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India revs up maritime multilateralism in Indian Ocean

Defence Ministers, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and senior officials from 27 Indian Ocean Region countries attended the conclave on Thursday either physically or in virtual mode

Two important back-to-back strategic meetings concerning the Indian Ocean have added the much-needed seriousness to the region which was apparently being lost out to the growing popularity of Indo-Pacific as the preferred space for the current strategic discourse.

First, the Indian Ocean Dialogue was held virtually under the chairmanship of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 2-3 February and focused on important security and development issues concerning the Indian Ocean. Titled “Fostering a New Era of Cooperation in the Indian Ocean”, the Dialogue featured discussions on economic and trade cooperation, maritime security, public health and sustainable development, and on future trends in cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean Dialogue (IOD) is a stand-alone Track 1.5 event led by the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for open and free flowing debate among the Member States on issues of maritime security and safety concerning the region. The first ever IOD was hosted by India in 2013 and it is now an important fixture in the IORA’s annual calendar. Significantly, India has volunteered to host the IOD every alternate year since 2019.

The second meeting, a Conclave of Defence Ministers of the Indian Ocean rim countries, was held Thursday on the sidelines of the AeroIndia 2021 with the theme ‘Enhanced Peace, Security and Cooperation in the Indian Ocean’.  Defence Ministers, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and senior officials from 27 Indian Ocean Region countries attended the conclave either physically or in virtual mode.

The Conclave is followed by two seminars ‘Peace, Progress and Prosperity’ and “enhancing the co-operation and coordination among countries of the region for sustainable development and mutual coexistence”. These seminars are led by the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, think tanks and Indian defence shipyards and industry.

The Indian Ocean Dialogue and the Conclave of Defence Ministers embed ‘maritime multilateralism’, which is a tool for nations who consider using sea power for cooperation. It enables States to address common security issues with a firm belief that all participants would gain better security by the actions of even single member. States also believe that a secure maritime environment can be achieved by developing mutual understanding and cooperation among all in the region and ensuring order at sea.

We are witnessing an unprecedented level of cooperation among the navies and coast guards across the globe. They are not only collaborating to preserve order at sea, but developing joint operational plans for capacity building of smaller nations. Significantly, ‘maritime multilateralism’ is applicable to all navies – big, medium and small.

Unlike the Asia Pacific Region where the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) took the lead and successfully weaved a web of interactions and engagements in the maritime domain through arrangements such as the ASEAN Regional forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ADMM Plus, the Indian Ocean countries are latecomers in developing multilateral structures. This can be attributed to lack of interest and therefore the ‘political will’ to develop Indian Ocean regionalism. Consequently, issues concerning maritime security, search and rescue and disaster management were rarely discussed or debated. 

Furthermore, the Indian Ocean littorals did not think in terms of providing security to smaller Indian Ocean states who were ill-equipped to protect their maritime interests. This resulted in majority of these countries preferring to engage extra regional powers such as the US, Britain, France and some European countries to help harness the potential of the seas in a safe and secure manner. 

In 2007 India set up the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a voluntary programme to enhance co-operation among the regional navies whose members has now grown to 36; and in 2018 the Information Fusion Centre- Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) was established to support the MDA needs of Indian Ocean littorals.

The Indian Ocean Dialogue and the Conclave of Defence Ministers of the Indian Ocean are a reflection of New Delhi’s commitment to not only uphold Prime Minister Modi’s vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) but to rev-up ‘maritime multilateralism in the Indian Ocean. It is also not beyond the stretch of imagination that China, its Belt Road Initiative, and the China-Pakistan nexus certainly loom large in the Indian Strategic calculus.

(The writer is a former Director of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi)