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Keynote Speech by External Affairs Minister at Indian Ocean Conference in Maldives (September 03, 2019)

September 03, 2019

Your Excellency, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid,
Ladies & gentlemen,

It’s a great privilege to deliver a key note address at the fourth Indian Ocean Conference.

Before I begin my remarks I would like to express my deep gratitude for the many words of condolence that we heard today about my predecessor Smt. Sushma Swaraj.

I think all of us in the Foreign Ministry miss her perhaps more than anybody else and I have colleagues here who have worked with her as closely I did. And in fact my first visit to Maldives was with her four years ago. She is very much in our thoughts today.

Speaking to you all I asked myself what could I say which might take forward the many conversations that we have had at this conference in the three earlier editions.

And I felt that perhaps what might be useful today is to explore the connection between India’s interest and thinking about the Indian Ocean and India’s thoughts about the Indo-Pacific because that is increasingly a concept which has seized international attention.

I have just come back from a trip to Europe and every one of my European stops, in fact, the subject came up for discussions as well. So I couldn’t think of a better audience to share some of my ideas and I’d be delighted to hear back from you in that regard.

As the world changes it naturally throws up new concepts and terminology and Indo-Pacific is among the more recent additions to the global strategic lexicon, or so we think. Because President Donald Trump spoke of it at the 2017 APEC Summit and the Pacific Command was renamed as the Indo-Pacific one. Americans are convinced that they invented to it. Not just that actually a lot of other countries are also convinced that the Americans invented it.

The Japanese however believe that the credit really should go to them after all Prime Minister Abe had spoken at the Indian Parliament of the Confluence of Two Oceans more than a decade ago.

Indians, of course, are not to be left behind in any argument and they have underlined that the Indo-Pacific have been tossed around in the naval thinking even earlier than that.

Australians too rank among the list of claimants but it took a purist like Dr. Rajamohan who is sitting somewhere out there who informed me that it was actually a German strategist in 1942 who first used that term in a publication.

And if you think about it actually the Royal Navy practiced it for decades without necessarily articulating the term. So today some powers aspire, others ponder, some prepare, some plan but even as they do there are actions which are beginning to unfold.

And in looking at the maritime landscape we would do well to recall a remark by India’s national poet, Rabindranath Tagore that you cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.

Now, the fact is that the waters are changing as we speak and the Indo-Pacific is not tomorrow’s forecast but actually yesterday’s reality.

The Indo-Pacific naturally means different things to different powers but it is undeniably a priority for all of them. For India it is the logical next step after the Act East and a break out from the confines of South Asia.

For Japan the movement into the Indian Ocean is key to its strategic normalization. For the United States a unified theater addresses burden sharing requirements, so central to its new posture. And the stakes are high for China as well because its naval capabilities are indeed a prerequisite to its emergence as a global power.

ASEAN is the latest to make its move in this regard and it has tabled an approach on the Indo-Pacific as well. So what we can no longer doubt is that this is unquestionably the era or the contemporary version of the great game where multiple players with diverse ambitions will display their strategic skills.

Now the Indo-Pacific may be a fashion as a strategic concept right now but the fact is that it has been an economic and cultural reality for centuries. After all Indians and Arabs have left their imprints all the way up to the Eastern coast of China just as the people of South East Asia did on Africa.

In fact this reality is not remote at all and the seamlessness of waters only sharpened the appetite of the western powers who entered it.

The British Empire operated its own version of Indo-Pacific even if it was not free or open. Its visualization of both resources and interest was across an integrated zone explaining many of the events of the 19th and 20thCentury.

Other powers in turn followed the approach of the dominant one. If Indian troops fought in the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 then Japanese marines too intervened in Singapore in 1915. And not least it was the enormous logistical effort from India by the Anglo-American Alliance that sustained China in its war against Japan after 1942.

The earlier era of Indo-Pacific lasted perhaps till 1945 and was reflected in the deployment of British and American troops across the region. What separated the two theaters thereafter was the global super-cession of the United Kingdom by the United States.

That shifted the center of gravity to the Pacific. Strengthened thereafter by the revolution in China and the war in Korea. As for the UK, India’s independence and its own falling back to the Gulf focused its interest westwards. The result was that a continuum gave way to a narrower domains that were solidified by military thinking.

The Indo-Pacific is as much our past as it is our future. Whether it is strategically viable depends on the politics of the day as it did before. Understandably its nuances would be debated as it evokes more interest.

For our purposes what is important to recognize is that just as the dominance of the United States undid the Indo-Pacific after 1945 its repositioning today could help reinvent it not just by itself but because there are other autonomous processes moving in the same direction.

They include the ambitions of the China, the interest of India, the re-emergence of a Japan, the confidence of an Australia and the awareness of an ASEAN amongst others. Like politics strategic concepts respond to times and the moment of Indo-Pacific could have arrived.

Because each major power has its own perspective of the Indo-Pacific it is important to enhance strategic clarity and not be confused by the narratives of others.

For India this is a mix of going down the pathway of its own steady rise while also responding to the compulsions arising from the posture of others. Reconciling the two is not really a challenge except in terms of more nimble tactics and accelerated timelines.

To begin with Indo-Pacific must be perceived as the further extrapolation of the Act East – Look East policy. The transition from the one to the other was itself indicative of India’s deepening security stakes in the East.

It is also an affirmation that India would no longer be limited in the pursuit of its interest to its immediate neighborhood. That is gradually being reflected in the forging of security relationships in the Pacific that parallel growing economic engagement.

Conceptually, the East Asia Summit already takes India beyond the Indian Ocean into the Indo-Pacific. We participate in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral military exercise, nowadays, in the Pacific Ocean.

In that sense the growing acceptance of the strategic terms is more an explanation of what is already happening on the ground and in the waters. Given the steady externalization of its economy and the shift in focus towards the East, India cannot remain unaffected by developments impinge on the freedom of navigation or of overflight.

A conceptual justification therefore centers around the expanding interest of India. It is buttressed by its self-perception by a rule abiding power that contributes positively to global commons. Given that its core interests are in Indian Ocean a presence beyond also contributes to ensuring a peaceful periphery. And since maritime activity has such a profound impact on overall equation India’s participation goes someway in contributing to a stable balance of power in Asia.

Much of this advocacy would focus on the expansion of its interest. The fact remains that where India can really make a difference is in the Indian Ocean itself. That is not just a natural arena for its influence and of overriding security consequence.

By demonstrating stronger capabilities and contributions there India’s value to other global players is greatly enhanced. It also makes them more enthusiastic about welcoming us further east. In that sense for India getting its Indo-Pacific approach right rests on ensuring that it gets its Indian Ocean strategy even more correctly.

Now, after years of watching a visibly changing reality India has come to terms with the fact that there are now truly dynamic forces at work in the oceans immediately below. That acceptance drove the fashioning of the first integrated maritime outlook in 2015 appropriately title – SAGAR –which is Indian word for ocean and which is also an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region.

Premised on the belief that advancing cooperation and using our capabilities for the larger benefit would help India. This has four key elements. The first is the safeguard our mainland and islands, defend our interests, ensure safe, secure and stable Indian Ocean and make available our capability to others.

The second focus is on deepening economic and security cooperation with our maritime neighbors and strengthening their capacities.

The third envisages collective action and cooperation to advance peace and security and respond to emergencies and the fourth seeks some more integrated and cooperative future for the region that enhances sustainable development.

Today, SAGAR drives a more active and outcome oriented Indian approach that enhances this influence by delivering on partnerships.

It is translated into hinterland linkages and strengthening regionalism, maritime contributions and support, creating a sense of extended neighborhood both to the east and to the west and assuming responsibilities as a net security provider with an integrated approach.

Each of these aspects is by now sufficiently advanced to be appreciated by those who have an interest in this region’s future. Its impact is visible in more projects, initiatives, activities continuously building on this foundation would require a whole of the government approach.

It also positions India to explore international initiatives like the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

A comprehensive maritime strategy naturally has a spectrum of priorities and these, in India’s case, are best depicted in terms of concentric circles.

The core is constituted by combination of maritime infrastructure of the homeland, development of island assets, connectivity to immediate neighbors with littoral implications and capabilities that can be brought to bear on a daily basis.

While India has stepped up its contacts, cooperation and connectivity as parts of its Neighborhood First policy. What is of particular relevance are those initiatives which have an oceanic impact.

The next circle includes the maritime space beyond India’s waters and its immediate island neighbors like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles.

On land the restoration of connectivity to the extended neighborhood to the east and west are next in importance. They both have direct implications for the ability of India to safeguard waters on a larger scale while ensuring the economic consolidation of the hinterland.

Then comes the real challenge, the revival of the Indian Ocean as a community that builds on its cultural and historical foundations. Efforts have been underway in this direction for some years now but without a strong strategic imperative expanding the agenda and giving existing mechanisms a stronger sense of purpose appears to be the next step.

It is only by shaping cooperation across the Indian Ocean that India can hope to significantly influence events beyond it. How to make ocean a more seamless and cooperative space is not only a larger regional objective but one that would enhance the centrality of India.

These challenges even if differing in nature and importance need to be addressed in parallel as they are self-supporting.

The outermost circle takes India into the pacific engaging convergent interests to ensure core security while promoting stable periphery. Developing the policy exchanges, capability exercises and cooperation mechanisms in that regard is work under progress. It is interplay of these circles that will determine not only India’s maritime future but its larger strategic posture as well.

India is a nation with 7500 km coastline, 1200 islands and EEZ of 2.4 million square kms. Its maritime reliance on trade and energy is near total yet it is only now awakening to the opportunities of its locations and the consequences of its globalization.

It has happened earlier in our history that external stimulus has triggered a stronger commitment to respond to challenges. The lessons on land frontier are beginning to be learned in sea space albeit at a slower pace.

In the final analysis, a nation is best served by the creation of its capabilities without excessively debating the politics of its requirement. Even otherwise the needs of a rapidly growing economy have led to strong demands for more port led development.

The Sagarmala initiative and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor are examples. A development whose implications are still not apparent is the revival of ports on India’s seaboard that were extinguished during the colonial period. But to take full advantage of its location it is vital that connectivity to maritime facilities expand beyond India’s borders.

Bangladesh and Myanmar, both hold considerable potential in this regard. The undertaking of connectivity and infrastructure projects by offering lines of credit is already underway. There is scope for expanding linkages across the Bay of Bengal, both in partnership with Myanmar as well as with Bangladesh.

With Bangladesh the modernization of the pre 1965 rail and road connections, creation of new inland waterways and the establishment of transit arrangements open up new possibilities. In effect Bangladesh can serve today as India’s entry point to the east and is very much in our interest that it expands its port capabilities.

Both relationships are well served by the growth of the connectivity network in India’s North East and Act East Forum established in partnership with Japan in that regard.

It is also within India’s ability to channelize regional demands and serve as a larger exchange of goods and services. To some extent that has already started to happen in power and energy and encouraging neighbors to use its ports fits into that script. But India is sensitive to local ownership and commercial viabilities are also factors that work in its favor.

In its own territory there are plenty of other options that India can explore to strengthen its maritime influence. The development of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands would surely rank foremost and we should be asking ourselves how other nations would have utilized such a well located asset.

Whether it is Act East, SAGAR, Neighborhood First or Indo-Pacific strategy begins at home and it is really progress there that would be test of seriousness. Strengthening a sense extended neighborhood is part of India’s reclaiming of history. Its cultural basis is so visible that it needs little affirmation whether it is South East Asia, the Gulf or Central Asia.

Even its economic basis is now strengthening gradually as trade, investment and mobility make their impact. What it really lacks is the connectivity underpinning that was disrupted seven decades ago.

We know that historically the Indian Ocean was a highway linking great multitudes across vast geographies. As our connectivity vision and capabilities expand this critical role can be played once again.

For the Indian Ocean to attain its true potential it is imperative that India which is its center of gravity should be a facilitator rather than an obstruction. That requires smoother movement of goods and people within India but also to its immediate neighborhood and beyond.

Not coincidentally stronger connectivity is at the heart of our many foreign policy initiatives. This is reflected in our growing commitment to transnational highway construction, multi-modal transport initiatives, railway modernization, inland waterways, coast shipping and port development.

In fact better logistics have become the dominant theme of India’s neighborhood outreach. Experience towards the west is less positive for reasons that you all know but nevertheless the understanding on the Chabahar Port Project with Iran and sea access it can provide for Afghanistan represent important openings.

Iran’s considerable potential as a transit corridor even to Eurasia and Europe is certainly worth exploring. So too are the larger international north south transport corridor that can facilitate transportation to Russia and Europe as well as the Ashkhabad agreement that connects the Indian Ocean to Central Asia.

With greater attention paid to infrastructure at homeland and investments in the immediate littoral, an Indian Ocean strategy would naturally focus on the maritime near-abroad. As is common in such cases there are both pluses and minuses that emerge from shared history and sociology.

Relationship building with maritime neighbors has only recently got the attention that it deserves. This is expressed in terms of sharper political visibility, higher process attention and more project investments. That has been the case with Sri Lanka and Maldives as much as with Mauritius and Seychelles.

An integrated view has to be built up covering trade, tourism, infrastructure, environment, blue economy and security.

India has been partnering these countries in capability building by providing radars, coastal surveillance equipment, vessels and aircraft and by establishing a viable maritime infrastructure.

The cooperation agenda today covers white shipping, blue economy, disaster response and anti-piracy and counter-terrorism as well as hydrography.

The criticality of this maritime near abroad to India’s security interests cannot be overstated. After all this is the core from which India could help build a larger pan Indian Ocean architecture.

But it is equally important that this proximate zone remains sensitive to India’s security interest. So how should India evolve its Indo-Pacific approach? Being the outermost concentric circle it must not be approached as an alternative to the Indian Ocean.

Efforts to intensively develop an Indian Ocean community hence must go hand in hand with the compulsion to respond to happenings beyond its borders. If anything that would only add to the security and stability of the Indian Ocean itself.

At one level, India must take a contributing approach that partners others to build their capacity and secure their interests. At another it must be consultative in its engagement whether bilateral or regional or even in the respect of the maritime commons.

The willingness to shoulder greater responsibilities including through HADR operation must continue. After all it is a maritime variant of our proud tradition of UN Peacekeeping.

Equally important is the message of respect for international law and norms where India’s behavior speaks louder than any one. But the key change would be handling of extra-regional powers and establishing new equations with intra-regional ones. That takes place against an emerging architecture which gradually replaces an old construct, now increasingly irrelevant.

It would focus on getting working understandings in place with multiple partners so that a more diverse balance emerges gradually. Comfort levels that emanate from shared values and similar thinking will obviously have some role.

It is especially important to reassure ASEAN about its place in the Indo-Pacific as that grouping has driven all serious regional discussions in the past.

Both literally and conceptually this is an opportunity to enhance its centrality. The future of the Indo-Pacific lies in the complex range of forces that create balances from time to time as well so many other facets of international relations today, this too could be a bumpy ride.

For India it will be an important element for its quest for a stable equilibrium in Asia and a more beneficial partnership for the west. The sea may have determined global politics two centuries ago and then receded in its salience. Perhaps we may have overstated its diminution as a factor in transforming global affairs especially when new powers arrive on the stage.

There are strategies at work some more obvious, others less so. The point of agreement is the criticality of the theater that is the outcome of a fusion of its many predecessors.

It is natural that a new discourse accompanies the changes in global order. Western terminology has not been on the table. China has advocated a new type of great power relations and a community of shared future of human kind.

India’s vision is consultative, democratic and equitable but must find clearer expressions through its own narratives and concepts. The world will surely absorb changes in terminology just as it has come to terms with power shifts and their implications and as part of that the debate on the Indo-Pacific and its relationship with Indian Ocean will go on.

So as they say, keep calm and carry on, there is much more to come.

Thank you very much.
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