the positive gains that the EU, China, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have achieved as leaders in this field.. While dialogue and cooperation at various multilateral fora will continue, our diplomacy will need to focus, in particular, on the region close to India.

Currently, strategic defence and security issues and non-traditional security threats, such as piracy, terrorism and natural disasters, dominate the discourse in our strategic community. Given the unfolding geopolitical situation, this is unavoidable, but a careful recalibration is still required.

A conscious shift from security-related issues alone to also examining the development aspects of the oceans needs to be executed. By deploying technology, increasing investment and benefiting from global best practices, nations can generate greater wealth from the oceans (than ever before), while respecting the limits of sustainability. India’s Blue Diplomacy has to make this its thrust.

Finally, two suggestions merit consideration. It is necessary for India to gear itself fully to mould outcomes at the IORA summit in Jakarta. Our commitment to the grouping has to be voiced unambiguously at the highest political level, with India spelling out clearly what it will do to strengthen IORA in the future. Secondly, a 1.5 track dialogue, involving officials and independent experts from select countries in our extended neighbourhood, is worth launching. Recent deliberations in specialist circles point to the need to include the following 15 countries in the proposed dialogue:

  • South Asia: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives;
  • Indian Ocean: Mauritius and Seychelles;
  • ASEAN: Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia;
  • Africa: South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.

A public debate on the issues and suggestions delineated here will help. Backed by a broad consensus, India will be in a better position to fulfill its ambition to optimise the Blue Economy’s benefits within the framework of sustainable development.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador. As a diplomat, he served in and dealt with seven countries in the Indian Ocean. He chairs FICCI’s task force on the Blue Economy. This article reflects his personal views.   

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[1] For detailed information on IORA, please refer to the sources listed below:

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