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[Ashok B. Sharma] Modi’s ocean politics: Gluing security, blue economy

India, of late, has woken up to realize the importance of oceans, more particularly the one in its backyard. Better late than never, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a humble beginning for integrating with countries in the Indian Ocean rim.

While security in the region remains a major concern, another recipe for integration is the call for cooperation in the development of a blue economy.

Modi, in his recent visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, urged for cooperation in blue economy, which is a multidisciplinary 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.

With its advancement in science and technology, India is in a position to lend expertise in deep sea bed activities, hydrographic surveys and weather predictions. India has a long record of hydrographic surveys of Seychelles and Mauritius.

The agenda for combating climate change and the stress on renewable sources of energy are likely to gain support from many small island economies and littoral states.

The Indian Ocean region is strategically important as a vital sea lane of communication passes through it ― from the Hormuz Strait to the Suez Canal, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Malacca Strait and South China Sea.

These critical trade routes support almost two-thirds of the global energy trade, half of the world’s containerized cargo and a third of global bulk cargo.

Security is, therefore, an important aspect. Maritime piracy, threats of terrorist attacks, possible attacks by private mercenaries and money laundering are the issues that need to be dealt within cooperation.

Launching of the coastal surveillance radar project, assurances for providing another Dornier aircraft, agreements on hydrographic survey and development of infrastructure on Assumption Island and other development assistance are the recent initiation of hydro-politics with Seychelles.

Modi, in his recent visit to Mauritius, gave similar gestures through the joint commissioning of an offshore patrol vessel (a Barracuda built with Indian assistance) an agreement to develop Agalega Island and a memorandum of understanding on ocean economy, along with other development assistance. He invited both Seychelles and Mauritius to join the India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral naval exercise.

Are these two countries prepared to join the trilateral? Of course, Modi could not schedule his visit to the Maldives owing to internal political problems leading to the arrest of it former president, Mohammad Nasheed.

However, India-Maldives relations have not reached a level of embitterment that should cause concern. But New Delhi should be cautious in its approach.

After Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office, there have been new hopes for better relations with India. New Delhi wants to give some more time to Sirisena to resolve the Tamil issue and problems relating to Indian fishermen that were aggravated after the accords signed in 1974 and 1976 leading to the loss of territorial waters and Kachatheevu Island to India.

The setting up of a joint task force on ocean economy, apart from other development cooperation and assistance, is among the gestures New Delhi extended to its immediate island neighbor for cooperation in the Indian Ocean rim.

Thus, Modi has ventured to initiate a new hydro-politics in the Indian Ocean. He expressed his intention to rope in more countries in the region as partners in the existing India-Maldives-Sri Lanka trilateral.

But the umbrella multilateral forum, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, needs revitalization to attain is desired vigor.

The IORA, set up in 1997 and based on open regionalism, has only 20 member states.

There is a need for all countries in the rim to become members. Even Egypt, situated on the banks of the Suez Canal, is not a member, but an observer.

Comparatively, the other voluntary organization, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium was launched in 2008 and has 35 member states. Of those countries who are members of IONS, 13 are also members of IORA. Pakistan, which is a member of IONS, is not a member of IORA.

There is a need to include all members of IONS as members of IORA, and Egypt, which is a member of IONS, should be co-opted as member of IORA.

There should also be absolute synergy between IORA and IONS. IORA should be raised to the level of summit-level talks.

India, being a major littoral state in the Indian Ocean, needs to take additional initiative.

Under the banner of IORA, India hosted the first Indian Ocean Dialogue in 2014 in Kochi. The key take-away from this dialogue was as follows: “IORA members should address security issues themselves rather than relying on international forces.”

This should be the real intention of IORA and it should maintain its own centrality as ASEAN does in the Pacific.

Only a strong centrality and solidarity for IORA can prevent any possibility of poaching by external powers. Already there are attempts by China to extend its “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean.

China’s gameplan for using the warm waters of the Indian Ocean can be seen through its proposal for the Maritime Silk Route, the One Belt-One Road and the BCIM Corridor.

Apart from the U.S. “pivot” to Asia-Pacific, there is also the Chinese “pivot” and the Russian “pivot.” With a view to foiling the negotiations for RCEP proposed by ASEAN and others, the US has come up with the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Similarly, China has proposed the Asia-Pacific FTA and has set up an Asia Infrastructure Development Bank. Russia, meanwhile, has floated ideas for a separate security architecture.

All these attempts by extra-territorial powers may have an impact upon ASEAN, which hopes to move toward an economic community by January 2016 and subsequently, the ASEAN Political Security Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Centrality of ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific is in the best interest of the region and India should continue supporting it.

The Indian Ocean is a viable link to the Pacific and efforts should be made to strengthen the IORA and IONS. India on its own also needs to take initiative on security issues as enshrined in the Indian Maritime Doctrine 2009 and Maritime Strategy 2007.

The secondary areas of security concerns are the southern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and Western Pacific. It is evident that India’s maritime interests encompass maritime areas in Asia, East Africa and Australia.

The Maritime Doctrine has, however, left out the South Atlantic Ocean, which can be a matter of interest in India’s relationships with South American and Caribbean countries and ensure further South-South cooperation.

A wake-up call for India to strengthen its Navy came after the Nov. 26 terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008.

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.

By Ashok B. Sharma

The writer is a senior columnist writing on strategic and policy issues in several Indian and international newspapers and magazines. ― Ed.

(Asia News Network/The Jakarta Post)