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Washington Doesn’t Want the Indian Ocean Region to Flare Up into Crisis – Experts

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The Indian Ocean has emerged as a critical theatre for great power rivalry in global politics. Sri Lanka, situated at the crossroads of major sea lanes, has attracted the attention of regional as well as extra-regional powers, offering challenges as well as opportunities. South Asia, as a sub-region of the Indian Ocean region, is also most vulnerable to climate change, causing a significant decline in the per capita income of the affected countries.

What are the traditional and non-traditional security threats that confront the Indian Ocean region? What are the ways and means of overcoming these challenges? What are the potential benefits of regional cooperation on climate impact mitigation?

How to ensure ocean security by way of creating a rule-based, free and open Indian Ocean? How to strengthen research on Ocean security in the IOR? To address these and a host of other vital issues, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C. and the US Embassy in Colombo, organized a conference on “Ocean Security: South Asia and the Indian Ocean” on October 16, 2023.

Sri Lanka’s Role in Shaping the Indo-Pacific Region

In her welcome speech, the Executive Director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) Professor Nayani Melegoda said: “RCSS is a regional think-tank located in Colombo. It serves as a leading network and research hub for strategic and security discourse in South Asia.

The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie J. Chung graced the occasion as the Chief Guest. She said: “What a week to hold this conference, on the heels of the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers and the Galle Dialogue International Maritime Conference hosted by Sri Lanka. At IORA, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry spoke about promoting peace, unity & stability with an unwavering faith in multilateralism and diplomacy. At the Galle Dialogue, President Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke about how to define the Indo-Pacific in a new emerging world order and how it fits into either an economic or security construct.

No matter how we define it, as President Biden has said, the Indo-Pacific is a vast region with endless potential. And we all know that Sri Lanka can play a pivotal role in helping to shape the direction and development of areas such as maritime security, transnational trade, and regional connectivity, just to name a few. In addition, Sri Lanka prides itself in being a non-aligned, neutral country which can host and convene multilateral engagements involving any or all South Asian countries and even connect to Southeast and Northeast Asia as well. Having spent the majority of my career in Southeast and Northeast Asia, it was only when I came to Sri Lanka that I realized what many already know – that Sri Lanka punches above its weight; it sometimes just doesn’t know it.

That means getting out of crisis mode and making sustainable and inclusive reforms. That means not just reacting to initiatives or policies, but also Sri Lanka having the confidence and ambition to untap its own potential to actively offer something valuable to the countries in the region – its experience, innovative thinking, its human resource capacity.”

She added: “Regional strategies and multilateral platforms provide countries with shared values and goals the chance to unite their voices, creating a powerful collective influence across the wider Indo-Pacific region. Some great nearby examples include BIMSTEC, SAARC, ASEAN, and IORA—of which Sri Lanka recently assumed the chairmanship. These collaborative initiatives inspire us to celebrate the diversity of the region and demonstrate that geopolitics does not have to be a zero-sum game. This doesn’t mean one should try to please every country in every foreign policy decision. It does mean taking ownership of your sovereignty and making clear-eyed decisions.”

Strategic and Economic Significance of the Indian Ocean Region

Speaking of the bilateral relations between the US and Sri Lanka, Ambassador Chung noted: “I want you to know that the United States recognizes and respects Sri Lanka’s aspirations and objectives. We recognize Sri Lanka as an equal on the world stage, making decisions aligned with its values and the needs and interests of its people. Indeed, those principles help to guide our bilateral relationship during this 75th anniversary of bilateral relations.

Let’s look at some concrete examples of our support for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and independence. In August I had the honour of opening the Indo-Pacific Environmental Security Forum, a collaborative effort by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Sri Lankan Navy – the first time we have jointly co-hosted. Over 100 participants from 28 countries gathered in Colombo to discuss critical topics such as Climate Change and Security; Land Security and Impacts to National Resilience; Maritime and Water Security; Security Impacts of Urbanization; and Women, Peace, and Security. The climate crisis affects us all, but its impact is particularly severe on island nations like Sri Lanka.

Events like these foster responsible stewardship of the Indo-Pacific region by sharing best practices, encouraging sustainable military operations, and addressing environmental security challenges collaboratively.”

The Keynote address of the conference was delivered by Nilanthi Samaranayake, Visiting Expert, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and Adjunct Fellow, East-West Center in Washington. Explaining the strategic and economic importance of the Indian Ocean, she said: “The Indian Ocean is a diverse region with waters that touch multiple continents and sub-regions. At its broadest definition, the Indian Ocean accounts for 33 countries and about 35% of the world’s population of 2.9 billion people. Here in Sri Lanka, 60,000-plus ships annually pass by the southern tip of the island which sits along the main east-west sea lanes. For the region, this means that half of the world’s container shipments transit the Indian Ocean. And one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic.

It’s also estimated that eighty per cent of the world’s maritime oil shipments transit the Indian Ocean. Economics is clearly where the Indian Ocean derives its greatest significance. And this is not only the case for regional stakeholders but also for global trade. It’s estimated that 75% of Indian Ocean trade is extra-regional.”

“There’s also been a significant degree of national and human development in the Indian Ocean that’s not often acknowledged. Fifty years ago, Indian Ocean states except for Australia were considered largely underdeveloped. Today, a review of members in the Indian Ocean Rim Association—of which Sri Lanka has just become Chair—shows most are categorized by the World Bank as middle-income economies. The majority of this group are lower-middle-income countries that are trying to meet their national development goals while facing challenges as they grow. This includes the loss of concessional assistance from multilateral development banks. Some officials have called this the price of their success. Today, the Indian Ocean region confronts various strategic-level challenges and questions, often about China’s activities and intentions in the future and the implications for other countries, to tactical-level, maritime security challenges that are rooted in the here and now. These have ranged from cyclones and other natural disasters, which climate change has exacerbated, to shipping accidents; trafficking of narcotics, humans, and weapons; and illegal fishing.”

US Strategic Objectives and Ambiguity

Tracing the positions taken by the leaders of South Asian countries to face these challenges, Nilanthi Samaranayake observed that “We can also see in the news, officials from the region who are trying to manage this range of traditional and non-traditional security challenges and develop policy solutions to those challenges. For example, India has been trying to advance the subject of climate security and urge greater commitments through its presidency of the G20 and at COP27 last November through the loss and damage compensation fund for countries affected by climate disasters.

“Sri Lanka’s President Wickremesinghe in August stated: “It is imperative that we chart a course devoid of entanglement in these international rivalries, maintaining an impartial stance. Our foremost concern must be the safeguarding of our security within this sphere.” For its part, Sri Lanka is developing a standard operating procedure which officials can point to for decisions on determining ship visits. It’s for all ships but mainly arose to address recurring questions about visiting Chinese state-owned ships.

Notably, officials in recent years have resurrected language about keeping the Indian Ocean as “a zone of peace”—an idea that Sri Lanka put forth during the Cold War years of the 1960s and 70s. Maldives’ foreign minister in a July speech in New Delhi stated, “We are friends to all and enemies to none. Our partnership is with everyone.” The president-elect also referenced the theme of sovereignty by speaking about, “our pursuit to build a better future for our country, and to ensure the sovereignty of our nation,” and how “we will be choosing to be pro-Maldives. While there are some challenges that are of unique focus in the contemporary era such as marine plastics pollution, the issue of managing major power rivalry is not new.

In fact, the need to manage large powers is something that smaller South Asian countries are quite familiar with historically. And not out of choice or a desire to play off powers, as is often suggested, but out of necessity while trying to meet priority national objectives.”

They’ve needed to navigate regional-level and great-power rivalries throughout their modern histories. While there are limits to historical analogies, some of the issues then resonate now. For example, the Smaller South Asian countries represented strategic locations for military basing and access for large powers in the Indian Ocean in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, it’s not often remembered that Sri Lankan and Maldivian leaders’ decisions about this access directly affected large powers’ calculations about military presence in the region.

This was seen in the UK, the US, to the Soviet Union into the 1970s, and with effects in the present era—most recently seen in Mauritius’ legal battle against the UK over the Chagos Islands. Within these islands is the Diego Garcia base, which has been critical for US military operations. For some, these developments by smaller states in the Indian Ocean may be a forgotten story from the Cold War era. However, these actions reflected strategic decisions and agency by smaller countries that had meaningful implications for large powers’ security strategies. These actions especially take on a new meaning in the contemporary era of strategic competition, even if some of the names have changed. For example, replace concerns about the Soviet Union or the US with China in some of these histories.”

Quest for Stability in the Indian Ocean

Speaking of the US strategy in the Indian Ocean, she said that “there’s no US strategy document that’s been released which articulates Washington’s interest specifically in this region. As you know, the US has developed a national strategy focused on the wider “Indo-Pacific” region since 2017. This regional focus has evolved over the past decade, including in consultation with allies and partners, after years of being focused on the Asia-Pacific as a geographic planning construct. A read of the three highest-level US strategy documents released last year—the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Indo-Pacific Strategy—shows that the Indian Ocean has only one substantive reference in each of the three documents.

In the absence of a clear strategy for this region, US strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean must therefore be inferred.

Based on her research of the region, Nilanthi Samaranayake identified three core objectives that the US has. “The first is ensuring the free flow of commerce in the Indian Ocean. This trade is critical to the global economy for hydrocarbons, containers, and bulk cargo. The US focus on this objective can be seen with the deployment of forces and personnel this summer to US Naval Forces Central Command in the Middle East after Iran’s activity threatened merchant shipping in the Strait of Hormuz area. Despite its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US commitment to the objective of freedom of the seas and secure sea lanes appears constant. I see the second objective as maintaining US military access to the Indian Ocean.

The US is an extra-regional power with no resident territories like France has, for example. Therefore, it seeks military basing and access not only for combat-support purposes as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to aid in the provision of humanitarian assistance and relief after disasters like the 2004 tsunami, and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, and Mozambique. I see the third objective as seeking to keep the Indian Ocean in its current peaceful state and not wanting it to assume greater priority for US strategic interests, given its already increased priorities in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans.

A review of US strategy and policy toward the Indo-Pacific suggests the primacy of US interests in the Pacific segment, given several US states and territories in this region as well as US military presence in the western Pacific. The US also has homeland defence objectives in the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans.

So given the United States’ priorities in these regions and constraints on allocating its resources globally, what does this mean for US security strategy in the Indian Ocean? I think this means Washington needs the Indian Ocean to be stable. It doesn’t want it to flare up into crisis. It supports allies and partners who contribute to regional stability and has placed particular emphasis on India in its approach. And it seeks to preserve its access to the region—not only for itself certainly, but with benefit to others. The Freedom of Navigation program is a visible example of the US policy to maintain freedom of the seas and for ships and aircraft to operate where international law allows.

Stability Enablers

Now for Indian Ocean countries, I think this US objective of seeking stability here aligns with the state and norms of the region, especially when compared with the more turbulent waters of the Pacific. I see three enablers of stability in this region. First, the Indian Ocean is not characterized by rampant territorial disputes. Certainly, there are some current maritime boundary disputes, but not of the fiery kind seen to the east. Second, the shared focus on economics and secure sea lanes has promoted cooperation in the Indian Ocean, as seen in counterpiracy deployments.

This is even between countries whose capitals have high-profile disagreements. Yet operational-level cooperation continues at sea due to converging interests in this region. Third, the Indian Ocean has seen an embrace of international legal venues to resolve maritime boundary disputes. This is particularly the case in the Bay of Bengal, with mechanisms used and respected such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This stands in contrast to the Pacific, such as the Philippines-China legal dispute in 2016. Moreover, Sri Lanka has emphasized its commitment to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as it has developed standard operating procedures for visiting ships. These enablers of stability reflect the unique strengths of the Indian Ocean and should not be forgotten when much attention is given to the wider Indo-Pacific region,” argued Nilanthi Samaranayake

The conference was conducted in a hybrid mode – physically as well as online. There were several goodwill messages sent by well-wishers such as Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, Former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary of IndiaTareq Md Ariful Islam, High Commissioner of Bangladesh to Sri Lanka and President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute Dr. Raza Muhammad, and SAARC Secretariat Director Irosha Cooray. Conference participants also included representatives from diplomatic missions, scholars from academic institutions, Sri Lankan Government officials, and members of the Sri Lankan military. Following the inauguration, there were six technical sessions in which 44 papers were presented.

Source: Daily News

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