Oceans, the largest assets on this planet, have impacted the evolution of humanity and civilisations through the millennia. Whether the human race enjoyed peace and prosperity through cooperation and collaboration or suffered exploitation and slavery through violent conflicts and conquests depended on the powers that be from time to time.
During the first millennium, oceans particularly Indian ocean were highways linking civilisations through culture, commerce, trade, linguistic and religious engagements of people to people levels through cooperation, collaboration and connectivity across vast geographies.
The second millennium witnessed explorations in search of resources and wealth leading to conquests and exploitation through colonisation of Asia, Africa and Latin America by imperial powers. Last century of this millennium had the taste of greed for wealth resulting in two world wars ending with nuclear holocaust and the coldwar between capitalism and communism. It engulfed the third world with countless violent conflicts. During this period, Indian Ocean region (IOR) was influenced by the British, Pacific ocean by Americans and Atlantic ocean by Western European powers.
Thanks to the explosion of science and technology, globalisation of economy and connectivity resulting in the collapse of the Soviet system and emergence of a multipolar world, the third millennium is faced with several megatrends as under;
- The transition of global power from the political and economic balance of power is undergoing tectonic shift leading from unipolar to a multipolar world.
- The decline of Atlantic basin in military and economic spheres.
- Africa and Central Asia are yet to mature into stable political economies.
- The Middle East is in turmoil with unpredictable consequences unleashed by the Islamic radicalisation. No power on this planet, at this time, appears to have any clarity and strategy to tackle this threat effectively.
Asia, polycentric, multipolar and rapidly evolving regarding size, resources, diversity and regional influence, is destined to play a decisive role in this millennium.
Asia, with Pacific and Indian oceans, has two distinct spheres of influence within, each maintaining separate trading and political systems while interacting with each other. The collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has thrown up new challenges for Indian Ocean region (IOR). It has emerged as one of the world’s busiest and most critical trade corridors, rapidly surpassing the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Indian Ocean with its greater economic connectivity with South East Asia and Pacific region in the East as well as Westwards with Africa and Europe is destined for a more significant strategic role in the maritime spheres. According to Admiral Alfred Mahan (one of the renowned strategists of US in the 19th century), “the destiny of the world will be decided on the waters of the Indian Ocean “.
India’s Challenges, Opportunities and Responsibilities
For the Indian Ocean to realise its full potential, India, which is its centre of gravity, should play “Facilitator’s role”. It should ensure security, stability and mutually beneficial economic growth leading to peaceful coexistence and prosperity for all its stakeholders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, “Blue chakra of India’s national flag represents the potential of the blue economy” clarify India’s objectives in the IOR. While focussing on political economy and tapping of the blue economy leading to harmonising of regionalism and nationalism into “ Global Family”- Vasudaiva Kutumbakam promoting interdependence across the oceans.
In 21st century, South Asia with India as its centre of gravity is one of the fastest growing regions of the world. Consequently, South Asia and ASEAN countries present an emerging opportunity bringing “benefits” similar to those experienced in the past by Atlantic and Pacific basins. These opportunities have to cope with a rising China with its global ambitions covertly projected through soft power advances such as – OBOR (one belt one road), CPEC( China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and maritime silk route. This is a real challenge for next decade or two.
According to political economists, it is estimated that Asia will surpass North America and Europe combined regarding global power based GDP, population, military spending and technology investment by 2030. Of the four largest economies of the world- China, US, India and Japan, three are Asian powers. Therefore greater opportunities and responsibilities for India to evolve a universally acceptable “Indian Ocean Order (IOO)” by involving all the stakeholders of the IOR.
Indian Ocean Order (IOO)
Eminent historian of the Oceans on this planet Richard Hall has declared that “Now the monsoons of history are blowing afresh, as the balance of world power swings back to the East. The start of the 21st century is seen as an ushering in a new ‘Age of Asia’. In which the natural unity of the Indian Ocean can once more assert itself.” Before reviving the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical concept, it is essential to address the challenges of connectivity, economy, security, politics, culture and identity- all of which are critical to its possible resurgence. Towards this end, India should, with other stakeholders, take the lead in the evolution of “Indian Ocean Order (IOO) structured on the basis of existing international laws and then sanctified by the United Nations. IOO should be a strong, transparent and rule-based architecture, which should ensure the following –
- Friendly cooperation among all the stakeholders,
- Mutually beneficial to all members,
- The adversarial competition which generates tension and differences is avoided through dialogue,
- Multilateral mechanisms to avoid and if possible prevent unnecessary conflicts,
- All nations adhere to and pursue their territorial claims in accordance with international laws,
- Structured and systemic cooperation during natural disasters and calamities,
- Maritime security cooperation against threats from non-state actors and rogue elements,
- Freedom of passage through “ sea lanes” to all nations,
- Mitigating effects of climate change,
- No nation be permitted to construct/ create artificial island bases in the IOR, which can generate conflicts by disrupting naturally established EEZs as per international laws,
- All stakeholders must ensure that the IOR remains “Nuclear weapons free Zone”,
- With two choke points – Straits of Hormuz in the West and Malacca in the East, no nation, non-state actors and rogue elements be allowed to disrupt the sea lanes in the IOR,
- IOR member states should create transparent mechanisms to prevent and pre-empt maritime piracy, illegal trafficking, hijacking of ships and merchandise,
- Institutional arrangements for sharing information and intelligence online and in time for ensuring secure, safe and smooth passage of shipping,
- Finally, IOO should be able to ensure that it remains “secure and stable zone of peace” beneficial to all member states under the UN charter.