The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) organised an online International Seminar on ‘India and the Island States in the Indian Ocean: Evolving Geopolitics and Security Perspectives’ on 6 September, 2022. The Speakers at the Seminar included foreign policy and strategic experts from the Indian Ocean Island States and India. The Seminar was attended by members from the diplomatic, academic and strategic community of India and other countries.
2. At the inaugural session, opening remarks were delivered by Amb. Vijay Thakur Singh, Director General, ICWA. She emphasised the importance of the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific region in India’s foreign and strategic policy. She said that the Council has actively pursued research on this topic through hosting major conferences and regular publications. This seminar was unique as it focused on the strategic perspectives from the Island States and located them in India’s foreign policy towards the Indian Ocean. India has traditionally close and friendly relations with the Island States of the Indian Ocean, has built strong political, economic, developmental and people-to-people ties and is engaging vigorously with them as part of its SAGAR (Security and Growth for All) initiative.
3. The Keynote Address was delivered by Dr. Sanjaya Baru, Member Governing Body, ICWA. He noted that the world was in a state of flux with sharpening US-China rivalry and renewed interest of external powers in the Indian Ocean Region. He noted that the seminar was taking place at a time when India had just launched a new aircraft career (INS Vikrant) and a Chinese navy ship visited Sri Lanka. With the European powers, especially Britain and France, showing renewed interest in the Indian Ocean, this body of water that has remained a 'zone of peace' has begun to attract global attention. It is, therefore, relevant for countries within this geographical space to note that the only memory of conflict in the Indian Ocean Region is associated with powers that have entered this space from the outside. India has never been a hegemonic power in the region. In fact, it has sought to promote growth and security within the region. Its SAGAR initiative balances the security and developmental interests of all countries in the region.
4. The first Session on ‘Sri Lanka and Maldives’ was chaired by Amb (Retd) Ashok Kantha, Former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. Speakers of the Session were Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Geopolitical Analyst, Strategic Advisor on Security and Author, Senior Fellow, The Millennium Project, Washington DC (Sri Lanka), Athaulla A Rasheed, Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University and former diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Maldives), N. Manoharan, Director, Centre for East Asian Studies, Associate Professor, Department of International Studies, Christ University, Bangalore (India) and Vice Admiral (Retd.) M P Muralidharan, Former Director General, Indian Coast Guard.
5. The first Session discussed Sri Lanka’s current political and economic crisis, its impact on the Indian Ocean geopolitics, security dynamics of the region and the ‘China factor’ in the current Sri Lankan crisis. Maldivian perspective on geo-political challenges including climate change was shared and India’s growing role in development cooperation was emphasized. Readiness of India to be the ‘first responder’ without expectation of quid pro quo as part of India’s Neighbourhood First policy was noted. Panellists spoke on issues like the changing maritime strategies of various powers in the region and the strategic complexities of the littoral States which should be recognized and understood. It was highlighted that the Indian Ocean region cannot be seen in isolation as it is integrally connected with and gets impacted by the Asian economic growth, strategic rivalries along with the process of globalization. Importance of avoiding confrontation and zero-sum outcomes was emphasized.
6. The Second Session on the ‘Island States in the Southwest Indian Ocean’ was chaired by Amb (Retd). Anup Mudgal, Former Indian High Commissioner to Mauritius. The panellists of the session included Ms Malshini Senaratne, Asst. Head of Department, Faculty of Business and Sustainable Development, University of Seychelles (Seychelles), Dr Priya Bahadoor, Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Mauritius (Mauritius), Dr Juvence Ramasy, Lecturer, University of Toamasina, Madagascar (Madagascar), Prof. A. Subramanyam Raju, Dean, International Relations, Professor & Head, UMISARC & Centre for South Asian Studies, Pondicherry University (India) and Commodore (Retd) RS Vasan, Director General, Chennai Centre for China Studies (India).
7. The Second Session discussed the long term strategies to secure and harness Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) as well as strategies to ensure the security of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Technical collaboration with the regional and extra-regional powers for safety and security of the Ocean was emphasized. Another key point of discussion was the issue of Blue Economy which is particularly relevant for the development and security interests of the Island States. India’s approach in the region including soft power and naval diplomacy under the rubric of SAGAR, HADR activities, and assistance spanning areas like health, culture and education were also discussed. It was noted that the maritime dimension has enhanced India’s credibility as a preferred partner, including in the field of security. Indian panellists spoke about how the region is critical to India’s energy security as well.