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Ocean of Opportunities

India’s centrality in the IOR can help it take the role of a capable leader

Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd) Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

The theme of the recently concluded 7th Xiangshan Forum at Beijing was to ‘Build a New Type of International Relations through Security Dialogue and Cooperation’. The forum focussed on security challenges facing Asia, discussing four topics including Role of Militaries in Global Governance; Responding to New Security Challenges in the Asia-Pacific through Cooperation; Maritime Security Cooperation, and International Terrorist Threats and Countermeasures.

The Xiangshan Forum and regional dialogue mechanisms such as the Raisina Dialogue, the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and the Indian Ocean Conference are all manifestations of Asia’s search for a unified identity that takes into account both its maritime faces — the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Such a unified identity is essential to deal with the multifarious challenges the continent faces today and in the years ahead, as the unipolar world put in place by British maritime power of the 18th century gives way to a multi-polar one.

Yet, the Indo-Pacific is not really a new identity; it is just one that was consciously killed by European maritime power during the colonial age and is gradually coming to life again, albeit with a different character, with the return of global economic power to Asia. In the centuries before Vasco da Gama came to India in 1498 AD, there was cross-cultural and cross-civilisational connectivity throughout the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific littoral, causing arts and scholarship to flourish in cities to which merchants travelled from China and Africa, India and Mesopotamia. The spread of Buddhism through South East Asia and into China and Korea; the Champa influence in Vietnam, the Chola influence in South East Asia, Hindu temples in Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand and stories of travels of Chinese scholars to India, braving pirates en route, are among the many historical examples of this connectivity, which brought considerable wealth to all who used the sea for trade.

Unlike in other global sea spaces, however, there is no recorded history of naval power being used in conflict in the Indian Ocean before 1500 AD. Even the redoubtable Wikipedia lists the first sea battle in the Indian Ocean as the one off Diu in February 1509, where the Portuguese defeated a combined Egyptian-Gujarati fleet and took over control of the spice trade. At a fundamental level, naval forces were considered subsidiary and the seas occupied only tertiary space in the strategic concerns of Indian rulers. For centuries before Hugo Grotius gave the Western world the concept of Mare Liberum in 1609, the Indian Ocean littoral exercised it (perhaps due to the sea-blindness of the ruling class) by allowing merchants to trade and navigate freely without requiring anyone’s permission.

The arrival of Vasco da Gama and his European successors challenged the prevailing security paradigm based on continental power and Mare Liberum. His parent nation, Portugal, and other European seafarers in fact believed in a Mare Clausum, legitimised by the papal bull that divided the world’s non-Christian lands between Spain and Portugal. France, Holland and England were barred by the Pope’s fiat from trading with or colonising these lands, but engaged successfully in privateering and piracy to contest Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean, as well as Spanish control over the Pacific and the Western Atlantic.

The inaugural session of the Indian Ocean Conference- IOC2016 in Singapore
The inaugural session of the Indian Ocean Conference- IOC2016 in Singapore

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