Home / Columnists/ Indian Ocean politics of the 21st century – A view from Sri Lanka

Indian Ocean politics of the 21st century – A view from Sri Lanka

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 7 December 2017 00:00

Sunset at Point Pedro beach. For countries like Sri Lanka, the oceans are quite literally life and death – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


At the outset, I should like to place on record that these thoughts I share with you this afternoon are offered in my personal capacity and those that I hold as a student of international relations. 

The Indian Ocean, as is well known, is the third-largest body of water in the world, after the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, covering at least one-fifth of the world’s total ocean area. It provides critical sea trade routes that connect West Asia, Africa, and South Asia with the broader Asian continent to the East and Europe to the West. 

The strategic thinkers of the West usually refer to West Asia or Near East as the Middle East. Several of the world’s most important strategic chokepoints, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca through which 30 plus millions of barrels of crude oil and petroleum are transported per day are found in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

India and China, two of the fastest growing economies of the world today, are heavily dependent on energy resources that are transported via the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Nearly 100,000 ships transit the Indian Ocean annually. India imports about 80% of its energy, mostly oil, from West Asia or the Middle East. 

According to a recent US Department of Defence report, 84% of China’s imported energy resources passed through the Strait of Malacca in 2012. China’s rise as an influential global presence and India’s rapid economic development and their geographic locations have heightened the ocean’s strategic value. 

The significant shift in the United States foreign policy focus from the Middle East to what is now termed the Indo-Pacific region has also contributed to the geopolitical flux in the region. Among the security challenges the region faces are those arising from natural disasters, concerns over energy security, piracy, smuggling and military rivalry.

Given the above, unsurprisingly, the Indian Ocean region, its past, present and future, has received a great deal of attention in the last several years. As Dr. Harsha de Silva noted in his presentation at the Public Forum on The Indian Ocean in Singapore in January, the 21st century is barely two decades old and we have already seen momentous political change in the world and these have implications for the Indian Ocean Region as well.

2016 was a tumultuous year in politics and economics. We in Sri Lanka are witnessing, have witnessed, change brought about by the relentless impact of globalisation. The rapid pace of change and what this change portends for our economies are issues of concern to us. The effect of Brexit and other possible exits from the EU and the trade policies of President Donald Trump will take time to manifest themselves. 

How the US and China will interact under the new dispensation in Washington will be watched by one and all with bated breath! To use the cliché’, the ‘new normal’ in economics and commerce is uncertainty. Those entities and countries that will negotiate best this uncertainty will be those who act prudently and sagaciously in the circumstances: they will seek to seize the opportunities thrown up by this uncertainty and resort to action that would avert disasters and promote co-operation, confidence and recovery. The emerging uncertain global dynamics will present both challenges and opportunities for those of us in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond.

Asia rising

Economists and politicians tell us that we are presently in a time when global financial and economic power shifts point towards Asia. 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking at the September 2017 Indian Ocean Conference in Colombo noted that the global economic power rebalance – away from the established advanced economies of North America and Europe – will continue well into the latter part of the 21st century. He went on to note that the cornerstone of Western power, based on its economic dominance, technological and military might, has been eroded to a significant extent by the extraordinary economic development in Asia in the last 50 years or so. 

The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) World Forecast 2050 predicts that 19 Asian countries will be among the largest economies by 2050. Asia is expected to surpass the west in terms of global power based on population, GDP, technology and military spending. The 2016 Annual Meeting of the Global Future Council convened by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum concluded that by 2030 there will not be a single hegemonic force and that in its place will be a multipolar world in which the US, China, India, Germany, Japan, and Russia will be the key players. 

These forecasts are reinforced by the recently-released PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) Report: World in 2050. It presents economic growth projections for 32 of the largest economies of the world, accounting for around 84% of the global GDP. Of them 10 – Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand – are from the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This reality will increase the IOR’s strategic influence in the world. 

Despite its projected slowdown, the forecast is for the Chinese economy to supersede the US economy in 2028. Similar bright forecasts are made for the economies of India, Indonesia, and Malaysia by 2050. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is poised to cover over 38 percent of the global GDP once the regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement among its member countries is concluded. 

Trade and connectivity

These promising predictions notwithstanding, intra-trade in the IOR including the Bay of Bengal area remains low. South Asia, we are told, remains the least economically-integrated region in the world. Unlike in the European and Pacific countries, in South Asia we see a marked absence of political will to promote trade liberalisation and connectivity. Primordial fears based on ancient as well as more recent rivalries among the countries that comprise South Asia may account for this inability to come together for the common good. 

Trade and connectivity are considered central to achieving and maintaining a high regional growth rate. The 21-member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) at its Summit in Jakarta (5-7 March, 2017) issued a strategic vision document titled the Jakarta Accord at the conclusion of their deliberations that, among other things, ‘sets out vision for a revitalised and sustainable regional architecture’. Whether IORA will be able to sustain this momentum remains to be seen. 

Businesses in the region must grow for intra-regional trade to develop and flourish. These businesses need capital for expansion which is not in ready supply in the region. In this context, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s call for the establishment of an Indian Ocean Development Fund (IODF) makes eminent sense. This Fund is expected to make financial resources available to national development banks in the region to promote growth and expansion in the region by the provision of capital for business expansion. Who will furnish the necessary funds? Will all the member states contribute to this fund for the greater good of the region regardless of their political and economic rivalries? 

In Jakarta the IORA also laid emphasis on the ‘Blue Economy’ of the Indian Ocean. While other oceans in the globe are experiencing a decline of its fish stocks, the opposite is true of the Indian Ocean. There are, however, problems that have arisen in recent years due to the abundance of fish stocks in the Indian Ocean. More on this theme anon. 

It is estimated that 40% of the world off shore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean with large reserves of hydrocarbons being tapped in the offshore areas of Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and Western Australia. The recent UN conference on conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources (June 2017) concluded that preserving the health of the oceans is vital for the future of mankind. In seeking to avoid irreversible damage to the oceans, IORA must coordinate efforts by all member countries to address over-fishing, pollution from off shore and land-based activities, and biodiversity and habitat loss. 

For countries like Sri Lanka, the oceans are quite literally life and death. The Indian Ocean has provided us employment, food and avenues for trade and commerce. The rise of the seas, pollution of oceans, depletions of fish or good coastal eco-systems are not abstractions, they form the core of our existence. Climate Change and Disaster Management in the IOR are hence of vital interest to us. 

Massive challenges

The creation of wealth and enhanced economic activity in the IOR will not only bring benefits but also pose enormous security challenges to us all. Most of the world’s armed conflicts are presently located in the IOR. Besides the waters of the Indian Ocean are also home to continually evolving strategic developments, including the rise of regional powers with nuclear capacities. 

Conflicts in the Gulf, unrest in Afghanistan, rise of violent extremism, growing incidents of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa loom over the region. All of this has led to the substantial militarisation of parts of the IOR. In Sri Lanka’s view, the vital Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean that fuels the global economy needs to be open for all and must be used for mutual benefit in a sustainable manner. It is essential to maintain peace and stability in the IOR which ensures the right of all states to freedom of navigation and overflight. 

In terms of the maritime build up in the Indian Ocean, we see India, China, Japan, Australia and the United States envisaging various projects from ocean excavation to placing remote sensors for ocean research. The United States, China, India and Japan are deepening their naval presence. Naval power is expected to play an increasingly significant role in regional affairs. This in turn will lead to naval power competition, with plans for sea control as well as sea denials. 

There are massive challenges to be met. Maritime pollution is one such. The Indian Ocean, we are told, has the second largest accumulation of floating plastic waste in the world. It is the region where larger tankers, container vessels and the like plying between west and east, dump their waste. Oil and tar are common sights on Sri Lankan beaches. 

Recent studies estimate the amount of oil and petroleum discharged into the Indian Ocean to make up about 40% of the total petroleum spill of the oceans of the world. Undercurrents of naval build ups in the South China Sea are being felt in the Indian Ocean. China has established its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, causing serious concerns in Delhi.

Sri Lanka faces a continuing issue of poaching and rape of marine life in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar due to illegal fishing by Indian fishermen. Bottom trawling by these fishermen are causing immense damage to Sri Lanka’s precious marine resources and harming livelihoods of Sri Lanka’s fishermen. 

Research in countries like Somalia have shown that illegal fishing by foreign vessels was ‘a fundamental grievance that sparked piracy and provides ongoing justification for it’ according to analysts quoted in leading Sri Lankan newspapers. According to these sources, among foreign vessels found indulging in such illegal fishing are those belonging to so-called developed European countries, like Spain for example, who send their surplus trawlers and mother ships to exploit tuna stocks and other Indian Ocean resources using satellites to track movements of schools of fish. 

Some countries like Indonesia, for example, have been less tolerant of illegal fishing in their waters. It has been reported that in 2016, Indonesia had blown up foreign boats confiscated for fishing illegally in its waters. Of the 23 so blown up, 13 were from Vietnam and 10 from Malaysia. 

China, India and the US

The Indian Ocean plays a crucial role in the future of both China and India. The sea routes through the Indian Ocean are vital to China’s maritime trade and energy supply. Both countries need to respect each other’s legitimate interest in the region. 

As Anit Mukherjee of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore observes, the United States can be considered a resident power in the Indian Ocean given its bases in West Asia (Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar), in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti) and in Diego Garcia. In addition, on the eastern flank of the Indian Ocean, the United States has a military presence in Thailand, Singapore and Australia. As it is pre-occupied in West Asia or the Middle East, the United States is comfortable with India playing a leading role in the Indian Ocean.

Some analysts view this above development as an indication of stretched United States resources, given its interests in East China and South China Seas. Nilanthi Samaranayake et al of the CAN (a non-profit research and analysis organisation based in Arlington, Virginia) view it as ‘a security burden sharing’ between India and the United States in the IOR.

Enhanced Indo-US defence co-operation received a fresh boost with the 26-28 September visit of US Defence Secretary James Mattis. The latter is the first cabinet-level visitor to India under the Trump administration. It was also the first follow-up visit by a US cabinet official after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June visit to the US.

As I speak here today, we also know that Secretary Rex Tillerson has since visited Delhi as well. Prior to his visit to India, at a speech he made at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., Tillerson noted, among other things, that the United States wants to ‘dramatically deepen’ ties with India.

Although no major announcements were made during the Mattis visit, it needs to be noted that in 2016, the United States acknowledged that India was now a major defence partner. India may not become an ally in the way Japan or South Korea or any of the NATO countries are, but even if limited co-operation develops, that will prove a strikingly complex change in the defence relations between the two countries. Such a momentous change will have an impact not on just South Asia alone. It is likely to impact significantly on the strategic dimension of the larger Asia-Pacific region presently dominated by the United States and China.

According to the current affairs magazine ‘India Legal’, the United States decision to supply 22 Sea Guardian drones to enhance India’s naval surveillance in the India Ocean was announced during Prime minister Modi’s meeting with President Trump in June 2017. These drones are expected to help the Indian Navy to keep a close watch on the Chinese naval ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean. India, it appears, is the first non-NATO country be given the drones by the United States. ‘India Legal’ quotes former Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh as saying:

“Yes, Indo-US defence cooperation is very much in focus, especially as for over 20 years, Washington had denied us all military technology. The nuclear deal changed the parameters of relations, and today there is robust co-operation and a US willingness to transfer high-end military technology to India.”

Noting that the unspoken part of this defence relationship is China, Mansingh goes on to observe: “The desire to balance China’s growing military and economic power in Asia by encouraging India was there from the time of George W. Bush. If American focus is on balancing the power equation in India, India, too, wants the US as an insurance against China.”

Students of international relations are of the view that there is likely to be closer cooperation among China, Pakistan and Russia to meet the challenge of a possible joint defence arrangement among the United States, India, Japan and Australia. We thus see that tensions in the region are most likely to escalate given that the United States and China on the one hand, and India and China on the other are competing for dominance in the IOR. 

It must be noted, however, that this above-referenced possible joint -defence arrangement is not a new idea. In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, President George W. Bush announced that India, the United States, Japan and Australia would set up an international coalition to coordinate rescue and rehabilitation operations. 

Suhashini Haidar writing to ‘The Hindu’ refers to this proposed multilateral grouping as ‘the Quadrilateral or Quad’. According to Haidar, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was most enthusiastic ‘voicing his long-standing idea of an “arc of prosperity and freedom” that encompassed India, and brought it (sic) into a tighter framework with Japan, the United States and Australia, which were already close military allies’. 

Concerns about the Quad in Beijing, Haidar suggests, led to the United States moving away from the idea in 2007, given other priorities in the pipeline at the time such as the strategic efforts underway to move for sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council and the six-nation talks on North Korea. Haidar poses an interesting question in conclusion: “A decade later, the question is: will the Quadrilateral melt away as before, or is it an idea whose time has finally come?”

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a small state and one of its strengths has been the significant diplomatic role it has played on the international scene over the years. Sri Lanka has had a reputation in the diplomatic world for unusual success in explaining and clarifying to the global North the concerns, concepts and complaints of the South. Many Sri Lankan scholars, diplomats and intellectuals have shown the same capacity for generating Northern interest rather than ire. 

Sri Lanka is indeed unlikely to be able to change the geopolitical realities of the region surrounding us. But through a pragmatic foreign policy based on avoidance of alliances with any one power bloc and maintaining friendship with all, we should be able to play a constructive role as in the past in the emerging new order. Sri Lanka, it will be recalled, played a key role in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and in calling for the possible declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOPZ) beginning in the 1960s and 1970s respectively. 

Given the above-referred to constructive role played by Sri Lanka in the diplomatic world, the categorical statement made by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on behalf of the Government at the Second Indian Ocean Conference hosted by Sri Lanka in September 2017 regards the Sri Lanka Government’s decision to develop its major sea ports, especially the Hambantota Port which some claim to be a military base, is to be welcomed and worthy of quotation in full: “I state clearly that Sri Lanka’s government headed by President Sirisena does not enter into military alliances with any country or make our bases available to foreign countries. We will continue military cooperation such as training, supply of equipment and taking part in joint exercises with friendly countries. Only the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have the responsibility for military activities in our Ports and Airports. We are also working with foreign private investors on the commercial development of our ports.”

Sri Lanka should now push for an international code of conduct for military vessels traversing the Indian Ocean. ASEAN and China have agreed to prepare such a code for the South China Sea. The Indian Ocean Code could be along the lines of the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and China regarding the rules of engagement for safety in the air and maritime encounters. Such a code could recognise and seek to deal with the escalation in human smuggling, illicit drug trafficking, and the relatively new phenomenon of maritime terrorism. According to specialist opinion, UNCLOS does not have adequate provisions to address these issues of recent origin. Any code on the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean must include an effective – and realistic – dispute resolution process.

(This is an edited version of a presentation made on 31 October at the ‘Roundtable Discussion’ jointly organised by the Mario Einaudi Centre for International Studies and the South Asia Programme of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.)


Share This Article


1. All comments will be moderated by the Daily FT Web Editor.

2. Comments that are abusive, obscene, incendiary, defamatory or irrelevant will not be published.

3. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.

4. Kindly use a genuine email ID and provide your name.

5. Spamming the comments section under different user names may result in being blacklisted.


Today's Columnists

Depreciating rupee: Avoiding a money-go-round

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Sri Lanka’s excessive reliance on foreign capital to finance investment under favourable external financial conditions is now leading to disruptions, as those conditions change in a decisive interest rate tightening phase in the United States. As U

Responsible water stewardship in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Unlike many of our regional neighbours, Sri Lanka is blessed with an abundant water table. However, many companies do not feel the full value of this precious resource due to the limited regulation and monitoring of fresh water extraction for busines

Economy in disarray, banks flourishing; can this be true?

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

It is earlier reported that the growth in bank credit accelerated in August despite the tight credit and money conditions and rising non-performing loans in the banking sector. It is further reported that the year-on-year (YoY) growth in credit accel

1/3 of your training budget should be spent on developing leaders for boosting corporate performance

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

“Great companies spend an average of 32% of their training budget on leadership development.” – Brandon Hall’s leadership survey The highest Return On Training Investment (ROTI) comes from helping your managers sharpen the leadership skills

Columnists More