It is probably not incorrect to say that the Indian Ocean is the most important ocean in the world, judging by its trade, geopolitical and military significance.
As the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI) notes in a 2018 paper, “the Indian Ocean is home to major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas which facilitate maritime trade in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), carry more than half of the world’s sea-borne oil, and host 23 of the world’s top 100 container ports including Colombo.
The Indian Ocean is a vast expanse, stretching from the Strait of Malacca and western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West. It encompasses the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the North, all the way down to the southern Indian Ocean. Along the coasts of this huge geographic expanse are countries that are home to 2.8 billion people. The Indian Ocean’s key sub-regions are South Asia, the Middle East, the eastern coast of Africa, and the islands dotting the ocean from Sri Lanka in the East to the Comoros Archipelago in the West. The region’s size and diversity explains its geoeconomic and geopolitical importance. From resource-rich Africa and the energy-dense Middle East to South Asia’s labour markets and manufacturing industries, the stability of the Indian Ocean is crucial to the global economy.
Sri Lanka has always been a hotspot in the Indian Ocean, thanks to its location at the heart of the East-West shipping lanes. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka has played a very significant role in IOR affairs since its Independence in 1948. And now, with the impending Chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), Sri Lanka is poised to play an even bigger role in IOR affairs.
The IORA is a dynamic inter-Governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the IOR through its 23 Member States and 11 Dialogue Partners. It includes countries that are politically and socially diverse, such as Australia, Indonesia, Iran, and South Africa. Based on a concept of the late South African President Nelson Mandela and formally established in 1997, the Mauritius headquartered bloc is firmly committed to strengthening the diplomatic, economic, trade and cultural ties that bind Member States whose shores are washed by the Indian Ocean’s waters. Interestingly, France, which is nowhere near the Indian Ocean, is a member of the IORA through its overseas territories such as Reunion in the IOR.
Today, there is a tendency to extend the IOR’s sphere of influence to the Pacific as well, due to their interdependence. This massive region is called the Indo-Pacific. There are growing calls for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific. In fact, individual countries have evolved their own vision for the IOR, as embodied by India’s SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region), a maritime initiative that seeks peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC), India’s main rival in the region is promoting its Global Development Initiatives (GDI) under which ports and infrastructure facilities are developed in IOR countries. India, US and many other countries are keeping an eye on the PRC’s ambitions and projects in the IOR.
Certain military and geopolitical developments in the IOR are somewhat worrying for island States such as Sri Lanka and Maldives. The QUAD military and political alliance (US, Australia, Japan and India) as well as AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) military alliance have flexed their muscles in the IOR, possibly to deter any expansionist plans of the PRC. The PRC, on the other hand, firmly denies any such plans and says it only has peaceful intentions.
Sri Lanka must make use of its IORA Chairmanship to ensure that the IOR remains free of conflict and military rivalry. In short, the IOR should be a Zone of Peace, as Sri Lanka has advocated all along. Instead of engaging in military adventurism and expansionism, there are many other ventures that can be pursued for the benefit of all IORA Members. For example, IORA countries should collaborate more on tsunami and earthquake research, having suffered the brunt of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. There are also reports that the tsunami early warning system in the IOR is now mostly defective. The IORA should pay attention to this issue.
We know less about the ocean than we know about the far side of the Moon. This is indeed why IORA countries should undertake maritime scientific research collaboratively to discover more about life in the depths of the Indian Ocean. They should also intensify research on Climate Change, given that many IORA Members are Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that can even disappear if the oceans rise by one or two metres.
IORA countries should also make people-to-people contact easier by relaxing visa regimes and promoting an ‘Indian Ocean Identity’. After all, the peoples’ of IORA countries share a common ocean and by extension, a common destiny.