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India in pursuit of an Ocean of opportunities
Organised by the Delhi-based think-tank India Foundation in Singapore, the Indian Ocean Conference of September 2016 sought to locate India in the midst of the ocean that bears its name. 'India Global Business' presents a report from the scene. India's relationship with the Indian Ocean is political, cultural and economic, historical and contemporary. Its essence can be captured by the following statistics: of all of India's international trade, 90 per cent by volume and 70 per cent by value moves across the ocean.
India's geographical location means it is germane to both the Eastern Indian Ocean - encompassing China and Southeast Asia, the ASEAN region and washing the shores of Perth, Australia, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet to form the giant Indo-Pacific. To India's west is the Western Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea and the troubled belt of west Asia, and ending with the pirate-ridden shores of Somalia, eastern Africa, as well as the majesty of the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India's archipelago in the Indian Ocean, are an underexploited resource that the Narendra Modi government is developing with naval, tourist and economic infrastructure. While all this formed part of the discussion in Singapore, there was also a central conundrum. The problem, as a diplomat once said, is that the Indian Ocean rim by itself is not the basis for a “logical regional identity”. Indian Ocean countries range from Mozambique to Iran, Madagascar to Singapore, and Thailand to the United Arab Emirates. It is difficult to categorise such a broad and diverse group and find meaningful cultural, political or economic commonalities. As a result, aspirations for the Indian Ocean region have often been pitched “too high” - a free trade association/area - or “too low” - minor agreements on tariffs and customs barriers. The unmentioned and yet often-alluded to country in Singapore was China, not a formal Indian Ocean member but
very much part of the region now. India acknowledged China's presence, but was alive to its challenges. As C. Raja Mohan, the Indian strategic thinker and director of Carnegie India, once wrote: “As a rising maritime power, India must now begin to move away from the unproductive divide it has set up between the 'regional' and the 'extra-regional'. For one, India itself has often become a target of these artificial divisions. For example in the Malacca Straits, the theme of 'regional versus extra-regional' is playing itself out often to the disadvantage to India. “Nor would India want to be treated as an extra-regional power in the Western Pacific where it has significant interests. While the very definition of a region means drawing the line somewhere, it is reasonable to suggest that no regional mechanism will work if it is seen as keeping out an interested great power. From a practical perspective, then, India cannot either wish away the extra-regional presence of the United States or prevent the significant rise in Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.” The Indian Ocean region is steeped in history. This history can trap us but can also inspire us and act as a trigger for advance. Much of the maritime expanse and geography that we today call the Indian Ocean region or the Indo-Pacific system was part of an inter-linked British presence century ago. The challenge is to rebuild that security architecture without an overarching determinant in London (or Washington, DC, for that matter). The internal dynamics can be discussed, the level of cooperation with China and need to allay its suspicions can be debated, but the idea of such a matrix cannot be wished away.
World War I offers a precedent of the type of partnership being envisaged. In September 1914, Chennai (then Madras) harbour in southern India was attacked by by the German cruiser Emden. The Kaiser's World War I Indian Ocean raider destroyed a merchant ship, killed several civilians and caused hundreds to flee. Then she moved further east, in the direction of Sri Lanka and what would in today's terminology be ASEAN waters. Two months later, in November 1914, the Emden was challenged and wrecked by an Australian ship, the Sydney, off the Cocos Islands. The intelligence cooperation that led to the Emden's destruction drew from the military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Today this is the location of India's only tri-services command and a significant naval capacity upgrade. As for the Cocos Islands, there is a proposal - admittedly a loose, long-term one - to build capacities in this Australian territory and allow the US to use it for surveillance of the South China Sea. Is the past sending us a signal for the future From the Straits of Malacca to the Gulf of Aden, the whispers of Indian's oceanic tradition can be heard loud and clear.