“The success of maritime governance in the Indian Ocean is dependent on how effectively regional States can develop a working consensus around key developmental objectives. The endeavor must be to evolve a coherent plan of action to address the Indian Ocean’s many non-traditional and human security challenges, as well as to develop a model of sustainable development”. This observation by Justice (Retd) P Sathasivam, the Governor of Kerala, made in the course of his inaugural address of the first Oceans’ Dialogue in Thiruvanandapuram, the State capital, set the stage for a stimulating two days of discussions involving maritime conservation, development and security.
The conference, organised on April 19, 20 and 21 by Observer Research Foundation, in partnership with the Government of Netherlands, discussed security and developmental challenges in the maritime domain with speakers from diverse stakeholders – from conservations experts and marine biologists to maritime trade analysts and security pundits. In ten plenary sessions spread over two and a half day, participants discussed issues of littoral conservation, marine and infrastructure development, and security in Asia’s regional littorals. The thrust of the deliberations on the first day was on human security issues and ‘Ocean Governance’, as speakers highlighted the importance and need for contributions from regional governments. The session on Blue Growth (BE) witnessed a discussion on the protection and sustainable exploitation of ocean resources.
Sustainability, indeed, is inherent in the conception of BE. Even as its contours expand, the idea of Blue Economy appears based on the sustainable development of oceanic resources for the benefit of humankind. As a participant brought out, environmental protection is the central and determining feature of BE, a radical concept aimed at Ocean-based development. For others though, the Blue Economy is but an alternate means of managing ocean resources. The key elements seem to be cost and conservation. The Oceans’ riches, some speakers pointed out, needed to be harnessed at lower costs, and in ways that reduces wastage and raises efficiency. In order to add value to manufacturing and services, it is important to reduce production, lower consumption and access near sources. The session also discussed ways to conserve corals in the Indian Ocean, aided by a presentation from a participant from Seychelles, who spoke about large-scale reef restoration projects.
Similarly, in marine ecosystems, participants brought out the need to conserve ocean biodiversity, as also to protect and nourish oceanic ecosystems. Indian Ocean Governance, as one speaker mentioned, was stuck between two extremes: lofty global commitments in the form of Sustainable Goal No. 14 and localized approaches on managing marine resources and livelihoods. Reconciling the contradictions would need enhanced regional governance to preserve local ecosystems and the oceans and climate as global common goods. Some participants highlighted the need to demarcate Marine Protected Areas, where ecosystem and fish stock conservation can be facilitated by establishing “no-take” or highly protected areas in the high seas of the Indian Ocean. This would also require a comprehensive treaty-system that would not only be geographically inclusive and wide-ranging in terms of the species covered, but also empowering for disadvantaged stakeholders, private actors and the scientific community.
In the next session on trade and connectivity, speakers underscored the importance of sea-borne trade for the global economy. The key highlight of the session was a presentation on trade intermediaries in the Indian Ocean Region, and a proposal to rethink trade policy, from a focus on primary manufacturers, to a focus on the firms that facilitate their trade with the region and world. It emerged there were strong technical barriers to trade in the IOR, and a lack of systems to monitor and share data on import rejections. Participants also brought out the need to link infrastructure that connects inland Asia and Africa with the Indian Ocean rim, to improve the viability of regional ports. As a delegate noted, infrastructure development in the IOR needs supporting interventions that can create logistics corridors and rationalize customs and duties imposed by national governments.
Yet, trade seemed like a complex puzzle to solve for many of the experts present. An interesting presentation on Indian Ocean trade brought out intra-ASEAN trade share has stagnated at 25%, aided in no small measure by the harmful use of Non Trade Barriers, following a drastic tariff reduction for goods on the Inclusion, Sensitive and Highly Sensitive Lists. There NTBs used by governments that take the form of prohibitions, conditions or specific market requirements, were toxic for Indian Ocean trade. These issues are key concern areas as China forges ahead on the path to developing its “21st Century Maritime Silk Route” – an issue covered in detail by a Chinese participant during the conference, who outlined Beijing’s initiatives in building multi-layer maritime interconnectivity networks to consolidate economic, trade and cultural connections among countries along the MSR.
The panel on climate change and disaster management in the Indian Ocean witnessed a lively debate on the factors causing large climactic changes in the regional littorals. For some, these seem to be natural variations, driven in part by large-scale low-latitude atmospheric circulation configuration, in turn caused by seasonal variations in solar radiation. Others saw these changes as triggered by the ‘Green-Gas House’ effects. While marine research programmes do show conclusive evidence of a critical interplay between both summer and winter monsoon strength and global climate conditions, it also seems true that rapid increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and associated rise in global temperatures is causing a variation in climatic patters over the Indian Ocean.
As a corollary to the rapidly changing climate and the extreme events it engineers, humanitarian assistance has emerged a focal area of policy attention. A panelist in the session highlighted the Indian Navy’s exceptional rescue effort during the 2004 Tsunami and in subsequent humanitarian crises in Lebanon and Libya. The armed forces, he noted, have a natural advantage in carrying out rescue and relief operations owing to their superior infrastructure, hardware-in-stock, and training – factors that allow them to offer the fastest response to a situation. As one of the most disaster prone regions in the world, the IOR has been witnessing growing humanitarian crisis every year, with shrinking capabilities of many regional states in tackling the rescue effort efficaciously. Even in countries that have a relatively high average index of development, the capacity to invest in HADR mechanisms is constrained by resource-prioritization schemes.
On the second day, the conference began with a session on India’s growing partnership with ASEAN, with participants evaluating the deepening quality of New Delhi’s strategic and political ties with Southeast Asian states, as well as the advancing maritime partnership in the regional seas. This was followed by a discussion on managing security in the ‘littorals spaces’. With piracy making a comeback in the Western Indian Ocean, and maritime crime (drugs and human trafficking, gun-running and IUU fishing) still high, coastal security seems high on the agenda of most regional governments.
Most importantly, crime in the Indian Ocean littorals now involves an interplay of forces on land and at sea. There is a growing sense that the roots of seaborne crime lie on land. For maritime law-enforcement measures to be effective at sea, the challenges must first be tackled ashore. The problem, as speaker pointed out, is that the laws that govern the territorial seas are different from those that apply to the high seas. Unless regional states come up with a coherent and consistent legal framework to deal with coastal threats, it would be hard to address the sea-borne challenges.
As functional regimes are developed, regional states will need to cater for facilitate multiple activities in areas seemingly distinct but often overlapping. One such area is the issue of private maritime security companies. On-board security may have helped reduce the threat of maritime piracy, but it has disturbed the balance of rights in coastal waters. Since many states haven’t established coordinating authorities for maritime security within their governments (as called for in the 2005 Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation — SUA Convention) it has been hard to streamline coordination among nations to tackle issues arising from unlawful acts by private security onboard ships.
The final session of the conference discussed the strategic picture in the Asia Pacific, impacted significantly by China’s aggressive maritime expansion. The discussions dwelt on the role of several extra-regional players in Indian Ocean security, in particular China and the US. A participant from Sri Lanka brought out reasons why Colombo saw Beijing as an important and indispensable partner in the Indian Ocean. In response to probing questions by Indian participants, who wanted to know about the nature of access provided to Chinese companies and the PLA Navy, he highlighted Sri Lanka’s developmental needs that rendered a partnership with China an economic necessity. The narrative was balanced by another participant from the US, who outlined Washington’s own security outreach to the Indian Ocean – premised mainly on developing relations with India and Sri Lanka.
Capping off an excellent day’s discussion was an insightful and inspiring valedictory address by Dr Shashi Tharoor who comprehensively outlined India’s maritime concerns in it near and far seas. Commenting on Vizhinjam, India’s new transshipment port, he noted, the need to develop significant forward and backward linkages, as also address commercial, security, and other long term questions of ecological sustainability. This, he noted, “could best be pursued by developing an integrated maritime logistical confluence featuring a dry dock with the capacity to handle large vessels, an ancillary major port, a centre for ship design to manufacture commercial ships, and an academy to develop all the professional skills necessary to support such an integrated maritime hub”. According to Dr Tharoor, New Delhi’s maritime policy will need to keep in mind India’s long term strategic interests – particularly the need to counter China’s looming shadow in the IOR. India, he observed, will need to be conscious of the “danger of being outrun in its own neighborhood”.
Complementing other interesting keynote addresses by Mr Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala, Dr Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ms Pooja Kapur, Joint Secretary (ASEAN) in the Ministry of External Affairs, and Ambassador K Bhagirath, General Secretary IORA, Dr Tharoor’s talk brought home the importance of Ocean development as an enabler of national and regional prosperity, bringing proceeding to apt closure.
- Keynote address by JS (ASEAN ML)
- Valedictory address by Dr. Shashi Tharoor
- Speech by Hon. Harsha de Silva, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs