When we gaily plunge in to the warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean, we never think of the seductive surf as part of the world’s most conflict ridden ocean. Indeed, we are proud to call our island – war-torn and corruption plagued, though it has been – the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ as we invite the world’s holiday makers to visit.
A sober comparison of the state of affairs across the oceans of the planet easily shows up our Indian Ocean as the region containing the most number of actual conflicts on-shore and worst violence at sea. And this is the ominous backdrop of the twentieth anniversary summit meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) that begins today in Jakarta, Indonesia. President Maithripala Sirisena attends from tomorrow and will then stay on for a state visit to that country at the invitation of the Indonesian government.
When IORA was first set up in 1997, the Indian Ocean was already beset by inter-state wars and civil wars including our own. Since then, things have got far worse, especially, in the western littoral.
Since the end of World War 2, the world’s biggest ocean, the Pacific, has been under the sway of a powerful, domineering USA. Except for a weak communist anti-state insurgency and, Muslim separatist insurgency in The Philippines, the Pacific is quiet.
Meanwhile, the ‘pond’, as the Americans and British self-indulgently call the Atlantic, is exactly that: an oasis of calm in the firm grip of the powerful North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) straddling that ocean and, the Organisation of American States (OAS) that encompasses the entirety of the Americas.
The Indian Ocean presents a vastly different picture. The Persian Gulf, Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea) have remained zones of bitter, devastating warfare over decades leaving a string of either failed states or faltering states. The South Asian Sub-continent has exploded with Indo-Pak wars over decades and remains a tinder box with these two nuclear-armed states at loggerheads. Near-dissolute Afghanistan feeds into the instability of the Sub-continent. Our own Sri Lanka was wracked with successive insurgencies in past decades and, many alarmists within the country still claim the threat of ‘residual separatism’.
If rampant already in the western littoral (as described above), the spectre of Islamist insurgency and terrorism also haunts the Muslim-dominant societies of Bangladesh and Indonesia. Burma also remains potentially volatile with simmering ethnic tensions. The Maldives has been wracked by a kind of constitutional coup which has seen a creeping political repression in that island archipelago and stirrings of fundamentalist Islamism.
Equally significant has been the persistent piracy off the coasts of the failed states in the Horn of Africa which has brought in several extra-regional navies in vigorous policing of the seas to protect shipping.
Shipping and maritime trade routes are the immediate major factors in the Indian Ocean’s global significance but, huge populations all around the region and the vast potential of the emerging developing countries have already added to the potential for rivalries within the region and more interventions from outside the region.
As the IORA website points out: the Indian Ocean carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments. The region is home to about two billion people. The countries of the littoral vary considerably in terms of their areas, populations and levels of economic development. The dynamism is also evidenced by the number of sub-regional groupings already existing: Australasia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Eastern & Southern Africa), each with their own regional groupings such as ASEAN, SAARC, GCC and SADC, to name a few.
As a briefing paper of the US Council on Foreign Relations, points out: two of the developed world’s most important ‘strategic chokepoints’, the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, through which 32.2 millions of barrels of crude oil and petroleum are transported per day— i.e. more than 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade—are in the Indian Ocean region. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced from the Indian Ocean seabed, coastal beach sands and, offshore waters. The seabed is also host to heavy mineral deposits barely explored.
Most of the rich world’s deep sea fishery industry is already reaping massive harvests from the Indian Ocean. Little Sri Lanka, which possesses a maritime exclusive economic zone of 200 km radius that is double the size of the island itself is yet to exploit the fishery potential in this zone. The shocking failure of the modern Sri Lankan state to appreciate its maritime potential has resulted in us helplessly watching Japanese, Chinese, Indian and numerous other fisheries industries having a field day in what is legitimately our ‘exclusive’ economic zone.
Slowly developing India also lags behind in modernising and expanding its deep sea fishery industry which gives us time to, at least, link up with our giant neighbour in lucrative joint ventures in this sector.
India, legitimately the ‘regional power’ by virtue of its commanding geographical location in the Ocean and its innate economic and military clout, is poised to assert itself more in the region. The country is already a major industrial power that is increasingly self-sufficient in its military capability. Its enormous population – more than three times that of the next biggest Indian Ocean country, Indonesia – provides the foundation for both potentially the world’s second largest market (after China) as well as one of the largest armed forces. Thus, India is expected to, and should, take up its role and responsibilities in the region, whether it is facilitating anti-piracy and narcotics and arms smuggling operations or ensuring political stability in the littoral states.
In recent decades India has begun to do just that with a string of military and economic co-operative linkages with countries ranging from Bangladesh to Oman to Kenya to Mozambique and Mauritius, Seychelles and The Maldives in-between.
Due to Delhi’s own clumsiness in handling Sri Lanka in its immediate neighbourhood (partly due to sub-national state politics), relations across the Palk Strait remain confused with both sides smarting from their blunders and unable, yet, to repair and rejuvenate ties to a level that existed in our common past that saw the sharing of civilisation, religion and political culture.
Already, the Indian Navy is the only navy in Asia with two aircraft carrier-led deep sea battle groups and a third carrier is planned which will give India true blue-water naval outreach throughout the Ocean that bears its name. The IN has the single largest naval presence in the region other than the United States which is, anyway, the world’s richest and largest naval power.
Soon, however, given the steady expansion of military ties across the Indian Ocean littoral, with bases, refuelling/servicing facilities and, ‘listening posts’ stretching from Oman to Kenya to Mozambique, Bangladesh and The Maldives, India is expected to play a bigger role. How much India’s internal Hindutva-style ethno-centric nationalism is tempered by the requisites of international diplomacy and careful geo-political management will decide India’s success in the region. As long as internal nationalism fuels bully tactics overseas, India will have a reputation to overcome just as much as the US has today.
The IORA is one forum where India does not have its principal rivals in the Indian Ocean, namely the US and China, equally active.
This, along with the urgent needs of littoral stability and development, gives India and its neighbours an opportunity to exploit for mutual benefit.
Both, the US and China (as well as many other extra-regional powers) have a legitimate right to be active in the Indian Ocean given their vital economic interests in maritime transport in the region. Just as much as the US and India have the right to set up security linkages in the region, so does China, and India cannot react negatively. However, both extra-regional powers should acknowledge a pre-eminent Indian role in the Ocean although our big neighbour can never legitimately seek the sway of an imperial power.
The Chinese Bogey in the Indian subcontinental view