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Opinion

June 15, 2015

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The rise of the Indian Ocean rim

Last Tuesday, the German Foreign Office hosted a conference in Berlin to discuss the competing interests of different international actors in the Indian Ocean and to explore possibilities of cooperation between them to overcome the multiple challenges faced by the littoral states.

The holding of the conference by a European country without any naval or colonial tradition in the area reflects the growing economic importance of the Indian Ocean to international trade and an incipient recognition by the international community that as the influence of the western countries slowly ebbs away, a new power balance is emerging in the region with a marked potential for rivalry between some major existing and aspiring international players.
In his keynote address at the conference, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier referred to a study by a research team at the Centre for International Development of Harvard University predicting that after centuries of domination by the Atlantic, followed by the ascendancy of the Pacific Rim, economic growth for the next generation could be dominated by the nations on the rim of the Indian Ocean, as the more mature economies stagnate. This forecast, which was proudly touted by some of the Indian participants at the Berlin conference as a signal of the coming rise of India, will have many doubters. This scepticism is justified because even if the economic growth of the Indian Ocean rim countries surpasses that of the more advanced regions, its global impact is likely to be limited because they start from a low base. India’s GDP, for example, is only one-fifth of that of China, although the two countries have roughly equal populations.
Nevertheless, the Indian Ocean rim countries do seem to be on the threshold of a significant economic turnaround. By describing the Indian Ocean as “a maritime region on the rise”, the organisers of the Berlin conference also acknowledged that this vast and densely populated part of the

world with a largely untapped potential may at last be on the verge of making a breakthrough.
While the economic rise of the region may take some time in coming, geopolitical stirrings are already making themselves felt. The great power ambitions of India, which are backed by the US, are a major driver. Past Indian governments have never been squeamish in asserting India’s desire to be recognised as a dominant power in the Indian Ocean. But the Modi government has backed up its claim with a feverish diplomatic campaign led by the prime minister in person. After visits to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles in March in a bid to counter Chinese influence, he was in Bangladesh a week ago on a similar mission.
The docking of two Chinese submarines last year in Sri Lanka, despite heavy pressure from the Modi government on Colombo, had set off an alarm in India. Since then, a new president has been elected in the country and he has reportedly indicated to India that there will be no Chinese submarine visits in the near future. But in the long run, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will scale down its ties with China, as the Modi government would like.
The Modi government is concerned also over the ties that Dhaka maintains with Beijing. China is already the largest supplier of arms to Bangladesh, including anti-ship missiles, tanks, and fighter aircraft. India of course has no capacity to compete with China in this field.
Another Indian concern is that China is helping Bangladesh in its port development projects and that these ports could later be used by China to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean. The Chittagong port is currently being modernised with Chinese assistance and a Chinese company, the China Harbour Engineering Company, is considered to be the frontrunner for a contract to build an $8 billion deep-water port on Sonadia island off the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazaar in the Bay of Bengal. India’s Adani Group is also bidding for the project.
The Sonadia port project may still be years away because of its high costs but it is already making Indian policymakers anxious. Some time back, Delhi reportedly conveyed to Dhaka that it doubted the necessity of Bangladesh developing the Sonadia port. Since then, Delhi has also finalised plans to build a deep sea port with missile batteries and radar surveillance on the Sagar Island on the mouth of the Bay of Bengal near the border with Bangladesh.
India is clearly using China’s real or perceived plans for an enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean to justify the gearing up of its own military plans to dominate the region – to the applause of the country’s strategic thinkers, many of whom were present at the Berlin conference. Those plans might not go very far because of India’s resource constraints but they have already given rise to forebodings of intensified naval competition in the Indian Ocean.
However, in his address at the Berlin conference, the German foreign minister seems to have carefully skirted this question. His emphasis instead was on exploring the possibilities of international cooperation to address the issues of political instability, maritime security, climate change, explosive population growth and rapid urbanisation. He noted also that 10 of the world’s 20 most fragile states lie on the Indian Ocean. Steinmeier did not name these states but a chart on a background screen displayed in the conference hall left little to guesswork. It included both Pakistan and India among fragile countries, with Pakistan a notch or two above India.
Another peculiarity of the conference was that India was represented on the various panels dealing with the different sub-themes of the conference by no less than six out of a total of 40 or so speakers, besides the secretary general of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), who is a former Indian diplomat. But there was no speaker from Pakistan on any of the panels, although it is the third largest littoral state, has the second or third largest navy from the regional countries and is a nuclear power. There was also no speaker from China.
As a result, the Indian point of view received undue prominence, while that of Pakistan went unheard. Besides, the Indian ambition to dominate the Indian Ocean was seemingly endorsed by Thomas Shannon, Counsellor in the US State Department, when he said that India’s role in the maritime security of the region was “central”.
The organisers gave no reason for their decision not to have a Pakistani on the panel of speakers even after the question was raised from the floor. But IORA Secretary General Bhagirath did try to explain why Pakistan has not been admitted to the grouping, saying that the decision had been taken by the association’s Council of Ministers. That is correct as far as it goes. But he tried to suppress the fact that there is India’s hand behind that decision. Under the IORA charter admission of new members takes place by consensus. In other words, a single member can effectively veto the admission of a new member, as India has done on the pretext that since Pakistan has not extended MFN status to India, it is in breach of the grouping’s principles.
Neither the absence of Pakistan from the Berlin conference, nor the IORA’s decision, at India’s behest, to deny admission to Pakistan is in itself a tragedy. There are good reasons why Pakistan has so far refused to grant MFN status to India and we must continue to stand by this policy, even if it means Pakistan cannot join IORA. In any case, IORA has so far shown itself to be an organisation that exists only on paper.
What is unforgiveable however is that the Nawaz government has not yet articulated its vision of the Indian Ocean despite its crucial importance for the security and economic well-being of the country, nor has the government formulated any policy to counter India’s ambition to dominate this ocean. It is to be hoped that Pakistan’s exclusion from the Berlin conference on the Indian Ocean will finally spur the government into action.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

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