CONFERENCE: INDIAN OCEAN REGION – 2017 (IOR-2017)
A VISION FOR PEACE, PROSPERITY AND PROGRESS
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) cuts across a vast span of territory that directly affects both the global economy and some 32 nations – some within the limits of the Indian Ocean, but others that play a critical role in shaping the security of the nations in the IOR and the security of its sea lanes and petroleum exports. The countries in the IOR are for the most part developing countries, with varying levels of development, stability and security. Vast difference exist in the above parameters, even within a given sub-region of the IOR, making it a complex task to characterize opportunity and risk. The level of political stability, the quality of governance, demographic pressures, ethnic and sectarian tensions, and the pace of economic growth create a different mix of opportunity and risk in each state. The possibility of conflict is a constant, its drivers being shaped by local factors, regional dissonance and international power plays. But the hope of peace exudes a confidence that the IOR can become a signpost for development and the upliftment of the people that inhabit this geographic space.
The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest body of water, covering about one fifth of the world’s total ocean area. In geographical terms, it is bounded by Africa and the Arabian Peninsula on its West, and the Bay of Bengal and Indonesia to its East. This vast expanse could be divided into five sub-regions as under:
• East Africa and Sub-Sahara
• Red Sea and Horn
• Middle East and Gulf
• South Asia
• Southeast Asia/Oceania
Within the sub regions, the picture that emerges is diverse. In some cases, national trends have only limited impact on the outside world and limited strategic importance. They may affect trade and investment issues in a given country, involve local conflicts and humanitarian concerns, but they have limited impact on the global economy, concerns of major powers, and even the security and stability of neighbouring states. In other cases, however, the risks and opportunities within a given sub-region have major strategic impact. The critical areas are:
• The stability and security of Gulf petroleum exports.
• The overall security of maritime traffic and commerce through the entire region, and the impact of possible shifts in the strategic role of US and Chinese air and sea forces in the IOR.
• Ethnic, sectarian and other fault lines within the region.
In the Western part of the IOR, the Arab Gulf states and Iran shape much of the world’s petroleum exports and play a critical role in the global economy. While many other areas in the
Indian Ocean have strategic importance, petroleum exports through the India Ocean to Asia,
through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and around the Horn are the areas where the IOR has the
greatest single impact on the global economy and the world. A number of the world’s
most important strategic chokepoints, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca through
which 32.2 millions of barrels of crude oil and petroleum are transported per day—more than
50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade—are found in the IOR, which itself is believed to be
rich with energy reserves. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced in
the IOR and through the various channels of the IOR, pass two-thirds of the world’s oil
shipment, one third of the world’s cargo movement and nearly half of its container traffic
The IOR is also one of the most complex regions in the world in human terms. It reposes
significant endowments of strategic natural resources, tremendous ecological and human
diversity, and resplendent cultural and civilisational traditions, making it arguably a pivotal
harbinger to regional and global peace, progress and stability. Equally, it is a potential lodestar,
offering a new template for maritime concert, cooperation and management, and societallybeneficent
harness, of the vast blue economy. The vast majority in the IOR are developing
countries, for whom economic development is vital for the upliftment of the masses from
poverty. Peace is hence a vital condition for Progress, which in turn can lead to Prosperity.
Peace is a desirable condition in any human endeavour, but is not forthcoming unless
deliberate efforts are made to create conditions for its sustainability. The broader risks driving
security and stability in the IOR have been stated earlier. The Gulf is currently the area that
poses the highest risk of a serious military conflict. While this is unlikely to spiral towards a
nuclear war, the broad regional competition for influence between Iran and the Arab states,
the risk of asymmetric war in the Gulf, a major conventional arms race, and Iran’s build-up of
major ballistic missile forces remains a source of concern. The extent to which Iran and the Arab
Gulf states can produce and move oil and gas by sea or pipeline has a massive impact on the
economy of virtually every developed and trading state and increasingly on the developed and
more advanced economies in nations of Asia – whose exports, in turn affect the security and
stability of the economy of virtually every other developed state.
In South Asia, the conflict in Afghanistan, the multiple conflicts within Pakistan and India’s rise
and growing influence within the region point to renewed sources of friction between India and
Pakistan and between India and China. While tensions between India and Pakistan remain high,
the possibility of a full-blown all-out war is remote as is the risk of nuclear conflagration. The
India China relationship remains stable at the strategic level, though volatile at the tactical
level. Terrorism however remains a serious threat, which requires urgent address.
The overall stability of the flow of shipping and maritime traffic throughout the IOR impacts on
importers and exporter on a global basis and affects the flow of petroleum exports. The main
risk to this stability is currently piracy and maritime crime. In the west, it is concentrated
around Somalia and to the east around the Strait of Malacca and Indonesia. Piracy remains a
major concern to shippers and has a particularly critical impact on key East Asian trading states like China, Japan, and South Korea.
While US sea and air power, and partnerships with a variety of regional states, plays a major role in securing Gulf oil exports and the security of maritime traffic throughout the region, the situation could change if the United States reduces its commitments to a strategy that gives the Middle East and Asia high priority, as US energy import needs diminish. China’s high dependency on energy needs which are dependent on maritime trade routes of the IOR will however up its stakes for influence in the region, raising questions whether the US and China will compete or cooperate in the IOR. Will this affect a key chokepoint like the strait of Malacca, and tie the IOR to regional tensions over the South China sea and the much broader areas involved China’s claims to maritime and air rights in the entire Pacific? While this is a futures scenario, its strategic importance is too great to ignore.
India attaches a lot of importance to the IOR which can be seen from the observation made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in 2016. “For us, it also serves as a strategic bridge with the nations in our immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood. In March last year in Mauritius, I had spelt out our vision for the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Region is one of my foremost policy priorities. Our approach is evident in our vision of ‘sagar’ which means ocean and stands for Security and Growth for all in the region”, he said.
While Prime Minister Modi spoke of the need for security and Growth for all, emphasising a cooperative approach, collective steps will need to be taken to prevent unnecessary—and possibly ruinous—maritime competition in the Indian Ocean. Greater Indian and international efforts will have to be made to ensure transparency concerning naval activity and the development of potential dual-use facilities, which can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
Progress can come about through strengthening institutions of governance in the countries of the IOR, promoting economic, educational and cultural linkages and strengthening bilateral and multilateral institutional networks. In essence, we need to think of initiatives to make the Indian Ocean, centric to the countries of the region, which in turn would lead to the Centrality of the Indian Ocean in the Global Power Balance. That is what must be strived for and achieved. To further this aim, the time has come to consider the formation of a Common Parliament for the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region. As a model, we could look into the functioning of the European Parliament. What is required is a political institution and not a bureaucratic one.
Peace and Progress will in course of time lead to prosperity. But here too, multiple challenges will be confronted. These will be finding ways and means of exploiting the potential of a Blue Waters Economy, which can be transformative. There would be a need for creating multilateral
forums for trade, commerce and economic development and for strengthening existing institutions. All of this must be done while confronting ecological and environmental challenges. Prosperity cannot be at the expense of degrading our living spaces which must be preserved and protected.
To discuss these issues, India Foundation, with its partners, is organising Indian Ocean Conference 2017 (IOC 2017) in Colombo on 31 August – 1 September 2017. Earlier, India Foundation had organised the First Indian Ocean Conference (IOC 2016) at Singapore. What can the countries of the IOR do to achieve Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the region will be the underlying theme of the Conference. With that in view, delegate participation has been invited from all the countries of the IOR and other concerned nations to discuss the following:
Freedom of Navigation and Overflights.
Collective Counter Terrorism Efforts.
Strengthening Bilateral and Multilateral Institutional Networks.
Strengthening Domestic Political Institutions and Statecraft.
Educational and Cultural Developments (Individual and Collective Efforts)
Creating a Common Parliament for the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region on the lines of the European Parliament.
Creating multilateral forums for Trade, Commerce and Economic Development.
Strengthening existing Institutions.
Blue Waters Economies.
Ecological and Environmental Challenges.