December 15, 2017

Indian Ocean politics of the 21st Century

– A view from Sri Lanka

December 14, 2017, 9:47 pm 

(This is an edited version of a presentation made by Tissa Jayatilaka on Tuesday, 31 October, 2017 at the ‘Roundtable Discussion’ jointly organised by the Mario Einaudi Centre for International Studies and the South Asia Programme of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York)

Continued from yesterday

The creation of wealth and enhanced economic activity in the IOR will not only bring benefits but also pose enormous security challenges to us all. Most of the world’s armed conflicts are presently located in the IOR. Besides the waters of the Indian Ocean are also home to continually evolving strategic developments, including the rise of regional powers with nuclear capacities. Conflicts in the Gulf, unrest in Afghanistan, rise of violent extremism, growing incidents of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa loom over the region. All of this has led to the substantial militarisation of parts of the IOR. In Sri Lanka’s view, the vital Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean that fuels the global economy needs to be open for all and must be used for mutual benefit in a sustainable manner. It is essential to maintain peace and stability in the IOR which ensures the right of all states to freedom of navigation and overflight.

In terms of the maritime build up in the Indian Ocean, we see India, China, Japan, Australia and the United States envisaging various projects from ocean excavation to placing remote sensors for ocean research. The United States, China, India and Japan are deepening their naval presence. Naval power is expected to play an increasingly significant role in regional affairs. This in turn will lead to naval power competition, with plans for sea control as well as sea denials.

There are massive challenges to be met. Maritime pollution is one such. The Indian Ocean, we are told, has the second largest accumulation of floating plastic waste in the world. It is the region where larger tankers, container vessels and the like plying between west and east, dump their waste. Oil and tar are common sights on Sri Lankan beaches. Recent studies estimate the amount of oil and petroleum discharged into the Indian Ocean to make up about 40 percent of the total petroleum spill of the oceans of the world. Undercurrents of naval build ups in the South China Sea are being felt in the Indian Ocean. China has established its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, causing serious concerns in Delhi.

Sri Lanka faces a continuing issue of poaching and rape of marine life in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar due to illegal fishing by Indian fishermen. Bottom trawling by these fishermen are causing immense damage to Sri Lanka’s precious marine resources and harming livelihoods of Sri Lanka’s fishermen. Research in countries like Somalia have shown that illegal fishing by foreign vessels was ‘a fundamental grievance that sparked piracy and provides ongoing justification for it’ according to analysts quoted in leading Sri Lankan newspapers. According to these sources, among foreign vessels found indulging in such illegal fishing are those belonging to so-called developed European countries, like Spain for example, who send their surplus trawlers and mother ships to exploit tuna stocks and other Indian Ocean resources using satellites to track movements of schools of fish. Some countries like Indonesia, for example, have been less tolerant of illegal fishing in their waters. It has been reported that in 2016, Indonesia had blown up foreign boats confiscated for fishing illegally in its waters. Of the 23 so blown up, 13 were from Vietnam and 10 from Malaysia.

The Indian Ocean plays a crucial role in the future of both China and India. The sea routes through the Indian Ocean are vital to China’s maritime trade and energy supply. Both countries need to respect each other’s legitimate interest in the region. As Anit Mukherjee of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore observes, the United States can be considered a resident power in the Indian Ocean given its bases in West Asia (Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar), in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti) and in Diego Garcia. In addition, on the eastern flank of the Indian Ocean, the United States has a military presence in Thailand, Singapore and Australia. As it is pre-occupied in West Asia or the Middle East, the United States is comfortable with India playing a leading role in the Indian Ocean.

Some analysts view this above development as an indication of stretched United States resources, given its interests in East China and South China Seas. Nilanthi Samaranayake et al of the CAN ( a non-profit research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia) view it as ‘a security burden sharing’ between India and the United States in the IOR. Enhanced Indo-US defence co-operation received a fresh boost with the 26-28 September 2017 visit of US Defence Secretary James Mattis. The latter is the first cabinet-level visitor to India under the Trump administration. It was also the first follow-up visit by a US cabinet official after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2017 visit to the US. As I speak here today, we also know that Secretary Rex Tillerson has since visited Delhi as well. Prior to his visit to India, at a speech he made at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., Tillerson noted, among other things, that the United States wants to ‘dramatically deepen’ ties with India.

Although no major announcements were made during the Mattis visit, it needs to be noted that in 2016, the United States acknowledged that India was now a major defence partner. India may not become an ally in the way Japan or South Korea or any of the NATO countries are, but even if limited co-operation develops, that will prove a strikingly complex change in the defence relations between the two countries. Such a momentous change will have an impact not on just South Asia alone. It is likely to impact significantly on the strategic dimension of the larger Asia-Pacific region presently dominated by the United States and China.

According to the current affairs magazine ‘India Legal’, the United States decision to supply 22 Sea Guardian drones to enhance India’s naval surveillance in the India Ocean was announced during Prime minister Modi’s meeting with President Trump in June 2017. These drones are expected to help the Indian Navy to keep a close watch on the Chinese naval ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean. India, it appears, is the first non-NATO country be given the drones by the United States. ‘India Legal’ quotes former Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh as saying:

Yes, Indo-US defence co-operation is very much in focus, especially as for over 20 years, Washington had denied us all military technology. The nuclear deal changed the parameters of relations, and today there is robust co-operation and a US willingness to transfer high-end military technology to India.

Noting that the unspoken part of this defence relationship is China, Mansingh goes on to observe:

The desire to balance China’s growing military and economic power in Asia by encouraging India was there from the time of George W. Bush. If American focus is on balancing the power equation in India, India, too, wants the US as an insurance against China.

Students of international relations are of the view that there is likely to be closer co-operation among China, Pakistan and Russia to meet the challenge of a possible joint defence arrangement among the United States, India, Japanand Australia. We thus see that tensions in the region are most likely to escalate given that the United States and China on the one hand, and India and China on the other are competing for dominance in the IOR. It must be noted, however, that this above-referenced possible joint -defence arrangement is not a new idea. In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, President George W. Bush announced that India, the United States, Japan and Australia would set up an international coalition to coordinate rescue and rehabilitation operations. Suhashini Haidar writing to ‘The Hindu’ refers to this proposed multilateral grouping as ‘the Quadrilateral or Quad’. According to Haidar, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was most enthusiastic ‘voicing his long-standing idea of an "arc of prosperity and freedom" that encompassed India, and brought it (sic) into a tighter framework with Japan, the United States and Australia, which were already close military allies’. Concerns about the Quad in Beijing, Haidar suggests, led to the United States moving away from the idea in 2007, given other priorities in the pipeline at the time such as the strategic efforts underway to move for sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council and the six-nation talks on North Korea. Haidar poses an interesting question in conclusion:

A decade later, the question is: will the Quadrilateral melt away as before, or is it an idea whose time has finally come?

Sri Lanka is a small state and one of its strengths has been the significant diplomatic role it has played on the international scene over the years. Sri Lanka has had a reputation in the diplomatic world for unusual success in explaining and clarifying to the global North the concerns, concepts and complaints of the South. Many Sri Lankan scholars, diplomats and intellectuals have shown the same capacity for generating Northern interest rather than ire. Sri Lanka is indeed unlikely to be able to change the geopolitical realities of the region surrounding us. But through a pragmatic foreign policy based on avoidance of alliances with any one power bloc and maintaining friendship with all, we should be able to play a constructive role as in the past in the emerging new order. Sri Lanka, it will be recalled, played a key role in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and in calling for the possible declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOPZ) beginning in the 1960s and 1970s respectively.

Given the above-referred to constructive role played by Sri Lanka in the diplomatic world, the categorical statement made by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on behalf of the Government at the Second Indian Ocean Conference hosted by Sri Lanka in September 2017 regards the Sri Lanka Government’s decision to develop its major sea ports, especially the Hambantota port which some claim to be a military base, is to be welcomed and worthy of quotation in full:

I state clearly that Sri Lanka’s government headed by President Sirisena does not enter into military alliances with any country or make our bases available to foreign countries. We will continue military cooperation such as training, supply of equipment and taking part in joint exercises with friendly countries.

Only the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have the responsibility for military activities in our Ports and Airports. We are also working with foreign private investors on the commercial development of our ports.

Sri Lanka should now push for an international code of conduct for military vessels traversing the Indian Ocean. ASEAN and China have agreed to prepare such a code for the South China Sea. The Indian Ocean Code could be along the lines of the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and China regarding the rules of engagement for safety in the air and maritime encounters. Such a code could recognise and seek to deal with the escalation in human smuggling, illicit drug trafficking, and the relatively new phenomenon of maritime terrorism. According to specialist opinion, UNCLOS does not have adequate provisions to address these issues of recent origin. Any code on the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean must include an effective – and realistic – dispute resolution process.

This code of conduct should ideally be built on a consensual basis with no single state dominating it. In this regard, the United States Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift addressing the annual ‘Galle Dialogue 2017(a defence seminar dealing with the Indian Ocean region hosted by Sri Lanka) in early October said the following as quoted in ‘The Island’:

For the last 70 years, the India-Asia Pacific region achieved unprecedented level of stability and prosperity, due in large part to our collective respect for- - and adherence to - - international norms, standards, rules and laws. These benchmarks were not imposed by one nation upon another. Rather they emerged through compromise and consensus, with all states having an equal voice, regardless of size, military strength or economic power.

The IOR needs a security architecture that is of mutual benefit and one established on a multilateral basis with an effective multilateral governing structure. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking at the inauguration of the Indian Ocean Conference in Singapore in 2016 called for the formulation of an Indian Ocean Order with accepted rules and regulations that would guide interactions between and among states. Importantly he called for this Order to be built on a consensual agreement in which no one state would be allowed to dominate it.

Here are my concluding thoughts. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), it is apparent that China is desirous of becoming a global power. Although, relatively speaking, the United States is in economic decline it will remain a global power for the foreseeable future, given especially its superior technological and naval capability. If the United States and China as the key international actors, and India and China as the pre-eminent regional players, can maintain a power balance, then the IOR could take off socially and economically and be a boon not only to the Asia-Pacific but to the world. To be sure, as in all equations in this equation that I have outlined, too, there are imponderables. That said, if we could achieve the golden mean between competition and cooperation and somehow avoid the bitter and relentless divisiveness that characterised the Cold War era, our collective future would and could be something to look forward to.


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