Indian Ocean has been an economic and cultural reality for centuries. Before the arrival of Europeans, Indian and Arabs traded in the region for centuries. And the ocean holds key strategic importance even today. More than 40% of oil reserves of the world are located in Indian ocean. 50% of global shipment happens through it and two third of oil tankers in the world transit through the region. Given this, Indian ocean becomes important for everyone. And with each country having its own set of goals, it creates a challenge for India to maneuver its own space.
The importance of Indian Ocean Region (IOR)
For the USA, the region is important to sharing its burden in managing China. The stakes are high for China too, to demonstrate its naval capacities in the region. However it is India for which the Indian ocean matters the most.
India is a nation with 7500km coastline, 1200 islands, and EEZ of 2.4 mn km. Its maritime reliance on trade and energy is near total. The IOR shelters 51 countries and around 35% of the world population. This is a region with growing economies and vast natural resources. Developing a strong Indian ocean region policy is the next logical step after our immediate neighbourhood (SAARC) and Act East (ASEAN).
There are also concerns about China’s string of pearls strategy. A strong naval power, coupled with strategic presence in the region will have strong security implications for India. While India develops QUAD, it is also important to maintain good relations with littoral countries.
Many non-traditional issues also haunt the region. Piracy has been a concern even for countries like the USA and China. The sea lanes are used for human trafficking of which India is also a victim. A huge maritime transport also creates biodiversity challenges. Thus maritime governance also needs to be strengthened in the region. And no country alone can achieve it.
India’s vision of Indian Ocean
Historically, Indian Ocean was a highway, linking great multitudes across vast geographies. As our connectivity vision and capabilities expand, this critical role can be played once again.
For India, this is a mix of pathways of going down its own strategic rise while also responding to the compulsions arising from posture of others. And reconciling the two is the need of the time.
According to S Jaishankar, Indian Foreign Minister, following are the elements of India’s policy on Indian Ocean Region.
1] Indian Ocean Region must be perceived as the further extrapolation of the Act East and Look East policy.
2] An affirmation that India will no longer be limited in the pursuit of its interests in its neighbourhood.
3] Maritime governance in the region – a part of a larger vision of rule based world order.
4] Demonstrating strong capabilities in Indian Ocean, so that India’s value to other global players will be greatly enhanced. And they will be more enthusiastic to welcome India further east.
5] Advancing cooperation and using our capabilities for larger benefit would help India to,
i) safeguard our mainland and islands
ii) defend our interest
iii) ensure safe secure and stable Indian Ocean and
iv) make available our capability to others.
6] Deep economic and security cooperation with our maritime neighbours and strengthening their capacities.
7] Collective action and cooperation to advance peace and security and respond to emergencies.
8] More integrated and cooperative future for the region that enhances sustainable development.
Of course, various goals need to be prioritized. According to Mr. Jaishankar, the list of priorities in Indian foreign policy in the form of concentric circles.
The core is, maritime infrastructure of the homeland, development of island assets, connectivity with immediate neighbours with littoral implications. And developing capability that can be employed on a daily basis.
The next circle includes maritime space beyond its own broders. Island countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles.
On land – restoration of connectivity to the extended neighbourhood to the east and west are important. Both have direct implications for the ability of India to safeguard waters on a larger scale, while ensuring economic consolidation of hinterland.
The next circle is a real challenge. It envisions revival of Indian Ocean as a community that builds on its historical and cultural foundation. However, without a strong strategic imperative, expanding the agenda is a challenge. So India needs to develop a stronger sense of purpose to achieve the objective. It is by shaping cooperation across the IO, that India can hope to significantly influence the events beyond it.
All these challenges, though differing in nature and priorities, needs to be addressed in parallel as they’re self supporting.
The outermost circle takes India to Pacific. Engaging converging interests to ensure core security while promoting stable periphery. Developing policy exchanges, capability exercises and cooperation mechanisms in that regard is work under progress.
It is interplay of these circles that will determine not only India’s maritime future but its larger strategic posture as well.
The Indo Pacific is as much our past as it is our future. For Indian ocean to attain its true potential, it is important that India, which is at the centre of gravity, should play a leading role in the region.
Based on the discussions