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14 September 2017, Gateway House

Expanding India’s engagement with IOR

India must deepen its involvement with countries of the Indian Ocean Region on issues of security, commerce, and connectivity: this was the upshot of the second Indian Ocean Conference, held by the India Foundation in Colombo two weeks ago

Former Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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On August 31-September 1, Sameer Patil, Director, Centre for International Security & Fellow, National Security Studies, Gateway House, attended the second Indian Ocean Conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The conference was organised by the India Foundation and focused on security and economic cooperation among the Indian Ocean region countries.

It was in 1971 that then Sri Lankan prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had spearheaded the United Nations Declaration, terming the Indian Ocean a “Zone of Peace”. This was in the context of Cold War power rivalry. Over four decades later, this rivalry has only intensified. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is at the centre of intense diplomatic, economic and military manoeuvres and Sri Lanka is becoming a key part of these developments when viewed from the Indian perspective.

The realities on the ground notwithstanding, ‘Peace, Progress and, Prosperity’ was the theme of the conference. The second in an annual series organised by the India Foundation, it has become an important event at which to showcase India’s intellectual heft and discuss geopolitical, security, and economic issues even as it bolsters its engagement with countries in the IOR.

In the last few years, New Delhi has considerably expanded its maritime connections with Colombo, which span bilateral defence and security interactions, including naval exercises, and trilateral security cooperation, involving the Maldives. But concerns abound, particularly as China actively seeks to enlist Sri Lanka in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing’s growing influence in this island nation was evident when only weeks ago, China Merchants Ports Holdings, a state-owned firm, acquired a 70% stake in the Hambantota port along with a 99-year lease, as part of the $1.12 billion agreement: India has expressed some apprehensions about China potentially using this as a military facility, and discussions at the conference did take note of these developments.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asserted that India was a ‘key pivot’ of the IOR and that its vision for the Indian Ocean was to preserve its organic unity while promoting cooperation. In further emphasis of this approach to counter China’s growing advances in the IOR, Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar said that the ethos of the IOR was consultative and that the goal to be followed must be interdependence, not dominance.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while allaying these fears about Hambantota, proposed the establishment of an Indian Ocean Fund for facilitating business expansion and trade in the IOR, an idea he did not flesh out, but it was one that provided ample fodder for dinner table conversation in the exquisite ballroom of Temple Trees, the prime minister’s house, where the event was held.

This year’s conference also had a large Chinese delegation, led by scholars from Peking University and the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s think tank, who used the opportunity to highlight China as an Indian Ocean power and BRI’s benefits to the IOR and for the ‘common good’.

Another theme that dominated discussions this year was ‘freedom of navigation’. Many speakers, including PM Wickremesinghe, and Alice Wells, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, pointed to the need to create a legal regime for ensuring it. Secretary Wells also said that the U.S. had scheduled its first ever naval exercise with Sri Lanka next month.

It was clear that the issues in the IOR were to do with security, commerce, connectivity and culture – and India and like-minded countries ought to use these deliberations to intensify their focus on them.

Outside the conference venue, Colombo provided a glimpse of the growing Chinese footprint on it. There is some unease about this among the locals, but this seemed to be more cultural than economic. Chinese companies are marching ahead, particularly in the infrastructure sector, fuelling a construction boom in Colombo. A new landmark, Lotus Tower, funded by China’s EXIM Bank, is rising in the middle of the city and is being touted to be the tallest structure in South Asia. Adjacent to the central business district, heavy machinery is reclaiming land from the sea. This is part of the project undertaken by the China Harbour and Engineering Corporation to create a new business and commercial hub for Colombo.

Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security Studies and Director, Center for International Security, Gateway House

On August 31-September 1, Sameer Patil, attended the second Indian Ocean Conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The conference was organised by the India Foundation and focused on security and economic cooperation among the Indian Ocean region countries.

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