The Indian Ocean has recently begun to attract considerable strategic interest and thus great power rivalry, with India being drawn into some of the major initiatives led by the US as part of its new geo-strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific region, as against its earlier insistence on looking at the Indian and Pacific oceans as two separate military theatres. In fact, at the recent APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Papua New Guinea, America’s Vice President used ‘Indo-Pacific’ twenty times while not using ‘Asia-Pacific’ even once! Clearly, America has now decided to confront China’s agenda in these vast oceans and the territories that fall in it. And Japan and India as its closest partners, the Indian Prime Minister having put out five areas of focus—connectivity, sustainable development, maritime security, disaster relief and freedom of navigation—some of which are clearly a challenge to China’s aggressive actions in the region.

India’s establishment, though somewhat belatedly, has begun to veer towards a more focused approach to IOR (Indian Ocean Region). A comprehensive collection of ideas on how India can redefine its role in this immensely important theatre, has been put together by Ambassador Yogendra Kumar, from contributions to a seminar, following Prime Minister Modi outlining his SAGAR initiative, that evoked considerable international interest, titled: “Whither Indian Ocean Maritime Order?” (published by Knowledge World, New Delhi). A range of diplomatic, naval and maritime experts have provided several informed assessments of what could be a viable architecture for the region, and how India’s role within which, could be central. As India grows in influence and stature in the region, India arouses expectations from littoral sates and major powers, says Ambassador Kumar.

The Indian Ocean’s sea lanes form some of the world’s most important trade and energy arteries, carrying one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and two-thirds of oil shipments. It is also a region with a very rich resource base, having 17% of global oil reserves, 28% of proven natural gas reserves, 35% of global iron production and 28% of global fish capture. To that extent, the ‘Sagarmala project’ a plan to modernise India’s ports which are vital to both trade and economic growth, has been in the works for some years. It envisages massive infrastructure spending and entails about a USD 100 billion investments to upgrade major ports, set up new ports and development of 14 CEZs, with connectivity from India’s hinterland to boost import, exports and employment. However, the region’s economic potential has also generated strategic risks, with China for instance openly laying claims on the waters and territories in the South China sea, adding to the feeling of vulnerability of the smaller states without sufficient military power to counter the Chinese.

Currently, India enjoys a naval edge over China, but that won’t be forever. It needs assets beyond what it has, with some experts arguing that the Navy could in fact emerge as the premier component of India’s armed forces over the next decade. The question however is, can India define its new maritime agenda, without getting sucked into the vortex of great power contests? More so, as the strategic distrust between even the otherwise friendly countries, is still high, as they could have competing interests in the region. And for India, it is not just China that poses a challenge, despite its naval bases in the region, referred to as a string of pearls, but Pakistan too, as Beijing is doing all it can to prop up that countries naval capacities. Add to that, the possibility of a disruptive West Asian conflict that could have several military, economic, and humanitarian implications for India (with large Indian diasporas in the Gulf). Have we begun to address these issues with the seriousness they deserve? To find out more about these extremely important issues, those interested would do well, to read the collection of views and analysis, on the Indian Ocean, that Ambassador Kumar has compiled.

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