New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday called for shoring up engagement among countries of Indian Ocean region to confront challenges like safeguarding sovereignty, dealing with cases of disregard to maritime laws and flouting of long-standing pacts, in remarks seen as an oblique reference to China’s military assertiveness including along the Line of Actual Control.
In an address at the seventh Indian Ocean Conference in Perth, he also flagged concerns over unsustainable debt, opaque lending practices, unviable projects and “injudicious” choices, in thinly-veiled comments that came amid concerns over many countries falling into the Chinese ‘debt trap’.
Jaishankar also said the Quad supports a larger architecture in “this part” of the world and those who mischievously suggest that the four-nation coalition questions the centrality of the ASEAN are “playing their own”.
“As we gaze at the Indian Ocean, the challenges besetting the world are on full display there. At one extremity, we see conflict, threats to maritime traffic, piracy and terrorism,” he said.
“At the other, there are challenges to international law, concerns about freedom of navigation and overflights, and of safeguarding of sovereignty and of independence. Any disregard for arduously negotiated regimes like UNCLOS 1982 is naturally disturbing,” he said.
“In between, a range of trans-national and non-traditional threats present themselves, largely visible in a spectrum of interconnected illegal activities. Instability also increases when long-standing agreements are no longer observed, with no credible justification to justify a change of stance,” he said.
Jaishankar said: “All of them, separately and together, make it imperative that there be greater consultation and cooperation, among the states of the Indian Ocean.” His remarks on non-observance of long-standing agreements without credible justification came against the backdrop of the lingering eastern Ladakh border row that was triggered by China’s amassing of a large number of troops along the LAC in the region in violation of existing pacts between the two sides.
In his address, Jaishankar also referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.
India and a number of other countries including ASEAN member states have been calling for implementation of the UNCLOS, especially in the South China Sea. There have been growing global concerns over China’s military offensive in the South China Sea.
Jaishankar also talked about “disruptive” events saying they are occurring with greater frequency and deeper impact.
“There are also the consequences of distant happenings, such as the fuel, food and fertilizer crises that many of us have experienced,” he said.
“But we should be equally conscious that the ‘normal’ can be manipulated, leading to unsustainable debt, opaque lending practices, unviable projects and injudicious choices,” he said.
“Similarly, there are the complexities of dual purpose agendas that mask visibility and lower our guard. Indeed, such activities when combined with the advancement of connectivity with strategic intent, has emerged as a growing anxiety for Indian Ocean states,” Jaishankar noted.
He said it is necessary to develop awareness and proper understanding of the challenges.
“Our very concept of security has undergone a metamorphosis in a volatile and uncertain existence. As a result, the nations of the Indian Ocean today need to reflect on whether they should pursue more collective self-reliance, or remain as vulnerable as in the past,” he said.
“Our sustainable future lies in concentrating on the drivers of the future: digital, electric mobility, green hydrogen and green shipping, to cite a few,” he said.
Jaishankar also called for deeper cooperation among like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
“While infusing more energy into the Indian Ocean centric bodies, we also need to simultaneously work on the larger Indo-Pacific canvas and the narrower sub-regional ones. At the end of the day, they all reinforce each other,” he said.
Jaishankar also drew attention to the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), proposed by India in 2019.
“It is an open, non-treaty based global initiative that seeks to manage, conserve, sustain, and secure the maritime domain,” he said.
“In the IPOI, Australia’s leadership on Maritime Ecology, the UK’s on maritime security, and the co-leadership of France and Indonesia on the Maritime Resources pillars have helped to make a beginning,” he added.
The IPOI aims to launch new projects and initiatives while establishing greater synergy with IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association).
Jaishankar also highlighted efforts of quadrilateral grouping Quad in addressing various challenges.
He said the Quad is now addressing a range of issues such as maritime security, safety, environment protection, connectivity, strategic technologies, supply chain resilience, health, education and cyber security, amongst others.
He said the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness are larger endeavours that have emerged from the deliberations of the Quad.
“The Quad is today a forum for global good that is particularly active in regard to the global commons. Its deepening is in the interest not only of its members but of the larger region which draws benefit from its activities,” he said.
Jaishankar said the Quad supports the larger architecture in this part of the world that has been painstakingly built up over so many years by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) processes.
“Those who mischievously suggest that Quad questions the centrality of the ASEAN are playing their own . I am confident that ASEAN will see through it,” he said.
Jaishankar noted that the Indian Ocean region may be “extraordinarily diverse” and “immensely complicated”, but its “inherent unity, so deeply rooted in our traditions and cultures, are today best advanced by more intense cooperation among member states.”