Colombo, May 16: In his inaugural address at the Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka on May 12, the Indian External Affairs Minister D.S.Jaishankar pointed out that the “Indo-Pacific is a reality and becoming more so with each passing day.”
“It is a statement of our contemporary globalization and underlining that we are getting past the framework of 1945. There are obviously nations that have a vested interest in perpetuating the past. As indeed they have in larger international relations, including the structure of the United Nations. But time does not stand still for anyone; change has to be recognized,” Jaishankar said.
Referring to Bangladesh’s document on its approach to the Indo-Pacific released on 24 April he said that Bangladesh is thinking in the same way as a number of countries ranging from ASEAN and East Asia to Europe and North America are doing.
“I am truly glad that Bangladesh has joined the company,” he added.
He particularly noted the four Guiding Principles and the 15 Objectives of Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific Outlook (IPO) document and praised the referrence to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
“It is essential for the credibility of the global order that such foundational regimes are respected and scrupulously observed by all signatories. May I add that the views of Bangladesh are particularly noteworthy because of its standing as a progressive and successful developing economy that is making its fullest contribution to regional growth and prosperity,” Jaishankar remarked.
Issues in Indian Ocean
Addressing the issues in the Indian Ocean, the Indian External Affairs Minister said: “Because the world is understandably seized of the larger domain of the Indo-Pacific, we should not underplay the issues and challenges of one of its core constituents – the nations of the Indian Ocean. Our historical experience is somewhat different than those of the Pacific, even if we are joined at the hip. There are distinct issues that arise from regional identities, colonial experiences and geo-political relationships.”
“Many nations of the Indian Ocean still address developmental challenges that may no longer be relevant in the Pacific. So, even while impressing the essential coherence of the Indo-Pacific, I would urge that we also focus determinedly on the Indian Ocean nations and their challenges.”
He further said: “Within the Indian Ocean, we must recognize that there are distinct regions and ecosystems. The Bay of Bengal is a very good example. The countries in this geography have their particular aspirations and agenda, as well as their respective pathways towards progress.”
“We are members of the BIMSTEC, an organization that is increasingly coming into its own. Amongst ourselves, we are very cognizant of the challenges we face in governance, modernization and security. And we are confident of dealing with them through deeper cooperation and shared efforts. It is by nurturing such building blocks that we will make the Indian Ocean – indeed the Indo-Pacific – stronger and more resilient.”
“The requirement of simultaneously addressing the needs of the Indo-Pacific, the Indian Ocean and its constituent regions is today the task before us. These are not alternatives but actually self-supporting activities.”
“Naturally, there are aspects of specificity; but equally, there are broad principles that apply to all. For example, the importance of adhering to law, observing norms and respecting rules is a natural convergence point. It is not possible to build a stable international order without these prerequisites. This is especially so in a continent that has seen so much growth and so much change. When nations disregard their legal obligations or violate long-standing agreements, as we have seen, the damage to trust and confidence is immense. It is therefore essential that all of us take the long view of our cooperation, rather than a tactical one of our interests.”
“A significant shared concern through the Indian Ocean is that of unsustainable debt generated by unviable projects,” Jaishankar said in an oblique reference to China’s unsustainable mega projects in Sri Lanka.
“There are lessons from the last two decades that we ignore at our peril. If we encourage opaque lending practices, exorbitant ventures, and price points that are unrelated to the market, these are bound to bite us back, sooner rather than later. Especially so when sovereign guarantees have been proffered, not always with due diligence. Many of us in the region are today confronting the consequences of our past choices. This is time to reflect and reform, not one to repeat and reiterate,” he urged.
Coastal Countries Gain Over Hinterland
Turning to connectivity Jaishankar described it is as a “particularly crucial issue” for all in the Indian Ocean region.
“This is because the era of imperialism disrupted the natural linkages of the continent and created regional silos to serve its own ends. In many cases, the hinterland was disadvantaged to the benefit of the coastal areas. Building back in the post-colonial era is a long, painful and arduous task. It is still very much work in progress,” he said touching upon a sensitive issue.
“How to restore, indeed enhance flows between distinct regions is today of the utmost priority. For a nation like India, this means a land connect to South East Asia. And a multi-modal one to the Gulf and beyond. Central Asia offers its own distinct challenges due to obstacles in between. Collectively, the more we work on facilitating smooth and effective connectivity, the better off we all are. And obviously, we need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity while doing so,” he said again in an oblique reference to Pakistan and China building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) across areas claimed by India.
On ASEAN he said: “ From India’s perspective, efficient and effective connectivity to ASEAN in particular will be a game-changer. We accord this the utmost priority.”
On maritime security, he said: “The era where maritime spaces would be secured by others is now behind us. With each passing day, this is increasingly our shared responsibility. We must discharge that, sharply aware that global good should not be sacrificed at the altar of any national dominance. To do so, we must put in place the bilateral, plurilateral and regional tools and mechanisms to achieve our ends.”
“It would mean exchanging information on white shipping, cooperating on coastal surveillance or collaborating on maritime domain awareness. Diplomacy cannot rest content merely by articulating positions; it equally needs practical action to back it up.”
Climate Action and Counter-terrorism
On climate action and counter-terrorism Jaishankar said: “The universality of these concerns is by now well recognized. It is essential that our conversations aim to encourage common positions. We must also be conscious of the threats to the social fabric posed by extremism and fundamentalism taking advantage of democratic openness. The costs of not doing so are also starkly apparent to all of us today.”
The Region’s Duty
The nations of the Indian Ocean had led the rise of Asia and the re-emergence of Africa. Therefore, they have the responsibility of shaping the narrative, shaping it about values, practices and correctness, Jaishankar said.
“It is essential that their culture, history, and traditions are presented to the world. If we are to compare the relative weight of littorals, that of the Indian Ocean still has to play catch-up. Our challenge, indeed our responsibility, is to hasten that process,” he said.
EU-Indo-Pacific Ministerial Meet
Speaking on May 13 at the EU-Indo-Pacific Ministerial meeting in Stockholm, Jaishankar made six points for the meeting’s consideration: One: “Globalization is the overwhelming reality of our times. However, far apart, regions and nations cannot be impervious to significant events elsewhere. Nor can we cherry-pick them to our convenience. The European Union has major stakes in Indo-Pacific developments, especially as they pertain to technology, connectivity, trade, and finance. It has to, in respect for, and observance of UNCLOS. Agnosticism on such matters is therefore no longer an option.” The reference to UNCLOS is interesting as China violates and the US has not ratified it.”
Two:“Established thinking – whether on politics, economics or governance – is being tested by the outcomes of the last two decades. How to respond to non-market economics is proving to be a more formidable challenge than most of us expected. The compulsions of the immediate are often in contradiction with the concerns of the medium-term. Therefore, conventional templates must give way to new thinking better suited to emerging realities.”
Three: “Indo-Pacific itself is increasingly central to the direction of global politics. Among the issues that it throws up, are the problems inherent in the established model of globalization. Recent events have highlighted the problems with economic concentration, as also the need for diversification. De-risking the global economy now involves both, more reliable and resilient supply chains, as well as promoting trust and transparency in the digital domain. EU and indeed the world is better off with additional drivers of production and growth.”
Four: “Leveraging of market shares, production capacities and resources is an issue that can no longer be overlooked. Nor can connectivity and project financing any longer be taken at face value. A strategically more aware Europe should not limit its consciousness geographically. The Indo-Pacific is a complex and differentiated landscape that is best understood through more intensive engagement. A generous and strategic approach that caters to economic asymmetries will surely enhance EU’s appeal. The more European Union and Indo-Pacific deal with each other, the stronger will be their respective appreciation of multi-polarity. And remember, a multipolar world, which the EU prefers, is feasible only by a multipolar Asia.”
Five: “In such an engagement with the Indo-Pacific, the EU will naturally seek like-minded partners. India is certainly among them. There may be historical and cultural divergences but at the end of the day, we are political democracies, market economies and pluralistic societies. Transformations underway in India, like digital public delivery or green growth initiatives, certainly merit EU’s attention. India is also rapidly expanding its global footprint and will intersect with that of the EU more in the coming years.”
Six: “Any evaluation of the Indo-Pacific will naturally factor in the Quad as a platform for global good. The agenda and the impact of the Quad have steadily expanded. I would also highlight the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Maritime Domain Awareness initiatives as having potential significance. From an Indian perspective, let me also flag the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) that we proposed in 2019. The EU will be comfortable with its objectives and may consider partnering in one of its pillars.”
Regular and Candid Dialogue
“Keeping all this in mind, Indo-Pacific and India specifically, and the European Union, need a regular, comprehensive and candid dialogue, not just limited to the crisis of the day. Few Indian governments have invested as much energy and effort in engaging the European Union and its member states, as the current one. I myself am headed hereafter to Brussels for the first meeting of our Trade and Technology Council.”