Indian Ocean not another South China Sea?
There was a hive of activity this week in Colombo with a variety of international think tanks, strategists, analysts and senior military officers, Foreign Ministers and Ministers exchanging views and taking up positions – the focus being on the Indian Ocean and its surroundings.
Starting with the Defence Conference on Monday, the week concluded with the Indian Ocean conference. The Sri Lanka Navy, the US Embassy in Colombo and the India Foundation took the lead in these brain storming talkathons.
For Sri Lanka, it is a recognition that important players on the world stage and especially in and around the Indian Ocean, are interested parties to these dialogues. Had Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Indian Ocean Peace Zone (IOPZ) proposal to the UN General Assembly in 1971 aimed at stopping the proliferation of military bases and imposing ‘rules of the road’ for states been taken seriously, things might have been different today as these seas witness an escalation of tension and competing national interests.
India was not keen then, wanting an IOPZ regime that eliminated only ‘foreign’ (US and others)bases. Even though the Non Aligned Movement supported the proposal, the IOPZ was led to a slow painless death. Today, with the emergence of a Blue water Chinese Navy, everyone else is getting excited over the rights for all parties to have safe trade, air and sea navigation over the Indian Ocean.
The other positive factor is that by this engagement, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, there is a marked shift away from yesteryear’s pre-occupation on allegations of human rights violations. This was what dominated the foreign policy agenda of the US and West. With the US State Department now being sidelined by the new dispensation in Washington, the Department’s holier-than-thou approach selectively picking on some countries and not others, has been thrown out of the window, and Sri Lanka can now look more to the future than the past.
Clearly, the US is left to rue this foreign policy miscalculation viz-a-viz Sri Lanka as China made quick inroads into the Sri Lankan economy in the meantime, and advanced its own geo-strategist game plan getting a firm foot hold in this country through the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota harbor projects. With the US State Department downgraded and itsDefence Department given the upper hand under the Trump Administration, it does not necessarily follow that it is good tidings for Sri Lanka and that the world is going to be a better place. No doubt, the US Navy’s Pacific Command based in Hawaii is renewing old contacts and cultivating new ones with its counterparts in Sri Lanka in a bid to counter growing Chinese influence. The super powers are making their moves on the global chess-board.
While India sent a high-level External Affairs Minister for the Indian Ocean conference, she had earlier sent a senior official from the ruling BJP on a quiet mission to meet the President and Prime Minister to express her concerns (to put it mildly) with developments surrounding the Hambantota harbour and Sri Lanka’s virtual capitulation to China on the issue.
The entire region is once again on the boil and the Indian Ocean must not become another hotspot like the South China Sea. Only a fortnight ago, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Independence of both, India and Pakistan we had mentioned how sans a solution to the seven decade long Jammu-Kashmir dispute between the two countries, they are getting drawn further apart andmore into the laps of US (India) and China (Pakistan). Non Alignment is seemingly irrelevant to both.
This week, Pakistan asked the US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs not to stop over in Islamabad on her way to Colombo for the Indian Ocean conference in retaliation to accusations by Washington that Pakistan was harbouring terrorists. India has just about resisted a push by China to bulldoze its way into building a highway through Bhutan having already planned one through Pakistan’s Baluchistan region to run rings round India.
In the midst of this, India is launching a South Asia Maritime and Logistics Forum next week in Mumbai, backed by the World Bank, to promote regional trade. Sri Lanka cannot take a “frog in the well’’ attitude in the fast moving external scenario unfolding, mindful as it ought to be, that there are currents and under-currents in the Indian Ocean and that its geo-political location is a ‘double-edged sword’. Sri Lanka cannot fall on its sword.
It is unfortunate that the contribution of local international relations think tanks to this week’s dialogue has been nil. Ad-hocism therefore still rules the roost, and without a national strategy, or plan, it only allows corrupt political leaders – past and present, to revel in this playing field at the expense of the future of the country.