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Full text of the Inaugural address by Shri. B.S. Raghavan, IAS (Retd.) for the International Confere

Article No. 12/2019

The following is the full text of the Inaugural address by Shri. B.S. Raghavan, IAS (Retd.), Former Policy Advisor to UN (FAO), Chief Secretary, State Governments of West Bengal and Tripura, Secretary to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of India; Patron, C3S for the International Conference on ‘Securing India’s Maritime Neighbourhood – Challenges and Opportunities’ jointly organised by  Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) National Maritime Foundation and The Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.  It was held at AV Complex, INS Adyar, Chennai on 28th March 2019.

Opinion leaders, strategic thinkers, and policymakers of Asian countries have long shied away from examining boldly and with a fresh mind the new and exciting vistas of social, cultural and economic partnership that exist right Under their nose. There is scant evidence of discussion or even awareness among scholars of the Asian region of the invincible dynamics of one such compelling vision, namely, the Indian Ocean Community (IOC).

The time has come to give a new thrust, suited to the genius of the Asian region, to new paradigms of collaboration and synergy which would put these countries on the fast track, if not ahead of so-called advanced countries. The combined strengths of 59 countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, which together constitute a six-trillion-dollar powerhouse, are capable of setting in motion hitherto undreamt of avenues of cooperation for making the most of their abundant human and natural resources.

If only the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim constitute themselves into a collective entity, the tremendous financial and economic leverage that it will exercise will redress the imbalance of the present world economic order and dissolve many of the perceived threats confronting the region.

It already has a model in the supra-national European Community which was initially conceived as a mechanism for joint policymaking with reference to production and marketing of coal and steel but got expanded to a full-fledged and integrated economic organisation with Euro as a common currency and a European Central Bank as a provider of banking services based on homogenous norms and criteria to all the members. This happened as an economic imperative despite the two world wars fought among the European nations.

Similarly, the IOC too can transform itself into a Free Trade Zone, to start with, to provide for free movement of goods and services which, at some later stage, can even work towards adopting a common currency. It will stretch from South Africa to Tasmania along the 63,000 km of the Indian Ocean Rim, but this need not in itself be regarded as an argument against it.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation was set up as a forum for the diplomats of the states of the region to meet annually to exchange views in the common interest of the IOC. Formally launched in 1997 with a very limited membership of some 20 states on the Indian Ocean littoral, it was supposed to focus on prospects for trade and tourism through joint ventures and the like, but it is still in a state of flux, and very little is known of its efforts to give economic content through Free Trade agreements and MOUs for bilateral and multi-lateral cooperation in infrastructure projects.

There is also the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which some Indian Ocean Islands are members. Again, few are aware of the extent to which it has been able to achieve its objectives.

Likewise, the expectation that the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) would take the lead in forging linkages with the Indian Ocean community has not been realised. All these various groupings are pursuing their own variegated agendas with no synchronisation or mutual reinforcement of their policies.

The projects for the construction of a Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway from Bangkok to Vladivostok and the extension of the territorial waters of the Indian Ocean Rim states to 200 nautical miles under the amended Law of the Sea were meant to open up unlimited economic opportunities for mutual cooperation and harnessing the riches of the ocean. Full and complete information is not available on the extent of progress made by them and the extent to which they have served the purpose intended.

The IOC has a thousand years of socio-cultural interaction and bonds essentially signifying a dharma-dhamma continuum evidenced by thousands of Hindu-Buddha temples in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and other states and the historical presence of Hindu kings in the region for over one millennium.

The IOC can be the first example of weaving the cultural bonds into socio-economic spheres of cooperation. It can be further buttressed by exchanges in the fields of higher technical education, use of satellite and IT technologies, oceanography and so on.

Since most of the social and cultural influences have had their origins in South India, policymakers at the Centre in New Delhi take only minimal interest in the opportunities and possibilities that exist in the region.

The International Conference organised jointly by the Chennai Centre for China Studies, National Maritime Foundation and the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, University of Madras, at Chennai would, in that sense, be of great help in making the academic community and persons prominent in public and political life in Southern States aware of the significance of India’s maritime neighbourhood and serve as a precursor to further steps which can set India on a course that would bring about a revolutionary change in the complexion of world affairs.

There had been no serious study undertaken so far of the implications and ramifications of issues relating to the security, stability and sustainability of the Indian Ocean Region in the 21st Century perspective. Five years ago, the Australia India Institute brought out a critically and clinically analytical, and at the same time lucidly written report, setting out the various factors contributing to the changing significance of the geopolitics and security challenges of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The multifarious aspects covered by the report are of extreme sensitivity and vital importance and provide the basis of a viable framework of willing and active cooperation among the IOR nations.

Amongst the noteworthy features of the report, the foremost is its stress on security as a multi-dimensional rather than the traditional military or power-play concept, bringing within its purview the inter-dependence of human security, economic and resources security, maritime security and environmental security. It is not merely a question of the stability and sustainability of the IOR; a stable global world order itself is predicated upon a holistic approach to security. Expectedly, the report goes in some detail into the roles that India and Australia can jointly play in binding the IOR nations as the driving force of efforts towards the realisation of the immense potential of a region that had long been bypassed and ignored by Western colonial powers which sucked its resources dry. The short point is that the Indian Ocean has to be regarded as part of a wider Indo-Pacific system that embraces the trade routes and sea lanes that cross the Ocean and extends past the Straits of Malacca, into the South China Sea, and north to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and on to the west coast of North America.

Transforming the Indian Ocean Rim as a vibrant economic and cultural entity by mobilising the collective energies and resources, and exploiting the commonalities, of the countries of the region can be taken up by India as a mission of vital importance in its own right that will define the character and complexion of the new world order. It stands on its own footing without needing to be guided by, or without relating it to, what China or any other country does. The many-splendored benefits flowing from it will automatically invest the region and the maritime neighbourhood with the strength and the confidence to stand up and assert its rights and entitlements.

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