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#4612, 19 August 2014
Indian Ocean: Multilateralism Takes Root
Vijay Sakhuja
Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi

India will host the Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD) at Kochi, Kerala in September to discuss issues of maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean. The initiative emerges from the 13th meeting of the Council of Ministers in Perth, Australia held in November 2013, where India’s External Affairs Minister announced New Delhi’s plans to host the IOD to bring together scholars, experts and policy-makers from the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA, earlier IOR-ARC), a pan-Indian Ocean regional grouping comprising of twenty countries across Asia, Africa and Australia, six dialogue partners, and two observers. The IOD would facilitate exchange of views on issues of ‘security and safety’, identified as one of the six priority areas of cooperation among IORA member states during the 12th Meeting of the Council of Ministers in Gurgaon, India. 

The Gurgaon Communiqué also emphasised the role of the IORA Troika in coordinating cooperation among member States through interactions at various levels. India hosted the first Trilateral Dialogue on Indian Ocean (TDIO) in 2013 in New Delhi which was attended by eminent persons, diplomats, academics and strategic experts from India, Australia, and Indonesia. Like the IOD, the next round of TDIO is scheduled in the coming weeks in Canberra, Australia.

Like the IORA, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is a specialised multilateral forum to address common security threats and challenges confronting the Indian Ocean States and enhance co-operation among the regional navies. Milan, another Indian initiative held biennially, brings together several navies from Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to discuss issues of maritime security. Besides, there are several other sub-regional groupings that contribute to enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean through dialogue, debate and discussions.

In essence, the Indian Ocean is dotted with ‘maritime security and safety’ related ‘alphabet soup bowl’ structures, clearly showcasing a culture of working together through multilateral institutions based on common interests, concerns and challenges. Regional countries are active participants and play vital roles in the multilateral arrangements in the Indian Ocean region. There is strong evidence of new multilateral initiatives at Track 1, 1.5 and 2 levels based on geographical, economic, political, strategic interests, and these are contributing to broader institutionalisation of governance across the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, Indian Ocean security issues are also highlighted in the speeches of political leaders and debated and discussed at different levels in different parts of the world clearly suggesting the importance of the Indian Ocean in the global commerce matrix.    

Ironically, the Indian Ocean is viewed through the prism of insecurity and has encouraged several extra regional powers to forward deploy their forces in the region to counter asymmetric threats and challenges arising from  terrorism, piracy, gun running, drug smuggling, illegal migration, WMD proliferation etc. This has led to labelling the Indian Ocean as a ‘danger zone’, ‘zone of insecurity’, ‘arena of great power competition’, etc by the wider political, diplomatic and strategic constituencies. The great power competition thesis has led some to argue that the Indian Ocean could witness maritime/naval competition between India and China which could culminate in a great‐power rivalry. 

During the last two and a half decades, the India-China-Indian Ocean discourse has resulted in an enormous amount of alarmist strategic literature published by the strategic community who belong to different schools of thought - realism, constructivism, etc. Among these, three discourses dominate: ‘strategic encirclement’ of India by China through covert and overt military-strategic support to India’s neighbours particularly Pakistan, which is led by the Indian strategic community. The second discourse is spearheaded by the West, particularly the US, who views Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean through the prism of the ‘string of pearls’ strategy. Both discourses express concern over China’s aggressive intent in its Indian Ocean strategy, pivoting on development of ports to support the Chinese Navy. The third discourse, apparently to dispel the ‘China threat’, is driven by Beijing’s idea of the Maritime Silk Road through the Indian Ocean which envisages the ‘shared destiny’ of China with other Indian Ocean countries through the joint development of maritime projects to provide impetus to economic growth.    

It is fair to argue that the Indian Ocean witnessed great power competition during the ancient period - Rajendra Chola I’s naval expedition to Southeast Asia in 1025; Zhang He’s voyages in 1405 to 1433 to the Indian Ocean to establish suzerainty and trading hubs; and in modern times, the colonisation of Asia which came from the sea through the Indian Ocean. In essence, external interests in the Indian Ocean continue even today. The Indian Ocean will attract great power interest in the future too and multilateral institutions such as the IORA can potentially play an important role to ‘manage competition’ and address ‘insecurities’.

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