Upturned, as the Indian Ocean strategic community across the world tend to do in the context of an emerging India, the map of the nation and its southern Sri Lankan neighbour looks caricatured like the woman with a flowing hair wearing a crown at an angle. Sri Lanka is the crown, India the woman, and southern Tamil Nadu State a check on that woman’s beautiful face. Distant Maldivian archipelago, if one extended artistic imagination even further/farther, would look like strands of that long hair waving in the breeze of the Ocean, away from the head and the crown. But they are all still there.
Nowhere else did it make immediate resonance than during the proceedings of the recent three-day ‘Sri Lanka Defence Seminar-2014’, and two days of symposium, organised by the nation’s General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) in August. The title and proceedings of Defence Seminar this year reflected a designed movement away from security concerns to development imperaives of the nation.
Nothing more reflected the clear shift in the priorities than the deliberate decision for Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa not to deliver the key-note address at the Defence Seminar. At the KDU symposium, Secretary Rajapaksa, a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was conspicuous by his absence. In the more-publicised Defence Seminar – and naturally, so – Treasury Secretary P B Jayasundara was the key-note speaker. Both Jayasundara and others, barring External Affairs Minister G L Peiris, spoke exclusively about growth and development, trade and investments. From among the Sri Lankan speakers, Prof Peiris dealt extensively with the UNHRC probe.
Picturesque as the imagery is, the ‘inverted map’ also speaks volumes for the geo-strategic reality that it evokes. In the 21st century context, it also speaks of and for a neighbourhood equation as never before in this part of the Indian Ocean. It is also the most visible and possibly volatile part, if one were to go by the prognosis and prescription of the western strategic community and the governments that feed them, and feed on them, in return.
In reality, it is the most peaceful part, particularly compared to the South-East Asian, West Asian and African parts of the Indian Ocean. There are no neighbourhood issues of the kind in the seas to the south of India. There are plenty of them in the other two. Piracy is also rampant off South-East Asia and Africa. There are no choke-points near the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives tri-junction as there are in the Malacca Strait or the Hormuz Strait.
Cut to short, if extra-regional ‘outside powers’ are not around in the Indian Ocean waters abutting India and the other two southern neighbours, there are no tensions in these waters. Conversely, Indian Ocean neighbourhood problems in the South-East Asian waters on the East, and the Hormuz Strait to the West, owe to local issues. Extra-regional powers, particularly the US, have sought to get involved, either in political or military terms – or, both. Post-Cold War, China is seen as a competing candidate, replacing the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Today, India in particular is concerned that any military entry of China into these waters could endanger its geo-strategic security and also challenge its continued relevance. The two neighbours in Sri Lanka and Maldives seem to be even more circumspect. Both seem to have concluded alone or together that as smaller island-nations swarmed by water on all sides, they cannot afford to have the Indian Ocean waters turned murkier. They need these waters cleared of all ‘non-regional interventionists’ of every kind, the US or China, Russia or the EU.
There seems to be some acknowledgement of the ground realities in Sri Lanka and Maldives that there external security is intrinsically linked to that of the larger Indian neighbour to the north. Looked at from the conventional Indian geo-strategic perspective, Sri Lanka and Maldives are the nation’s first line of defence, to the South.
The more recent and well-inspired ‘String of Pearls’ theory sought to make India suspicious of all its neighbours in the China context. The veil is wearing thin over the past decade or so. There is a greater understanding for the tri-nation region to acknowledge the inevitability of Indian lead, if/though not outright supremacy. There is also overall acknowledgement of the need for keeping ‘non-regional players’ kept away from the shared Ocean neighbourhood, in geo-strategic, though not geo-political terms.
It is in this context, the forgotten Sri Lankan lead and call for declaring Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’ assumes greater significance than any time in the past. For India, focussed on its growth trajectory and targets, any diversion of its energies and investments into the military sector, can delay, if not outright deny those growth projections. It needs to carry its smaller neighbours, both in land and in the seas, with it. It cannot go solo, and expect them to follow – or, complain that they (too) are going solo.
The world over, smaller nations tend to take their ‘sovereignty’ more seriously than others. It is more so in the case of individual nations of South Asia. Shared history and culture, demography and civilisation often cut both ways. Size becomes a quotient in geo-political and geo-strategic context even when they are used as favourable variables in terms of collective growth and development. The nations of South Asia have not found a way to balance these two aspects, to benefit from both and together.
‘Middle powers’ alliance
The present prescription for Indian Ocean security involves, among other things, regional, ‘middle powers’ like India, Japan and Australia and South Korea, forming a loose or formal alliance to call their own. It’s not about the region. It is more about China. The idea seems to be that of the US. It is aimed more at China, than at Indian Ocean security per se. In this, the US does not want to be seen as meddling in the regional waters and politics in these parts.
Questions remain. What if the US-China angularities in the coming decades have nothing to do with any or all of these nations, but still need to involve any or all of them if the US were to have a political, if not military, upper-hand in the region? What if Sri Lanka and/or Maldives have differences over India siding with the US, even albeit through known American allies like Japan, Australia or South Korea? Would their increasing economic ties with China, which is the one main source of global investments for most nations, Third World or the First, come in the way of their understanding India – or, India understanding them in full?
India, Maldives and Sri Lanka have kept other South Asian nations out of their trilateral maritime cooperation agreement of 2012 and for good reason. Mauritius and Seychelles, two other Indian Ocean nations in the shared southern neighbourhood have been invited to join the grouping. There however has to be greater clarity among the founding members about their shared future course, and intervening alliances of individual nations with other nations in the near and extended neighbourhoods. It would include the US-India relations on the one hand, and Sri Lanka-China equations on the other. In the case of Maldives, for instance, it involves both ‘non-regional’ super-powers, one existing and the other, still emerging.
Greater or worse could be the Mauritian engagement with the US/UK on the 50-year-long Diego Garcia base agreement, due for review in 2016. Even while wanting to be a part of the regional IOR maritime security grouping, Mauritius wants the US to re-negotiate the base agreement with it as the original owner, and not with the UK, which had purchased the island from it. The original Chaggan inhabitants of the islands have a petition pending before the EU Human Rights Court, after the British House of Lords had over-turned a favourable Supreme Court verdict in their favour.
In the 21st century global and regional contexts, it’s too much for India and its southern neighbours to expect the US to stay away from the region, militarily. If the US is there, the assumption is that China will not be far away. For now, Beijing is talking only about a ‘maritime Silk Route’, but no one seems convinced. India can make a difference to what could emerge as the re-emergence of a ‘new cold war’ in the shared Indian Ocean in the southern waters. It has to take the lead, and also take the southern neighbours, two and four, with it. If and how India does it will be keenly watched, both in these nations – and more so, outside.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.