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Indian Priorities in the Indian Ocean By Raakhee Suryaprakash

C3S Monthly Column M004/15


“The concept of the oceans economy, also referred to as the blue economy, is one that simultaneously promotes economic growth, environmental sustainability, social inclusion and the strengthening of oceans ecosystems.”

— UNCTAD

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tri-nation tour of Indian Ocean island nations – Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka followed by the three-day conference themed “India and the Indian Ocean: International Conference on Renewing the Maritime Trade and Civilisational Linkages” at Bhubaneshwar, Odisha attended by top ministers, bureaucrats and more than a dozen Ambassadors in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in March 2015 are indicators of the renewed importance being given to the Indian Ocean region in India’s foreign policy as well as the region’s growing geostrategic and geo-economic salience.

The conference organised by the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS) and Research and Information System for developing Countries (RIS) which saw the attendance of representatives from the 20 IOR countries — India, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Thailand, Mauritius, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Madagascar, Singapore, Yemen, Oman, Iran, Cambodia — as well as extra-regional observers resulted in the Bhubaneshwar Declaration that highlighted the littoral countries’ strategic vision for the Indian Ocean. Indian ministers who attended the sessions included Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, Union Minister of State for Tourism & Culture Mahesh Sharma, Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Odisha Governor S.C. Jamir and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Taken together,  the various agreements signed by the Indian PM during the tri-nation tour in early March and the Bhubaneshwar Declaration at the end of the month, highlight the interests and aspirations of the region and the their synchrony with Indian interests in the region.

The eponymously named ocean has multiple multilateral institutions with sometimes overlapping memberships taking interest, for example the IORA; the Indian Ocean Commissions (IOC, and association of French-speaking nations in the region); and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) is another marine-interests based organisation with multiple members from the IO region. The convergence of interests and multiple interest groups is to be expected in the Indian Ocean due to its strategic significance with vital sea lane of communication (SLOCs) passing through (e.g., Hormuz Strait, Suez Canal, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Bay of Bengal, Malacca Strait, and South China Sea). These critical trade routes support almost two-thirds of the global energy trade, half of the world’s container cargo, and a third of global bulk cargo. The region has witnessed great devastations – both natural disasters and accidents – that have led to the nations of the regions pooling resources to assuage the devastations. The search for the MH370 – which a year after the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft has led to the most expensive joint operation as well as the search and rescue (S&R) efforts during the Asian Tsunami of 2004, the setting-up of monitoring stations since, as well as the disaster relief efforts that follow devastating hurricanes typical of this region are just a few instances of international collaborations for S&R, research, and relief work in the region.  Following the Indian Ocean Dialogue in Kochi, Kerala, in 2014 this strategic significance was emphasised when participants declared that “IORA members should address security issues themselves rather than relying on international forces.”

The Bhubaneshwar Declaration, the various agreements signed between Indian and Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka as well as the imperatives for sustainable development taking into account Climate Change realities makes “Oceans Economy” another important interest in the region.  Oceans economy (also referred to as the blue economy) is a relatively new concept that has its origins in the green economy concept endorsed at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. The Indian prime minister, in his March 2015 visit to Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka, urged for cooperation in blue economy, highlighting a “multi-disciplinary approach for the exploitation of hydrocarbons and other marine resources; deep-sea fishing, preservation of marine ecology, mitigating climate change by addressing environmental issues and disaster management.” Seemingly keeping in mind the UNCTAD recommendation that “[t]here is a need to mainstream the oceans economy into the future,” the PM’s speeches and the agreements signed during the tri-nation tour consistently emphasized cooperation with Oceans Economy as the roadmap.  Thus another formula for integration is the call for cooperation in the development of a blue economy. This Blue Economy business model will shift the social order from scarcity to abundance “with what is locally available,” by addressing issues that cause environmental and related problems in new ways. Considering the fact that the fishing issue is now a major irritant in India-Sri Lanka ties could find a solution in this business model and further out-of-the box thinking. As one analyst puts it, “Modi has initiated a new process of multilateralism in ocean politics by gluing together security and the blue economy. The action on the ground remains to be seen.”

With advancement in indigenous science and technology advancements, India is in a position to lend expertise in deep sea bed activities, hydrographic surveys and weather predictions to the small islands of the region as evidenced by India’s long record of hydrographic surveys of Seychelles and Mauritius as well as the latter commissioning the Indian-made 1,300-tonne coastal patrol vessel, Barracuda. The commissioning of the Indian-built patrol vessel coinciding with Modi being the chief guest for the Mauritian National Day parade on March 12 (the date was adopted as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi as he began the Dandi march on this day in 1930) is seen by many as a big-win for Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign – another major thrust in India’s foreign policy in the new regime.

India’s strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean region is bolstered not just by the vast coastline and the resultant Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the region as well as a strong navy and coastguard but also by the fact that the region has a large Indian diaspora spread across the region. Modi seems to be tapping into this demographic dividend by aligning the interests of the mother country and the diaspora by addressing the community during his international tours (U.S., Australia, Fiji, as well as Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka). The fact that the “Indian” lobby is getting organized across the world as a result of overseas Indians’ monetary muscle and influence as well as the sheer numbers is being slowly being put to work for the cause of securing Indian interests in the IO region and beyond.

References

Sharma, Ashok B. (March 31, 2015), “Modi’s new ocean politics: Gluing security and the blue economy,” The Jakarta Post, http://www.asianewsnet.net/news-73487.html

UNCTAD, “The Oceans Economy: Opportunities and Challenges for Small Island Developing States,” http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2014d5_en.pdf

Media reports and discussions on the March 2015 Three-Nations Tour of Indian PM Narendra Modi

(The writer, Ms Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues.)

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