Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to re-engage with India’s civilisational partners in the Indian Ocean region got a boost when at a first of its kind conference themed ‘Indian Ocean - Culture, Comity and Culture’, representatives from countries ranging from Sri Lanka and Maldives to Seychelles and Mauritius, Thailand and Malaysia recognised India’s role as a natural leader.
A brainchild of BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav, the conference was organised by India Foundation in collaboration with Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, and thinktanks of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to explore old connections and re-engage with nations. Ministers and experts discussed areas of commonality, concerns and opportunities for future collaborations.
Representatives from 20 countries including the US participated with Indonesia being the only exception.
The conference was held in the backdrop of growing Chinese assertion in South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. India’s belated effort to adopt of a more pro-active role after decades of insular approach was welcomed by representatives and experts with some wondering reasons for India’s disengagement with a region that was its natural neighbourhood. Geographical position as the dominant country in the Indian Ocean region with whom most countries enjoy historic links going back to 5th century BCE and later to Pallavas and Cholas, India has now sought to leverage this connection.
While the two-day Indian Ocean conference ended in Singapore Prime Minister Modi’s aircraft was touching down in Vietnam, with who India has signed the biggest defence line of credit at $500 million and upgraded their ties from strategic partners to ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’.
Without naming China, India and Vietnam reiterated their stance that safety and freedom of navigation (of South China Sea) must be respected and that the decision of the Arbitration Tribunal against China’s claimed sovereignty over South China Sea must be adhered to.
In 2015, Modi identified IOR countries as India’s natural allies and reached out to them with a visit to Seychelles and Mauritius where he outlined his vision. Declaring that India must assume “our responsibility to shape its future”, Modi announced that the Indian Ocean Region will be “top of our policy priorities”.
Initiatives that seek to revive cultural links and help build sustainable economics among littoral states — Project Mausam and SAGAR — were launched with clear strategic vision. A separate department on Indian Ocean was created in the external affairs ministry.
Modi has promised to cut bureaucratic red tape and work with littoral countries. Few would recall how India under prime minister Manmohan Singh sat on a request from Sri Lanka to build a new port at Hambantota only to have China grab the opportunity and build a port. Modi wants to change all that.
At the Singapore conference, which was addressed by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and ministers from other littoral countries there was a common refrain that civilisational links must be exploited to build and strengthen co-operation and economies of the region.
The prime minister of Sri Lanka mentioned that South Asia would dominate the Indian Ocean region without naming India while stating that IOR would see multipolar influence. Wickremesinghe called for discussion and formulation of an Indian Ocean Charter that would guide all countries in the region.
Earlier foreign secretary S Jaishankar said India was committed to “be supportive in the expansion and further invigoration of its activities, from renewable energy and the blue economy to maritime safety and security, water science and greater institutional and think-tank networking…
"Given the history and traditions of the Indian Ocean, it is but appropriate that any serious effort at promoting its coherence would address issues of its unity and identity.
"We must take full advantage of the ties of kinship and family that span the Indian Ocean and are an important part of its history," Jaishankar said.
The foreign secretary mentioned that poor state of connectivity between South Asian countries stood in stark contrast to the connectivity among Asean countries. Without naming Pakistan he said that all present knew which country was an impediment.
Interestingly, China which as an outside power has made major inroads in IOR, was not mentioned by any of the speakers. The looming presence of the Dragon would have to be factored in as IOR countries strive to join hands for building a sustainable future.
What Modi government does from now on would make an important contribution to pushing the IOR initiative further ahead. The Sri Lankan prime minister spoke about the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) not having taken off while Jaishankar talked about strengthening it. In fact, in her Skype address to the delegates External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that India will host an IORA conference in 2017.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor cautioned against focussing only on common Hindu and Buddhist heritage at the cost of Islam, which he said, was softened when it came in contact with India giving impetus to Sufism.
Different approaches to making IOR a stronger alliance would have to be tactfully handled as India seeks to assume its natural leadership of the region. Connectivity with Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh that were announced earlier would have to be pushed with greater zeal.
India in the meantime would have to show that announcements about development of 200 islands, 100s of ports (some historic) are not allowed to become victims of red tape. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands need to be recognised as strategic assets and its infrastructure strengthened. The decades-old plan for an undersea cable link to boost internet communication with and between the islands has got a renewed push from Modi government but reports speak of bureaucratic delays.
The writer was a delegate at the Indian Ocean Conference 2016 from 1-2 September.