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Keynote address by the External Affairs Minister at the 5th Indian Ocean Conference 2021

December 04, 2021

Distinguished dignitaries on the dais, organisers of the conference, dear participants
A very Good Evening to all of you,


I am very pleased to join you today at the opening of the Fifth Indian Ocean Conference. We are meeting after a bit of a gap due to the Covid. And in that period, a number of developments have taken place that have a direct bearing on the well-being of the Indian Ocean region. So it would be best to do a big picture stock-taking perhaps at the beginning of the conference itself.

2. A starting point could be the trend lines that have influenced the evolution of the Indian Ocean in recent years. First and foremost is the changing American strategic posture. Since 2008, we have witnessed a greater caution in US power projection and an effort to correct its over-extension. It may have taken different forms and be articulated in very different ways. But there is a larger consistency over three Administrations that they themselves may not readily recognize. It is expressed in footprint and posture, terms of engagement, extent of involvement and nature of initiatives. Overall, the United States is moving towards greater realism both about itself and the world. It is adjusting to multipolarity and rebalancing and re-examining the balance between its domestic revival and commitments abroad. This makes it a more active partner beyond orthodox constructs. Given how strong its influence is on the Indian Ocean, this cannot but have implications. We must also bear in mind the uniqueness of the US polity and its ability to reinvent itself.

3. The second major trend is the rise of China. Even otherwise, the emergence of a power at a global level is an extraordinary happening. That this is a ‘different’ kind of polity enhances the sense of change. The USSR may have borne some similarities, but it never had the centrality to the global economy that China has today. The consequences of China’s growing capabilities are particularly profound because of the extrapolation of its domestic seamlessness to the world outside. As a result, whether it is connectivity, technology or trade, there is now an ongoing debate on thechanged nature of power and influence. Separately, we have also seen a sharpening of tensions on territorial issues across the breadth of Asia. Agreements and understandings of yesteryears now seem to have some question marks. Time will, of course, provide answers. Cumulatively, all these factors underline the importance of establishing a multipolar Asia as a foundation of a multipolar world.

4. It would obviously be a serious error to visualize the two developments that I have mentioned as a zero-sum game. Sweeping generalisations are mind games, not serious analyses. Both trends are still open-ended and gaps created by one cannot be readily filled by the other. As a result, what is emerging is a greater role for middle powers as well as a stronger practice of regionalism. Whether it is the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan or the Gulf, we are seeing more players, greater localization and arrangements of pragmatism. In fact, we are now entering a world of greater plurilateralism, one that recognizes the shortcomings of multilateralism, the limits of bilateralism and the untenability of unilateralism from whichever quarter.

5. For the Indian Ocean region, this means more activities and stronger cooperation among resident players. It will lead to new equations and more contemporary understandings not just among themselves, but also perhaps with external interests. The very centrality of the Ocean to global economic processes will ensure responsiveness to the ongoing changes. Given the combination of fatigue and risk aversion that is now so pronounced, it also means a greater proclivity to find regional answers. Put succinctly, Indian Ocean nations are called upon today to take greater responsibilities, fashion better relationships and display more initiative.

6. Two developments have significantly heightened uncertainties that the Indian Ocean countries contemplate. One is the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It leaves both the immediate and extended region grappling with serious concerns about terrorism, radicalism, instability, narco-trafficking and governance practices. Given proximity and sociology, we are all affected one way or the other.

7. The second is the impact of Covid on a region that is particularly vulnerable to health and economic stresses. The pandemic has not just been a once-in-a-century shock to the international system. It has also thoroughly exposed all its fault-lines and shortcomings. In economic terms, the dangers of over-centralized globalization are starkly apparent. The answer lies in both more reliable and resilient supply-chains as well as in greater trust and transparency. In political terms, the absence of vaccine equity and the reluctance to cooperatively address a challenge of such magnitude spoke for itself. International organizations failed the world, whether in terms of establishing the origins of the problem or in leading the response to it.

8. What we have seen instead are specific countries stepping forward in different ways to mitigate the crisis, some individually, others in partnership. India has done its fair share. It has been expressed in the supply of medicines, vaccines, and oxygen. Or in a willingness to take care of expatriate population in times of difficulty. As we move from a ‘just in time’ globalization to a ‘just in case’ one, the Indian Ocean will witness shorter and multiple supply chains and a broader definition of what constitutes national security. These could well shape the nature of the recovery process. We also need to expeditiously normalise travel through certification recognition so that livelihoods are restored ASAP. India has worked out solutions with about a 100 nations in that regard.

9. On the other hand, there have also been consequential developments that have opened up new opportunities. The Abraham Accords are notable in that regard. They allow us to look at connectivity, logistics, trade and economic cooperation in a more ambitious way. In fact, the demonstration of political will to overcome historical divides has enormous cooperative consequences. I draw your attention to the emerging initiative between India, UAE, Israel and the United States in that regard. Those familiar with the history of the Indian Ocean region would also recognize the damage from the colonial period of artificial divides established by external interests. More than any other country, India has been a victim of this phenomenon. That we have started to approach the Gulf, ASEAN and Central Asia as extended neighbourhoods is indicative of a changed thinking. So, of course, was SAGAR –the ocean’s policy. All these bode well in terms of exploring more collaborative endeavours in the coming times.

10. We need that not just for a longer term rebuilding of the Indian Ocean community but also to address pressing challenges emanating from post-Covid economic recovery. A world of more decentralized globalization obviously offers greater opportunities to many more nations. These would be accentuated by a stronger desire to foster localization and promote regionalism. It is important that we do not perpetuate or even repeat some of the mistakes of the pre-Covid era. Assuming unsustainable levels of debt in pursuit of apparently attractive projects was one concern. The economic downturn that accompanied the pandemic has heightened this significantly. The ongoing debate on responsible and viable connectivity is another. When plans and projects lack transparency, market viability, consultation or local participation, their consequences are unlikely to be beneficial. This too has been sharpened at a time of financial stress.

11. Like the rest of the world, nations of the Indian Ocean are also grappling with the same global concerns. Worries about terrorism have got stronger in the light of recent developments in the Af-Pak region. The international community has voiced those sentiments in UN Security Council Resolution 2593 by demanding assurances that Afghan soil will not be used for terrorism, by pressing for inclusive governance and seeking safeguards on treatment of minorities, women and children. On the existential issue of climate change, countries of the Indian Ocean have the highest stakes. There is widespread disappointment about the lack of adequate progress on climate finance. Developing countries cannot consent to the developed shifting responsibilities onto them because they do not wish to change their lifestyle. The pandemic too has added further to our burdens, in part due to a similar mind-set. We are seeing a glaring vaccine divide whose implications were so obvious. Yet, when they happen, we all appear to be surprised. The needs of the Global South have become much stronger in the last two years. The real damage of the Covid, apart from its direct health and livelihood consequences, is how much it has set back sustainable development goals.

12. Yet, it is against my nature to paint a dismal picture. I do believe that difficult times require stronger international cooperation. The Quad is a good example at one extremity of the Indian Ocean. Within the space of a year, it has developed a robust agenda covering maritime security, cyber security, climate action, vaccine collaboration, critical and emerging technologies, higher education, resilient supply chains, disinformation, multilateral organizations, semi-conductors, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as infrastructure development. The old adage that where there is a will there is a way clearly has much to it.

13. Another promising endeavour is the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative that is being undertaken in the framework of the East Asia Summit at the initiative of India. It is a good illustration of the practical challenges that we, the nations of the Indian Ocean, face in terms of nurturing, securing and utilizing the maritime domain. The era when others could be relied upon to take care of the global commons is now over. We all have to step forward to contribute as a collective responsibility. Already, Australia has agreed to lead on the maritime ecology pillar, Japan on the connectivity and transport one, and France and Indonesia on the marine resources pillar. We are hopeful that in the coming years, this group effort will gather greater traction.

14. Any serious discussion of a domain naturally involves an assessment of the rules that apply. In the case of the maritime one, UNCLOS 1982 is regarded very much as the constitution for the seas. Especially in a globalized world, it is vital that freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded commerce are respected and facilitated. It is also essential that disputes, if any, are resolved through peaceful means without threat or use of force and the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities. As a state party to UNCLOS itself, India has always urged all parties to show utmost respect for the convention, including recognizing the authority of its tribunal and its awards. Only then can we be assured that the sea lanes of communication remain conducive to peace, stability, prosperity and development.

15. The Indian Ocean Conference brings together a large group of nations whose predominant identity is often more sub-regional. The exchange of views and the accompanying socialization contributes to the rebuilding of a geography that has long had an organic unity. Today, as we seek to recover from the Covid pandemic, as we assess the implications of the Afghanistan situation and as we come to terms with rebalancing, multipolarity and major power competition, it is only natural that we will look more amongst ourselves for solutions. I am confident that this Conference will be a productive forum in that regard. It is for that reason that the Government of India and the Ministry of External Affairs attach so much value to it and extend their strongest support.

I thank you once again for having me over. I wish you a very very productive deliberation.

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