Conference Report- India and the Indian Ocean Region: Dynamics of Geopolitics, Security, and Global Commons
TPF Team August 19, 2019/Conference
The Peninsula Foundation held its first international conference titled “India and the Indian Ocean Region: Dynamics of Geopolitics, Security and Global Commons” on the 12thand 13thof July at the Women’s Christian College, Chennai. Fifteen papers authored by research scholars from various institutions and backgrounds were presented during the course of the two-day conference comprising five sessions.The inaugural address was delivered by the Chief Guest, Vice Admiral N Ashok Kumar AVSM VSM, Vice Chief of Naval Staff (VCNS). In an eloquent speech, the VCNS highlighted the growing importance of the Indian Ocean Region and the need to debate and discuss issues relating to chokepoints and the trade routes. He spoke about historical evidence of the criticality of the trade routes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and related it to the present context of ship movements in vital sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) that are vital for economic growth of countries in the Asia-Pacific Region. India’s geographic location gives it a dominant strategic position, as seventy-five percent of international shipping links go through the IOR. He pointed out that China is deeply focussed on safeguarding its interests in the IOR since more than seventy percent of its energy requirements are dependent on Indian Ocean sea lanes. Stressing on the importance of the IOR, the VCNS highlighted the vulnerability of chokepoints and the need to ensure freedom of the seas.
The keynote address was delivered by Professor Kanti Prasad Bajpai, Vice Dean and Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He focused on the contemporary understanding of the term ‘region’ and its context with regards to geopolitics and international relations, stating that when we refer to a region in the geopolitical context, we essentially refer to a zone of conflict, a war-zone or an area of potential conflict. Thus, South Asia often implies the India-Pakistan conflict, Middle East or West Asia the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the conflict between North and South Korea when talking about Korea as a region. Similarly, the Indian Ocean region is one of geopolitical contest amongst the great powers. It is a strategically important region where interdependence is inevitable amongst the nations that have vested interests in the IOR.
Professor Bajpai further elucidated the fundamentals of trade development in the region and substantiated a case for the IOR as a strategic zone, citing the consistency with which external powers compete to control the region. He highlighted the three forms of culture that govern or define power positions in the IOR: classical culture, popular culture and strategic culture. India, aspiring to position itself as an important player in the region, has to evaluate the choices that are available to it: accept one dominant power to manage the region in a rule-based order or actively participate in the dialogue for a negotiated order that can be achieved through multilateral trade agreements. In conclusion, Professor Bajpai raised questions to be addressed in the upcoming sessions. The inaugural session ended with a special lecture on the cultural legacies of the Asia-Pacific Region, delivered by Indian classical dancer and Padma Bhushan awardee, Dr Padma Subrahmanyam.
Session One: ‘Indian Ocean: Culture, Civilizations and Connectivity’
The topic of the first session chaired by Cmde. C. Uday Bhaskar, Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), was ‘Indian Ocean: Culture, Civilizations and Connectivity’. The speakers discussed the history, culture and impact of trade on the IOR. G Padmaja, an independent researcher, emphasised India’s maritime heritage and argued that policies do not move beyond mere talk with respect to the IOR. Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Trustee of The Peninsula Foundation, stated that the IOR is the busiest trade route in terms of development and commodity exchange. He elucidated the importance of digital shipping and the scope of 5G technology and reliance on Artificial Intelligence in driving the trading ecosystem. The third speaker Dr D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), explored the idea of the modern political economy influencing the flow of men and commodities, and talked about the possibility of India reclaiming its rights over the IOR.
Session Two: ‘Power Politics in the IOR: Geostrategies and Geo-economics’
Through his paper “Competing Pivots in the Indian Ocean Region”, Dr Lawrence Prabhakar, Associate Professor, Madras Christian College, highlighted that the region can be constructed and contested through a maritime mandala that goes beyond security and economic factors to include cultural, governance, transnational and other aspects. Dr Arvind Kumar, HOD, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University, in his paper “Stability of Trade and Commerce: Energy Corridor” discussed the potential of energy resources in the IOR and the need to include energy security as a significant feature in global trade and growth drive. In his paper titled “China’s BRI: Responses in the IOR and Implications for Regional Order”, Dr Jabin Jacob, Associate Professor, Shiv Nadar University, focussed on smaller nations affected by the Belt and Road Initiative and the responses by the Chinese government. Chairperson Dr TCA Raghavan, DG, ICWA, summarised the session by observing that the actions of regional states cannot be categorised as malicious but are rather reactions to Indian and Chinese policies over time.
Session Three: India’s Strategic Interests in the IOR
In the final session of the day, speakers discussed maritime security, power projections and evolving ties with littoral states in the region. The session was chaired by Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retd), Trustee, India Foundation. Cmde Somen Bannerjee, of Vivekananda International Foundation, pointed out in his paper titled “Maritime Security and Power Projections” that China is set to become the biggest power in the IOR in the next fifteen years. He also discussed the need for India to strategize power projection as a necessary course of action in order to secure importance on the global stage. Through his paper, “Strategic Partnerships: India & ASEAN”, Ambassador Antonio Chiang brought to attention the strategic partnership between Taiwan and China, and the implications of China’s rise to power on Taiwan. Group Captain PB Nair spoke about the role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the context of the IOR, providing assistance in navigating sea routes, and the significance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology in carrying out sea operations.
Day Two: Panel Discussion on India’s Approaches in the IOR
Day Two commenced with a panel discussion on India’s strategic approaches in the IOR, its aspirations and the contradictions. The panel consisted of Dr TCA Raghavan, Ambassador Antonio Chiang, Lt Gen S.L. Narasimhan, Cmde Uday Bhaskar and Professor Kanti Bajpai. The session, moderated by Air Marshal M Matheswaran, addressed three main points: the power struggle in Asia, India’s inadequate investment with regard to being a rising power, and India’s engagement with multilateral institutions.
The discussion focussed on the ramifications of Chinese economic power and military strength in the region, its effect on India’s policies, as well as the need for utilization of soft power and soft balancing techniques by smaller countries to level the international playing field.
With regard to India’s investment activities, Dr TCA Raghavan mentioned that ineptness in domestic spheres would spill over and reflect in international projects.
On the topic of India’s engagement in multilateral institutions, Professor Kanti Bajpai noted that while it cannot be said that India doesn’t deliver, there is a certain level of ambiguity about what the expectations are. The delay in finalising the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was discussed; Lt Gen S L Narasimhan explored the reason behind India’s hesitancy to the agreement, stating that RCEP only covered the free movement of goods and not of services. Thus, India being a service-strong nation would be at a disadvantage.
With regard to China’s technological advancements and its potential economic superpower status, Ambassador Chiang stated that intellectual power would be a game-changer for India. He noted that China resorts to hard and fast action for solving problems as opposed to the kind of strategic decision-making employed by India.
Session Four: International Cooperation and Global Commons
Session Four of the conference was chaired by Dr Joshua Thomas, Deputy Director at the North Eastern Regional Centre of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). The first speaker, Dr Suba Chandran, spoke on the topic of “Cultural Legacies & Competing Zones of Influence: India, China and External Powers.” His talk addressed two questions: who the actors are and their nature of influence, and how India can respond. Embracing our shared religious and cultural history and strengthening the education system in India were among the measures suggested by Dr Chandran to build bridges and enable India to assume a more central position of power in the region. Rear Admiral S Shrikande presented a paper on the subject of “International Institutions: SLOCs, Chokepoints, Freedom of Navigation”, and shared insights on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The final speaker of the session, Rear Admiral K Swaminathan, spoke on India’s role as a net security provider in the region, and mentioned several instances of the Indian Navy providing assistance to neighbours in times of need and contributing to preserving international security. While Dr Chandran spoke about cultural connectivity across countries in the IOR through a ‘Bring East Policy’, the naval officers emphasised on the need for connectivity, capacity and credibility in the international sphere.
Session Five: Transnational Issues, Threats and Challenges in the IOR
In his paper titled “International and Regional Cooperation in Disaster Management”, Air Vice Marshal Ashutosh Dixit underlined the vital role played by the UN and Armed forces in mitigating the risks of disasters. While the UN plays a multifaceted role of being the interface between local and international responders, it is most often the armed forces that promptly and efficiently mobilize resources to the disaster-struck nation, as their reach has no limitations. Dr Arabinda Acharya, Associate Professor, National Defense University, Washington DC, in his paper “Non Traditional Security Threats: Piracy, Maritime Terrorism, Climate Change, Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, Illegal Immigration, and Smuggling of Arms and Drugs” explored challenges to good order at sea and proposed investment in resources to thwart non-state actors on land so as to reduce their power at sea. Through his paper, “India and the Blue Economy: Evolving Partnerships,” Dr R P Pradhan, Associate Professor at BITS Pilani, Goa Campus, emphasised the critical role of the Big Push Theory in developing the blue economy. Investing in strategic assets such as seaports similar to China, Indonesia, South Korea, etc. is vital for realising India’s aspirations for a larger role in the region. In his closing remarks, Lt General SL Narasimhan, Director General, Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, Ministry of External Affairs, emphasised the need for states and regional organizations to collaborate rather than compete in order to address challenges that transcend national borders.
Lastly, in his valedictory address, Dr TCA Raghavan identified crucial points with respect to the theme of the conference, including the difference between military and diplomatic thinking, and strategic and tactical strength. Dr Raghavan stressed the need for developing dialogue forums and intergovernmental organisations in the Arabian Sea littoral with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran, among others, to focus on pressing issues in the region.