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5 May 2017, Gateway House

Keeping maritime Asia on course

The Oceans Dialogue 2017, held last month in Thiruvananthapuram, devoted itself to aspects of ocean governance, such as security management, combating terrorism, depletion of marine resources and providing disaster relief, serving as a precursor to the UN General Assembly’s Ocean Conference in June

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Participants at the Oceans Dialogue 2017, held in Thiruvananthapuram,  Kerala, from 19 to 21 April 2017, noted that the Indian Ocean had become “the key ocean” in the 21st century. Oceans constitute over 70% of planet Earth and are of vital importance to human well-being, and the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region impact the littorals and almost all other countries. Deeper research, wider consultations and inclusive policies to counter the challenges–old and new–are needed to shape the strategy for Asia’s ocean governance in the coming years.

This Dialogue, held under the aegis of the Observer Research Foundation and the Dutch government, was designed to generate interest in ocean governance and provide inputs for the Ocean Conference. This will be hosted by the United Nations General Assembly in New York from 5 to 9 June 2017 to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14:  to conserve and use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Ocean governance requires a multi-disciplinary approach, and the Dialogue brought under one roof all manner of expertise—from economists and environmentalists to oceanographers, naval staff, diplomats and political leaders. Security, geopolitics, business, development issues, Blue Economy, sustainability and the health of the oceans came under the scanner.

Participants offered a series of suggestions:

  • Both “cooperation” and “confrontation” will fuel Asia’s geopolitics in the coming years. Statesmanship demands that governments accord higher priority to cooperation, adherence to a rules-based order and international law rather than confrontation, as made clear by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The nature and gravity of terrorist threats to energy and industrial infrastructure in coastal regions were examined in depth. This is an area that requires authorities to generate an entire set of planning, training, coordination and skill upgradation activities in the future.
  • Discussion on security management of coastal waters revealed, according to an American expert, three major obstacles to the implementation of agreements: capability, capacity-building and compliance. The last mentioned need was particularly relevant in respect of the South China Sea, which still awaits the finalisation of a formal and enforceable Code of Conduct (COC) among China and Association of South East Asian Nations member-states.
  • An in-depth discussion on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) underlined the need to develop capacities, accumulate experience and strengthen motivation, considering that 70% of the world’s natural disasters strike the Indian Ocean Speakers recalled how India has played a leadership role in helping Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Myanmar and Indonesia in recent years.
  • Trade growth has slowed down amidst several major “shifts”, such as the rising tide against free trade and globalisation in the West; increasing, but fragmented, regional integration that moves ahead at “different speeds”; and the need for increasing intra-regional trade within the Indian Ocean Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) continue to be a major impediment. Trade facilitation should, therefore, be pursued as a strategic goal. Improvement in port services and stress on port development and modernisation will be increasingly important. In this context, India’s Sagarmala Project was considered a timely initiative.

Discussion on the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), built around an insightful presentation by its Secretary General, brought out the institution’s recent achievements, such as the Jakarta Accord.  But, it also became apparent that IORA is yet to develop effective modalities to leverage the potential of cooperation with its dialogue partners i.e. the U.S., China, Japan and other countries that are not its members. Besides, IORA’s role in shaping the discourse and policy-making on the Blue Economy is assuming importance and will merit a close watch.

Speaking on “Blue Economy and National Development”, I said that, with the world’s population (7.3 billion in mid-2015) set to shoot up to 11.2 billion in 2100, more and more people will look to the oceans as a source of food and energy security, but these resources should be utilised within the framework    of sustainable development and social equity. Wealth generation from the oceans has to keep in mind the welfare of society’s vulnerable sections.  This will need the deployment of new technologies, such as that required for mining sea beds, and new investments, to be raised through public-private partnerships.

These recommendations apart, what the conference participants highlighted were themes that concern all countries and peoples. “Security and prosperity are two sides of the same coin,” as one retired American rear admiral put it: since one is not feasible without the other, a comprehensive approach is essential. It has to be one that takes into account Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in many parts of the world. Globally, 31.4% of fish stock is being fished, according to estimates, which is biologically unsustainable.

Ocean governance has to take seriously the health of the ocean itself, what with the deadly thoughtlessness with which plastic is being cast into it, causing the death of turtles. It has to value coral reefs, whose purpose is akin to that of rain forests for the earth, providing nutrients that keep the ocean blue in colour. And all this requires looking much further than the middle distance, which is why such forums of discussion serve a vital purpose.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He also chairs FICCI’s Task Force on Blue Economy.

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