By Sugeeswara Senadhira/Daily News
Colombo, November 12: Considering that half of the world’s container ships, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments traverse through the Indian Ocean, the importance of peace and security of the ocean cannot be overestimated. Furthermore, maritime transport and logistics are a major component of the Blue Economy, which is the future hope for the economies hit by the pandemic and recession.
Sri Lanka’s ardent wish as an island strategically located at the centre of the Indian Ocean is peace in the ocean in which the country is an important hub that connects the East and the West. Sri Lanka has no desire to get caught in a power game between the global and regional powers for supremacy or to choose between power blocs. Today, Sri Lanka has an outstanding port infrastructure that can facilitate transhipment and provide world-class services even for the largest container ships. It can contribute greatly towards maintaining maritime security in this region, helping protect vital sea lines of communication on behalf of all nations.
All littoral nations of the Indian Ocean hold deliberations from time to time on ocean security issues in different forums.Earlier this week, peace and security issues were discussed at the Goa Maritime Conclave (GMC)-2021 held in Goa in Western India. Navy Chiefs and Heads of Maritime Forces from 12 Indian Ocean littorals, including Bangladesh, Comoros, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand took part in the two-day Conclave.
Interestingly, all the nations represented at the Conclave are members of either the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) or of Bay of Bengal Initiative on Multi Sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Hence, the participating countries displayed their strong focus on maritime security at the Goa Conclave as they have been emphatic at other forums.
Addressing the Conclave on Monday, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne pointed out that it is commonly accepted that a single country cannot ensure the freedom of the seas and emphasized the need for a collective effort.
“Emerging unorthodox, unprecedented threats from the sea demand sharing intelligence among nations. The Navy’s role in active engagement in the maritime operations in collaboration with other interested nations without antagonizing their national interests is a huge challenge ahead of us,” he said and added, “Therefore, we should be determined to maintain progressive and positive relations with all the concerned stakeholders in maritime operations linear with our own national interests.”
The Indian Government initiated the Goa Maritime Conclave with the stated objective of bringing together regional stakeholders and discussing joint implementation strategies in addressing contemporary maritime security concerns, with the IOR being a focal point of the 21st Century strategic landscape.
Initiating the dialogue, Vice Admiral AK Chawla, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Indian Southern Naval Command, highlighted the importance of the maritime domain and the Indian Navy’s commitment towards ensuring safety, security, and inclusive growth in the IOR.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said that countries of the Indian Ocean Region inhabit a particular contemporary geopolitical and geo-economic reality. “We are a part of the greater Indo-Pacific space. This is a construct that has, for very good reason, attracted much diplomatic and strategic attention. It is at the centre of a defining strategic event of our time – an ongoing rebalancing.”
The Indian Foreign Secretary also said that domain awareness is central to any preventive security strategy. “The joint coastal radar surveillance systems that India has worked on with Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles; the India-Bangladesh MoU on coastal radars; information fusion centres and multilateral maritime coordination centres in India, in Abu Dhabi, Seychelles and in Madagascar; and, White Shipping Information Exchange agreements, have, we can agree, improve not just domain awareness, but also the security situation,” Shringla said.
Global Economic Centre
The rapid growth of Asia’s share in global output, the business prowess of Asian companies and the growing Asian technological abilities are driving the global economic centre of gravity to the East. Changes of this nature are bound to have geopolitical and geo-economic consequences and generate a power transition. The transition is manifest in the waning of the unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War and in the emergence of a multipolar world.
Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne said the Indian Ocean figures prominently not only in the lives of people in the littorals, but also of the people of distant lands. This recognition has been accompanied by growing militarization throughout the area, which has included a naval build-up both by littoral states and the great powers of the world.
The Navy Commander lamented that outsiders often forget that the Indian Ocean, far from dividing lands, has been one of the strongest unifying factors in history. “For centuries, it is the waters of this ocean which have carried religions, cultures, languages, traditions, and people, across thousands of miles from one shore to another.”
Today, the main activities in Indian Ocean Region can be characterized by extensive trade, energy exchanges and a spectrum that ranges from political turmoil at one end, to threats from piracy, terrorism and transnational crime on the other. Transnational Organised Crimes (TOC) such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, weapons smuggling, financial fraud, illegal immigration and piracy are the major threats common to the key and the peripheral States in IOR.
In addition, other non-traditional security issues such as natural disasters, Climate Change and maritime pollution cannot be ruled out. Recent incidents of fire onboard MV New Diamond and MV X-Press Pearl in Sri Lankan waters certainly opened the forum to think differently on these issues.
Vice Admiral Ulugetenne said maritime security must address a broad spectrum of concerns and situations, not only with respect to these traditional friction points, but the many natural and human threats that we face today.
“We all have a greater obligation to prevent criminal activities, piracy, arms smuggling, and other illegal activities in our waters and beyond it,” he told fellow maritime and Navy Chiefs of the Indian Ocean nations. Emerging unorthodox and unprecedented threats from the sea demands the need for sharing intelligence among the nations. We should determine to maintain progressive, positive relations with all the concerned stakeholders in maritime operations linear with our own national interests.”
The Indian Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar said that maritime security and economic prosperity are inter-related and inter-dependent from time immemorial. He also highlighted India’s engagement and continued efforts towards reaching out to the nations in the region bilaterally and under the framework of IONS, IORA, BIMSTEC, Colombo Security Conclave and other structures.
The Defence Secretary emphasised that India will work with all willing nations for peace in the region. Standing for a rules-bound world, he said that India will continue to oppose attempts of aggression and to deter them on land and the sea.
“The Maritime domain is so vast and challenges are so diverse that going alone is not an option for practically any country. We welcome all nations which respect rules and shun aggression, to collaborate in our region,” he said.
In the sidelines of Goa Conclave, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh held bilateral discussions with the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne. They discussed modalities for further enhancing mutual support and interoperability and maritime cooperation on information sharing.
Vice Admiral Ulugetenne said in his concluding remarks that the seas do not just make us all neighbours, they also provide unlimited opportunities for us to work together in a common cause; certainly in good times, but even more so when our neighbours need help. We must develop capabilities and linkages to work with partners from within and outside the region for the common good of our people”.