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India calls for tighter security in Indian Ocean

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-08-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: India on Thursday called for the development of a security architecture in the Indian Ocean region that strengthened cooperation among all littoral states.

In a speech at the second Indian Ocean Conference in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said that countries in the Indian Ocean region bore the primary responsibility for maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the area.

Underlining the importance of the Indian Ocean in global commerce, Swaraj noted that its sea lanes were one of the busiest and most critical maritime transportation links in the world, with almost 100,000 ships passing through annually, carrying about half the world’s container shipments, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of its oil shipments.

“The fact that three-quarters of this traffic is headed for destinations beyond the region underlines the fact that the Indian Ocean is of vital importance, well beyond the shores of the littoral states,” she said.

With a coastline of 7,500kms and an exclusive economic zone of 2.4 million square kilometres, 90% of India’s trade by volume and almost all of its oil imports coming through the sea route, “it is but natural that India’s role as the key pivot in the Indian Ocean region is a given,” she said.

“As we envisage the Indian Ocean as an engine for growth and prosperity in our region and beyond, it is of utmost importance that these waters remain safe and secure. We consider it an imperative that those who live in this region bear the primary responsibility for the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indian Ocean,” she said.

“We realize that to effectively combat transnational security challenges across the Indian Ocean, including those posed by non-state actors, it is important to develop a security architecture that strengthens the culture of cooperation and collective action,” Swaraj said.

Swaraj’s comments come against the backdrop of the Chinese navy increasingly making inroads into the Indian Ocean region—seen as India’s exclusive sphere of influence for decades. A recent Chinese naval white paper underlined the growing importance of the Indian Ocean for communication. Besides setting up its first naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in July, China has built ports in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota district and Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. News reports have spoken of Chinese submarines and ships of the coasts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In a bid to counter the Chinese moves, Indian naval ships have increased their port calls to countries in the Indian Ocean littoral—like Oman and South Africa. Last month, Indian Navy chief admiral Sunil Lanba visited Mozambique and Tanzania to shore up links.

In her comments, Swaraj recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had outlined India’s vision for the shared prosperity of the Indian Ocean region during his visit to the Indian Ocean state of Mauritius in March 2015 through the concept of SAGAR—i.e. “Security and Growth for All in the Region.”

India’s vision included enhancing capacities to safeguard land and maritime territories and interests; deepening economic and security cooperation in the littoral; promoting collective action to deal with natural disasters and maritime threats like piracy, terrorism and emergent non-state actors, engaging with countries with the aim of building greater trust and promoting respect for maritime rules, norms and peaceful resolution of disputes, she said.

A key strand of India’s Indian Ocean strategy included extending port connectivity among the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and beyond, Swaraj said.

“We continue to work on a range of projects to improve maritime logistics in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. Our other initiatives include the Kaladan transport project leading to Sittwe port in Myanmar; the Trilateral Highway to Thailand; and, the Chabahar port project in Iran,” she added.

Analyst C. Uday Bhaskar with the Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies think tank welcomed Swaraj’s comments on the Indian Ocean region. “This is welcome if we had a sense of what the ministry of defence thinks on the subject,” he said.

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