The Indian Ocean region has acquired an added salience in India’s geo-strategic and foreign policy calculus under the Modi government. In this speech Indian Council on World Affairs on India and the Ocean Economy on July 12, Sujata Mehta, Secretary (West) in India’s external affairs ministry, maps the way ahead for India’s strategy for harnessing Blue Economy and calls for global cooperation to maintain IOR as a zone of peace and prosperity.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that every academic/quasi-academic/informative paper about the oceanic economy serves to reinforce the importance of the subject and every occasion such as this one is a reiteration that whether one takes a historical perspective, or a strategic view into the future, the importance of the oceanic dimension only increases. The interesting themes that have been discussed in this Seminar highlight the issues that are salient today and which reflect the different layers of our interests.
It is axiomatic that the Indian Ocean is one of the most important trade and energy cross-roads in the world. It is vital for us in terms of our food security, our energy security, for the cooperation and collaboration we seek with neighbours and partners, for our national security, and for our very future since it lies at the heart of the weather systems by which we live.
Our continent is home to over 50% of the world’s population with a wealth of diversity – ethnic, linguistic, religious and socio-political systems. It is also the engine of the global economy. The latest IMF outlook for the region has noted growth in the Asia-Pacific economies is expected to be about 5.3 percent during 2016-17, compared with a baseline projection of a modest 3.2 percent globally in 2016.Over half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the waterways of the Indian-Pacific region.
The Strait of Malacca, in particular, is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The Strait links the Indian and Pacific Oceans and carries approximately 25 percent of all traded goods. It also carries approximately 25 percent of all oil that travels by sea.
For India, 90 percent of our trade by volume and almost all of our oil imports pass through the sea. We have a coastline 7500 kms. long, 1200 islands and an EEZ of 2.4 million square kilometres. The priority that India attaches to the Indian Ocean was set out in the Prime Minister’s vision in March 2015 through the acronym SAGAR-Security and Growth for All in the Region, in which the Indian Ocean is a body of water that has connected the littoral states through history and has also been the highway to collective prosperity.
It is this vision that animates India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond as growing economies and populations present a notable opportunity for further strengthening the maritime economic and trade linkages.
It is within this framework that we are committed to work with our littoral neighbours to develop fully the Blue Economy of the waters that join us, by harnessing the wealth of the seas sustainably. This requires the development of our coastal and island territories, and equally, requires the building of new networks of economic activity in the coastal areas and in the linked hinterlands. It requires us to strengthen marine research to improve our understanding of the maritime space, the development of eco-friendly marine industry and technologies, and sustainable fisheries and related practices.
Clearly, India can benefit from our long coastline only if we have good port connectivity to the other littoral states of the Indian Ocean and beyond. This explains the importance of the Sagarmala project, which aims to establish new ports and modernise the old ones along our coastline, and also encompasses inland waterways, to transform these into vibrant transportations corridors.
These ambitious prospects require a serene environment. It is noteworthy that there are no major maritime territorial disputes between the Indian Ocean littoral states. However, the Indian Ocean is probably the ocean most prone to non-traditional security threats like piracy, smuggling, maritime terrorism, illegal fishing, and trafficking.
In the absence of a formal security architecture, the region has tended to rely on a dialogue-centric approach – through ASEAN and the IORA. The attempt has been to aim for a convergence of views and perspectives through regular and frequent interactions rather than legally binding commitments. This approach relies on consensus building and good behaviour, and we believe that such dialogue-based approaches to common issues offer a viable model for the 21st century, in particular for the heterogeneity that characterises our region. What is clear is that issues of common maritime cooperation have two essential and intertwined aspects – economic integration/cooperation/trade and maritime security. It is self-evident that these are not identical but it is equally clear that neither one can be pursued in isolation from the other.
Accordingly, the features of such an inclusive dialogue-based framework should encompass:
Respect for the diversity of political systems, security perspectives and developmental choices of the different nation states. This is a bedrock principle in such a heterogeneous region.
Secondly, security dialogues should be based on a clear renunciation by all parties of the threat or use of force against any other state, and a commitment to settle differences by peaceful means. Such a shared commitment towards peaceful resolution of disputes should be balanced by acknowledging the primacy of the principle of national sovereignty.
Third, this approach should include as an objective, explicitly, the promotion of seamless connectivity stretching across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, guaranteeing the right of maritime passage and unimpeded commerce in accordance with international law. This is important as the interactive dynamic between strategic interests and connectivity initiatives is very relevant in our continent. Connectivity, through consultative processes rather than unilateral announcements, should help defuse rivalries, not add to regional tensions.
Fourthly, the purpose of this approach should be to promote and protect the well-being of all peoples who inhabit the Indian-Pacific region, encompassing both the traditional and non-traditional dimensions of security.
And finally, this approach/framework has to be evolutionary and flexible rather than rigid, allowing it to adapt to short-term challenges as well as longer-term trends.
From this perspective, India sees the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as a valuable forum for fostering economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, for promoting balanced development of all its Member States, and for achieving progress in the identified areas for regional economic cooperation namely – Maritime Safety and Security, Trade and Investment Facilitation, Fisheries Management, Disaster Risk Reduction, Academic and Science & Technology (S&T) Cooperation; and Tourism Promotion & Cultural Exchanges. It is only by working together thus through effective multilateral cooperation that the region’s untapped potential can be realised.
It is noteworthy that the Blue Economy is itself an evolving concept and in that sense, the ICWA having chosen the Ocean Economy as the theme of this National Seminar has neatly sidestepped the definitional issue, and has underlined that even while a universally agreed definition of the Blue Economy emerges, the term Ocean Economy reflects the commonly-shared interest and stake in the maritime domain.
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