VIF-IISS-BHC Roundtable on the Indian Ocean
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On 17 October the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in conjuncture with the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, (IISS) London and the British High Commission organised a day-long roundtable on the Indian Ocean. The idea behind this initiative was to construct a frank and candid discussion on the interests of India and the UK in the Indian Ocean, the security concerns and objectives and explore vistas for cooperation and collaboration. Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF gave the welcome address.

The Indian contingent consisted of Admiral Robin K. Dhowan PVSM,AVSM,YSM (Retd.) former Chief of Naval Staff, Lt. Gen. Ravi Sawhney (Retd.) of the VIF, Dr. C Raja Mohan, Director, Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore, Dr. Rahul Roy Choudhury, Director, IISS London, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd.), Vice Admiral Anil Chopra (Retd.), Amb. K.V Bhagirath (Retd.) former Secretary-General, Indian Ocean Rim Association, and Dr. Shailesh Nayak, Director, National Institute of Advanced Studies. The British contingent included His Excellency Mr. Dominic Asquith KCMG, British High Commissioner to New Delhi, Admiral Tim Frazer, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, UK, Dr. Kate Sullivan, Associate professor in International Relations, Oxford University, Dr. Nick Childs, IISS, HMA Karen Rohsler, Ambassador-designate to Maldives.

The roundtable saw attendance of many distinguished personalities from the strategic community, officers from the three services, scholars and persons from the media. There were four sessions in total that discussed security objectives of both India and the UK and explored avenues for cooperation in security, blue economy and environmental protection.

Converging Interests

Both sides acknowledged the long-standing relationship between the two countries. From Britain’s perspective the similarity in strategic outlook and security goals makes India and the UK natural partners. India and the UK are interested in upholding a rules-based international order. Safety and security of sea lanes, safety and security of trade and commerce are issues of convergence. Free and open oceans are in the interests of both maritime nations. As India’s economy and security concerns are becoming global, it becomes a natural partner to UK in their quest for a larger role in these spheres. The Indian Ocean is a significant part of that global maritime common and its security, accessibility has international significance.

Further, values of India and UK intersect in the Indian Ocean because both are maritime nations that are passing through a re-wakening to critical importance of regional maritime geography. The centrality of maritime connectivity to their security and geo-strategic interests see both of them striving to protect the maritime order.

Respective Strategic Objectives

K.M. Panniker had written back in the day that India should be the net security provider in the Indian Ocean, and that the UK would provide the wherewithal. But history took its own course and India and UK missed the opportunities for maritime cooperation. During the time of India’s independence when UK withdrew from the region, it had implications for India’s security - India had to deal with newly formed states, a consequence it still has to face till date. The dominant powers in the Indian Ocean were hostile to India during the earlier decades in the past.

China, a new power that is emerging, has strategic interests competitive to India, and India’s sovereignty. The Indian views on China look at it not only as adversarial to India’s interests but also as a power that is risking regional stability and prosperity through its deals that cause debt-traps. There is lack of transparency in its dealings and a there is visible attempt at re-writing norms of international behavior. The same conditions exist in the Pacific, and so India cannot de-link the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. Similarly, India also cannot lose focus from the developments in its continent. India has a challenge in these three theatres - that is, the Indian Ocean, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Ocean. It also faces threats from state and non-state actors. India desires a stable Indian Ocean region, security, trade, prosperity, and energy security. The Indian vision for the Indian Ocean is consultative, inclusive and equitable.

Indications of US’s withdrawal from West Asia will leave a security vacuum. There are chances of US’s reduced dependence on oil in this region, which again would see lower US interest and presence in the region. One of the possible effect of US withdrawal would be revival of international terrorism. These development will impact India.

UK has had an enduring presence in the Indian Ocean, which was reduced for interim period but it is re-orienting itself into this region. It has been able to respond to Yemen crisis and events in the Hormuz. The bulk of UK operations in the Indian Ocean region has been on anti-piracy operations. UK has significant record of capability and achievement and leading role for 10 years in running the EU-NAVFOR counter-piracy operations. The Royal Navy requires a credible and swift response to security crisis in the Gulf so a forward deployment is expected in the Indian Ocean. UK desires freedom of navigation, free and open Indian Ocean, just as it believes in the principle of free and open Pacific. Upholding international rules based order runs central to UK’s naval security strategy.

Vistas for Further Cooperation

Energy security is one sector for cooperation since both the countries rely on the Strait of Hormuz for its oil. India and UK need to work more on international terrorism. Problem areas in the Indian Ocean Region are Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Islamic State (IS) and sea-based terrorism. Both countries can examine existing networks of connectivity in the region and explore avenues therein.

The multitude of competing interests makes it difficult to codify norms or to institutionalise security architecture. India and the UK need to work to ensure the integrity of the rules-based international order because it is going to be challenged further in the future. In order to achieve common goals, UK and India need to enhance mutual confidence. Post-Brexit UK offers more opportunities for deeper and wider engagement, such as raising the level of Exersise KONKAN. They can look to enhance interoperability for a swift and effective response across the Indo-Pacific.

Countries of the Indian Ocean Rim are one of the most under-developed ones in the world. The other important things is that because the area is under-developed there is huge potential for development and for markets. This is a key to prosperity in the future; even for countries in Central Asia and in the interiors of Africa. Likewise, the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) activities are gaining significance in the Indian Ocean where both the navies have considerable amphibious capabilities.

Huge potential exist for marine scientific collaboration, ocean-bed mapping, coastal spatial planning and development of the blue economy. Governance on marine issues is one focus that may be adopted by Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Areas of focus should be – Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, waste discharge in the sea, extractive potential and its governance. In their different capacities both countries support IORA on ocean governance and specifically initiatives in environmental governance. UK and India can work on illicit financial flows and IUU since it has more destabilising effect than piracy. They could help in technical education and capacity building in fisheries, aquaculture, and marine parks this region. Further, India and UK can work together on teleconnection - between North Atlantic and Indian Ocean – especially related to the monsoons, scatting up low-temperature thermal desalination technology, Coral Reef Alert System, census of marine life, coastal spatial Planning, mangroves, and deep Sea fishing. They could also work together on 2nd International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE-2).

Pervasiveness of data, information and extraordinary pace of technological changes characterise present times. It is a period where the distinction between home and abroad, war and peace, state and non-state is blurring. Therefore, a coordinated, multilateral strategic response is needed given the scale and scope and interconnectedness of our global interest.

Event Date 
October 17, 2019

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