The Indian Ocean is probably the most important ocean in the world, judging by its trade, geopolitical and military significance.
The eyes of the world are once again focused on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with the Seventh Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) having just concluded in Perth, Australia. The theme of the parley was “Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean”.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe was a keynote speaker at the 40-nation event and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, delivered another lecture on “Our Blue Future: How can the IOR work with Island States to safeguard the health of our shared ocean resources”.
The conference sought to chart a roadmap for the IOR’s future. Sri Lanka hosted the second edition of the IOC in 2017, under the leadership of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now serving as the President.
The Indian Ocean is a vast expanse, stretching from the Strait of Malacca and western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. It encompasses the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the North, all the way down to the southern Indian Ocean. Along the coasts of this huge geographic expanse are countries that are home to 2.8 billion people.
The region’s size and diversity explains its geo-economic and geopolitical importance. From resource-rich Africa and the energy-dense Middle East to South Asia’s labour markets and manufacturing industries, the geopolitical stability of the IOR is crucial to the global economy.
Sri Lanka has always been a hotspot in the Indian Ocean, thanks to its location at the heart of the East-West shipping lanes. This is now even more pronounced as many ships are being diverted through Colombo as a result of the conflict in the Red Sea.
Despite its small size, Sri Lanka has played a very significant role in IOR affairs since its Independence in 1948. And now, with the Chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Sri Lanka is poised to play an even bigger role in IOR affairs.
The IORA is a dynamic inter-Governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the IOR through its 23 Member States and 11 Dialogue Partners. It includes countries that are politically and socially diverse, such as Australia, Indonesia, Iran, and South Africa. France, which is nowhere near the Indian Ocean, is a member of the IORA by virtue of having overseas territories such as Reunion in the IOR.
Based on a concept of the late South African President Nelson Mandela and formally established in 1997, the Mauritius headquartered bloc is firmly committed to strengthening diplomatic, economic, trade and cultural ties that bind Member States whose shores are washed by Indian Ocean waters.
Today, there is a tendency to extend the IOR’s sphere of influence to the Pacific as well, due to their inter-dependence. This massive region is called the Indo-Pacific. There are growing calls for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. In fact, individual countries have evolved their own vision for the IOR and the Indo-Pacific, as embodied by India’s SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region), a maritime initiative that seeks peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
The People’s Republic of China, India’s main rival in the region is promoting its Global Development Initiatives (GDI) under which ports and infrastructure facilities are developed in IOR countries including Sri Lanka. Certain military and geopolitical developments in the IOR are somewhat worrying for Island States such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The QUAD military and political alliance (US, Australia, Japan and India) as well as AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) military alliance have flexed their muscles in the IOR, possibly to counter China.
Sri Lanka must make use of the IOC and IORA to ensure that the IOR remains free of conflict and military rivalry. In short, the IOR should be a Peace Zone, as Sri Lanka has advocated all along. Instead of engaging in military adventurism and expansionism, there are many other ventures that can be pursued for the benefit of all IORA Members.
For example, IORA countries should collaborate more on tsunami and earthquake research, having suffered the brunt of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. We know less about the ocean than we know about the far side of the Moon. This is indeed why IORA countries should undertake maritime scientific research collaboratively to discover more about life in the depths of the Indian Ocean. They should also intensify research on Climate Change, given that many IORA Members are Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that can disappear if the oceans rise even by one or two metres. The International University on Climate Change Studies to be established in Colombo will help this cause.
They should also address concerns regarding deep-sea mining through the International Seabed Authority (ISA), whereby some advanced nations plan to mine the seabed for rare minerals using robotic machines.
IORA countries should also make people-to-people contact easier by relaxing visa regimes and promoting an ‘Indian Ocean Identity’. After all, the people of IORA countries share a common ocean and by extension, a common future and destiny.