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Event Report: The Indian Ocean Great Game Unfolding: Interests, Determinants and Perspectives

C3S Report No: 0018/2017

The Indian Ocean Great Game Unfolding: Interests, Determinants and Perspectives was a two-day international conference that was held in the University of Madras, on the 28th and 29th of October 2017. It was jointly hosted by the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, the Chennai Centre for China Studies, the Institute for Transnational Studies (ITS), Germany, and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) – Chennai Chapter. The conference highlighted the fact that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has always been a critical theater for trade and communication and has become more important in the present context, in the view of many countries, when it comes to power projection and energy security.

Dr. Klara Knapp received the first copy of Ranjini Srinivasan’s (Intern C3S), occasional paper “Demystifying Chinese Cyber Sovereignty”.

Day 1 opened with the welcome address by Air Marshall Matheswaran, who spoke of the civilizational discourse of our times and the coming back of the Asian Age. 70% of energy transits through the IOR and thus it becomes critical for countries to protect these routes. Increasing trade in the Indo-Pacific region also highlights the fact that India and China as stakeholders in the region need to co-operate to get by in the region, especially given the opportunities that the transition of power from Europe to Asia will present to the two countries.

After a brief introduction by Dr. Klara Knapp, ITS, where she thanked University of Madras and C3S, while pointing out that ITS was named specifically to highlight the transnational aspect of their research and that introducing the “nation-state” as the focus of study was increasingly becoming irrelevant. Increasing wealth inequality and unemployment along with falling economic growth have created a fairly unstable situation. On the plus side, Europe is predicted to hit a patch of growth in the next two years.

The keynote address was given by Inspector General Rajan Bargotra, Regional Commander of Indian Coast Guard Region (East). His stress was laid on the need for Coast Guard co-operation on the global and regional level and how this will lead to confidence building measures that can be instituted in different nations that will allow for economic growth to be realized. Closer linkages between the coast guards of different nations also becomes a concern because of the fact that, very often, there isn’t an accepted definition of what maritime laws apply in which specific situation. Environmental and emissions related concerns were also mentioned.

The first panel was on the subject of the Indian Ocean Region Between Integration and Disintegration. Professor Suryanarayan’s, President of C3S, opening talk framed the narrative of the IOR as a region of peace and the UN resolution that called it so. Sri Lanka as a key actor in the IOR also has a role to play in its stability, and according to the Professor, Sri Lanka has used every chance that it has had to “cut India down to size”.

Dr. Subramanyam Raju, Pondicherry University, emphasized that India needs to be involved with OBOR, since connectivity is key to unlocking its potential. China cannot ignore this fact, according to him. He also brought up the fact that we need to look at the IOR from the other side and see the enormous potential that it has for India. To this, he added that the Asian Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) would also be a key component in India’s greater strategy going forward.

The panel ended with Dr. Dattesh Parulekar’s, Goa University, comments on the SAGAR initiative of the India and understanding this as an Indian model for security as opposed to a Chinese model. India, has huge advantages in the IOR, and major powers have not embedded themselves in the region yet. This means that India has to make IOR a priority in its long-term strategy, going forward. SAGAR, according to Dr. Parulekar is different because of the coming together of a ministerial cabinet around the project and also the strong posturing by the government on the matter.

The second panel, after a short break, was on the subject of challenges in the IOR, both conventional and non-conventional. Brigadier Vinod Anand ,Vivekananda International Foundation, was the opening speaker on this panel and spoke primarily on India’s strategy in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region. Indian strategic culture needs to be better understood and harnessed. The reliance that India has on maritime trade means that means that port development needs to be emphasized. This in conjugation with the “Make in India” initiative will ensure that India has a better economic outlook, going forward.

Taking this point forward, Dr. P.K. Ghosh, International Study Group, spoke on transnational crime in the IOR and the prospect for disruption of trade and economic activity. India and China are travelling farther away than they ever have and this means that maritime security becomes more important, in terms of securing Sea Lines of Communication, since maritime terrorism will inevitably concentrate on supply chain disruption.

Dr. Ramu Manivannan, University of Madras, jumping on the previous point made on strategic culture mentioned that India needs to develop a political culture that will allow a strategic culture to develop in a more organic manner. He also mentioned that India needs to be a more benevolent neighbor and that it would pay dividends in the times to come.

Dr. Lawrence Prabhakar, Madras Christian College, spoke on the “tyranny of distance” that China faces and that the BCIM and CPEC need to be seen as strategies to overcome this problem. Apart from the economic angle, there is also a civilizational discourse that is involved in how China has formulated these projects. China’s goals in the IOR have to do with nuclear deterrence, displacing economic competitors and embossing itself in the region, as both a military and economic player. Developing non-conventional power capabilities are also important to China.

Panel 3 was on the issue of either a “perceived” or a “real” dualism that exists between Indian and Chinese interests in the IOR and the ramifications of this. Dr. P.V. Rao, Osmania University, took the time out to emphasize that the Navy needs to be understood form the perspective of dual use. By this he meant that it can be used not only for the purposes of force projection but also diplomacy, HADR and for guarding coasts. Commodore Vasan, Director C3S, said that, in his opinion, IOR was not a zone of peace and that there needed to be a more specific strategy that should be linked to specific foreign policy objectives. He also highlighted the 19th party congress and the speech by Xi Jinping and the “Middle Kingdom” phenomenon that is replete in Chinese foreign policy.

With that, the conference closed for the first day.

The second day opened with Dr. Bali Deepak’s, Jawaharlal Nehru University, started with talking about the power vacuum in the world and the fact that inevitably there will be a nation that will rush in and occupy this space. It is in this context that we need to look at the Maritime Silk Road. Furthermore, since Asia will be the focus of the next century, Chinese engagement will hinge on engagement in this region. Dr. Jagannath Panda, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, added to Dr. Deepak’s point about Chinese engagement with the world by speaking of the fact that the Belt and Road Initiative had been enshrined in the constitution at the 19th party congress and this really only confirmed that this would be an important part of Chinese policy going forward. Dr. Panda’s primary engagement was with the 19th party congress and on what it signified, going forward. He differs from the popular opinion on the probability of Xi carrying on for a third term. Xi is in an enviable position in terms of the stature that he possesses in Chinese politics at the moment and he would not like to abrogate his chance of retaining his power behind the scenes by staying on as president for a third term.

Colonel Hariharan’s (C3S), talk was on the strategic position of India and China vis-à-vis each other. In his time, he contrasted the fact that the Indian army has had experience in fighting wars as opposed to the Chinese and the fact that India has a naval culture as a result of its civilizational past and its legacy under British colonialism. On the flipside, there is an enormous deficit in the investment that China makes in its military. This is partly because of its significantly larger GDP, and the fact that China as a “monolithic” state gets to make tougher decisions than India (as a democracy) can.

Panel 4 was all about the economic aspect of the IOR and how India can improve its probability of making significant economic gains in the years to come. Captain Sankaran, Steamship Agencies Pvt. Ltd, as an expert in the field of commercial logistics and shipping weighed in on the fact that Britain as a colonial power manage to maintain its hegemony because of the fact that they established chains of islands and ports that would allow them to navigate with relative ease, compared to their competitors. There was also a map that was shown that detailed the Chinese investment in the Kyaukpyu port and the oil pipeline project that connects it to Yunnan province. Mr. K. Subramaniam (C3S), followed up the Captain’s talk by saying that the US Senate’s decision on the status of the Iran agreement and how the Department of State will handle this will in a large part determine India’s future energy security, since 20% of India’s oil comes from Iran at this point of time. The cost of energy security is increasing by the day and this might mean that there needs to be an evolution in how the world’s conceives of energy security, and a movement away from viewing it as a zero-sum game.

The last speaker of the conference was Dr. Klaus Lange, ITS, who spoke on European interests in the IOR and the historical and present world narratives that we have to deal with when considering engagement between the European mainland (and western Europe in particular) with the Indian subcontinent. A point that he stressed on was the fact that Europe was divided along east-west lines and that there are very different conceptions of the European project. These differences according to him cannot be easily papered over and Western Europe is looking towards the horizon, and especially the IOR as a means to re-engage with the world.

Commodore Vasan gave the vote of thanks and summed up the ideas that were expressed over the weekend.

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