An extract from this piece was published in the Business Standard, on 18th Feb 2008
“This is the first new and significant international cooperative construct of the 21st Century”, said India’s naval chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, kicking off the three-day Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) on Thursday in New Delhi. Attended by 26 naval chiefs from countries bordering the Indian Ocean (or the littoral countries, as the technical term goes), China is conspicuous by its absence; the Indian Navy points out that the Indian Ocean does not wash China’s shores.
But Beijing’s presence hangs over this gathering and its feelings are being carefully assuaged. The Prime Minister who inaugurated IONS, and the Defence Minister who spoke after him, carefully pointed out that IONS is not a military pact where a set of nations is joining forces against another; instead, it brought together multiple states to fight against forces like terrorism, piracy and natural disasters.
As the naval chief elaborated, “NATO and the Warsaw Pact were competitive constructs that pitted combinations of nation-states against one another. The changed realities of our present time provides both strategic and intellectual space for other forms of collective groupings of states that are arrayed not against one another, but against security challenges and threats that are common to all.”
Despite the soothing rhetoric, India is pushing to give IONS a more tangible form. Inaugurating the seminar, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged the gathering of naval chiefs to “develop a comprehensive cooperative framework of maritime security.” On the 15th and 16th of February, a Naval Chiefs’ Conclave is discussing a “working charter”, which India had earlier sent the participating countries. The draft charter sets out clear procedures for coordinated action against piracy, maritime terrorism, the security of maritime trade routes, and natural disasters. Senior naval officers admit that no substantive “joint statement” is likely anytime soon, but they expect discussions on a draft charter to give India a leadership role.
While India insists this is not a shot across China’s bows, other regional powers like Australia are wary of multilateral groupings like IONS for fear of offending Beijing. Australia’s new Labour government, which won power in November 2007, is committed to stronger strategic ties with India, but on a one-to-one basis rather than as a part of a strategic grouping, which China could see as threatening. On the 5th of February, Australia told China it was withdrawing from the Quadrilateral --- Japan, the US, India and Australia --- which the US and Japan had pushed vigorously as a “Concert of Asian Democracies”. China was not amused when the Quadrilateral held joint exercises in September 2007; Beijing sent a demarche to all four capitals asking them the purpose of the grouping.
Former foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, speaking at the seminar on Thursday, pointed out that serious conflicts within the region, and its political and cultural diversity stand in the way of an Indian Ocean grouping. That became quickly evident during the seminar, when a Saudi Arabian delegate challenged an Australian speaker on his characterisation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. Indonesia’s delegates also made clear that country’s long-standing suspicions of India’s naval build up. And Pakistan, despite an invitation to send a delegation to IONS, was represented only by High Commission officials.
Despite the difficulties, the Prime Minister’s Office is strongly backing the IONS initiative. Officials from the PMO point out the need to break away from the traditional “Delhi-centric” view of security, which has traditionally focused on the China and Pakistan land threats. Instead, say these officials, the focus should be on securing India’s maritime interests and on strengthening the country’s warship building programme, which has been neglected for long.
Amidst India’s carefully calibrated diplomacy at IONS, Defence Minister AK Antony’s speech struck an incongruous note, seemingly dismissive of extra-regional powers, even while India continued with its “quadrilateral” partnership with the US and Japan. Mr Antony declared, “I would like to exhort all present and future members of the 'IONS Initiative' to resist the temptation of trying either to provide a prescriptive set of answers to a prescribed set of problems or challenges. I would caution them against seeking to import extra-regional template. I would, instead, ask them to tap the huge intellectual and innovative resources available within the IOR littoral.” Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office wondered aloud about who wrote Mr Antony’s speech, and what he was driving at.
Over the years, states of the Indian Ocean region have been too weak, divided and insecure to launch any multilateral security initiatives. Instead, smaller multilateral economic initiatives like ASEAN, SAARC and BIMST-EC have proved far less contentious. The only functional security grouping, the ASEAN Regional Forum, has required the presence of major extra-regional powers, like the US, to acquire stability. To that extent, IONS is an ambitious new initiative in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean extends from the Red Sea and the African Coast in the West, to the Malacca Straits in the East, and from Antarctica in the South, to the Asian underbelly in the North. It extends across 28 million square kilometres, has 65% of the world’s energy resources in the Gulf region, and carries 40% of the world’s oil flows. It has two major choke points --- the Straits of Hormuz in the East, and the Malacca Straits in the West. At its narrowest point, the Malacca Straits are just two miles wide. Some 16,000 major tankers and bulk carriers pass through the Malacca Straits each year.