The gathering of ministers, government officials and diplomats rivaled any other high-profile international conference. The occasion was the first ever Indian Ocean Conference, organised by the India Foundation think tank in Singapore in the first week of September. This was India’s version of the ‘Shangri La Dialogue’ – the premier annual dialogue bringing together defence ministers and military officials from across Asia to discuss regional security issues.
Despite being the world’s only ocean named after a country, the Indian Ocean has long been peripheral to India’s foreign policy priorities. This has created a void in the region, which was suitably filled up by China. As part of a long-term strategy, China steadily built its influence in the region through infrastructure projects and economic aid, which in turn has brought many littoral states in India’s neighbourhood into Beijing’s fold. Now an even greater push is coming through the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), as part of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, better known as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) strategy. Simultaneously, the region has witnessed increased activities among multiple foreign navies for several reasons, including anti-piracy missions, protecting Sea Lines of Communication, and ensuring freedom of navigation in this key artery of global trade. Navies of more than 40 countries now operate in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
India has instigated certain initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, yet region-wide cooperation has remained elusive. The search for the missing Malaysian airliner MH370 since 2014 has shown that even in this age of the Internet and near-instant communication, vast water bodies like the Indian Ocean remain an enigma. As a British participant at the conference said in jest, “Well, we know more about the moon’s surface than the Indian Ocean!”
Realising its waning influence and the need to foster cooperation in the region, which was always presumed to be India’s own backyard, New Delhi is now gradually getting its act together to engage with IOR countries, featuring naval exercises, security cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Building on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to Indian Ocean countries and his ‘Neighbourhood first’ policy, the Indian Ocean Conference brought together more than 250 participants from over 15 countries to discuss comity, commerce, and culture in an effort to create a shared understanding of the region
A repeated theme emphasised by the Indian officials – External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, her deputy M.J. Akbar, Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar, and Transportation Minister Nitin Gadkari – was the centrality of India in the IOR and the Modi government’s focus on the development of ports, connectivity projects, the formation of Special Purpose Vehicles for maritime projects in the region, and HADR operations in order to raise India’s profile in the IOR.
Throughout the one and a half days of deliberations, speakers from India and elsewhere repeatedly emphasised that the IOR needs an Indian Ocean organisation to comprehensively address issues related to political, security, economic, and cultural cooperation. But for this to happen, the region must first think as a community. A participant from Australia said that Indian Ocean countries must envision the region as a common system in which they face shared risks and vulnerabilities. This would push them towards cooperation. For instance, many Indian Ocean countries have drawn up national strategies for illegal fishing, yet a region-wide effort to address this issue has yet to emerge.
The conference made an earnest attempt to look beyond the ocean’s political-military significance by putting together sessions on commerce, investments and culture. But these discussions lacked the depth of those treating strategic and military cooperation, often focusing excessively on the Indian economy. But one thing is clear: the IOR is poised for growth and it is essential that the Indian businesses pay it greater attention. With the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy of the Modi government – which, as Foreign Secretary Jaishankar emphasized, is not an expression of optimism but of priority – the legitimate expectation is that the Indian corporate world will share some of the burden of realising India’s commitments to the region. As a reciprocal gesture, the government will have to incentivise Indian businesses to invest.
While India takes these nascent steps to increase its profile in the IOR, China is seeking to go one better. A Chinese participant in the conference mentioned that hectic policy consultations are underway in China to adjust its OBOR strategy to cater to the demands of enhanced connectivity and better trade in the Indian Ocean. Apart from these, China is also expanding its existing Silk Road Scholarships programme – which provides opportunities for the foreign students to study in China – to cover the countries along the MSR in the Indian Ocean.
If India is to emerge as a true maritime power, it is clear that it must look at the Indian Ocean beyond strategies of sea-denial and sea-control to focus on connectivity, soft power, and shared prosperity.
The writer participated as a Delegate in the Indian Ocean Conference.
Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security Studies and Director, Centre for Internation Security, Gateway House.
This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.
For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.
© Copyright 2016 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited.