Contextualizing India’s Strengthening Regional Role through the ‘Indian Ocean Conference 2019’

Sanchita Chatterjee
October 20, 2019


Image Courtesy: Swarajya

India recently concluded its 4th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) in the Maldives, held on 3-4 September 2019. The IOC was initiated by India Foundation, New Delhi, along with its partner from Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh in 2016. The conference was initiated as an annual effort to bring together Heads of States/Governments, ministers, thought leaders, scholars, diplomats, bureaucrats, and practitioners from across the region. This initiative, in many ways, was to understand, accommodate, and recalibrate the regional flux of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Over the decades, the IOR has become a hub of intense global activity for a variety of reasons. This region sees the largest number of cargo ships and is among the world’s most significant trade routes. The Indian Ocean offers the predominant oil outlet from the Persian Gulf to different locations around the world. The Malacca Strait is a critical chokepoint through which the oil transport moves between the Persian Gulf and the west coast of the United States, China, Japan, Australia, and other South-East Asian countries. More than 80% of the world’s seaborne oil transits through the Indian Ocean, with 40% crossing the Strait of Hormuz, 35% crossing the Malacca Strait, and 8% crossing the Bab-el-Mandab Strait.

Nevertheless, the IOR’s importance is not just about traffic and sea lanes but much more. More than half of the world’s armed conflicts are currently in the Indian Ocean region, while the regional waters are also home to continuously changing strategic events, including the rise of China and India, potential maritime rivalry between India and Pakistan, US role in West Asia, Islamist terrorism, increasing piracy in and around the Horn of Africa and management of depleting marine resources. With this yearly conference, India aims to bring together the region on a single platform. The conference incorporates India’s Act East policy unveiled at the 12th ASEAN–Indian Summit in 2014 held in Myanmar. The conference seeks to enhance India’s soft power role and its major player obligations in the region. 

After the success of three conferences earlier, the 4th edition of (IOC) was organized and hosted by India Foundation in association with the Government of the Maldives and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, in the Maldives. This year, the conference was attended by ministries from 25 States and delegates from over 40 states, including the Indian Ocean littoral states and major maritime users. Further, various officials and scholars from over ten countries joined to share their knowledge about the region. Notable speakers of the conference included Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, President of the Maldives, S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister of India and Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore. The region is extremely important as it covers one-fifth of the geographical expanse of the planet and a huge population of approximately 2.5 billion. It is one of the busiest maritime areas with 90% of the cargo passing through the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Thus the region is extremely attractive for many global players who seek to have a presence in the region.

The theme of IOC 2019 was “Securing the Indian Ocean Region: Traditional and Non-Traditional Challenges”. The conference were deliberated under broad themes of “Marine Ecology: climate change, Global warming and consequent rise of sea levels, pollution, sustainable harnessing of oceanic resources; Terrorism: rising spectre of terrorism in the Indian Ocean Region, marine terrorism; Navigational Security: freedom of navigation, UNCLOS and its effective implementation, natural and manmade hazards to navigation and piracy. This year, the chair of the conference was Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Several plenary sessions were conducted to strengthen freedom of navigation and the role of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to maintain peace and prosperity in the region. Terrorism is one of the looming factors raised by several countries of the region. Other than terrorism, the issues of rising seawater levels along with a high level of pollution of the seas were also the major concern for discussion. Navigational security was also highlighted by various countries attending the conference. 

The opening address of the conference was made by Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. He highlighted the lack of effective institutions to combat trafficking, which has increased over the years in the island country. He also highlighted the ecological destruction by the collapse of fish stocks in the oceans. He also emphasized the need for countries from across the region to come together to confront terrorism and violent extremism. He urged intra-regional cooperation through participation and strengthening formal intergovernmental bodies, like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Indian External Minister S. Jaishankar said that the Indo-Pacific region is a very important part of India’s Act East policy. He pressed for ensuring a peaceful periphery in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian side also mentioned the importance of Chabahar port and outlined the sea access it can provide to Afghanistan through Chabahar port in Iran. The Foreign Minister of India, S Jaishankar, rightly remarked, about India’s evolving IOR vision that it, “reinvents the Indian Ocean from the ‘Ocean of the South’ to the ‘Ocean of the Centre”. Even the chair of the session, M J Akbar, seconded this and termed it as the “romance of regression”. Climate change and brazen industrial fishing are the other two threats identified by him.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister highlighted a major source of concern in China’s growing presence in the region. During his speech, he highlighted the tripolar competition between China, India, and the United States. He further said that “For China, securing the sea lanes has become a preoccupation which is Belt and Road initiative, which is intent on building roads, pipelines, and ports in friendly countries around the Indian Ocean”. He also pressed on India’s concerns with respect to aggressive Chinese policies in the region. He opposed the military rivalry in the region and championed peace and stability in the region. He stated that Sri Lanka is playing a crucial role in the UN Law of the Sea conference to maintain regional stability, which accommodates the legitimate interest of all the stakeholders. The recent terror activities in Sri Lanka were also highlighted in the conference and prioritized security issues in the region. 

All in all, the IOC 2019 served as a good platform for contextualizing India’s strengthening regional role in the Indian Ocean region.

*** The author is currently pursuing Ph.D. as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) in the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). She completed her B.A. (hons) and M.A. in Political Science, Jadavpur University (Kolkata) and her M.Phil. from Centre for Inner Asian Studies, SIS, JNU (New Delhi). ***