Indo-Pacific Needs a New Narrative

Earlier this month, in his addressed at the East Asia Summit (EAS), Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and proposed ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ (IPOI). The Ministry of External Affairs’ secretary (East) Vijay Thakur Singh clarified that the IPOI aims to “conserve and sustainably use the maritime domain, and to make meaningful efforts to create a safe, secure and stable maritime domain.” This could be achieved by “creating partnerships” among interested countries and focus on “enhancing maritime security to preserving and sustainably using marine resources, building capacity, disaster prevention and management, as well as working together in trade, and maritime transport”.

The above articulation by the Prime Minister draws liberally from his earlier speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 where he laid out India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific and proposed ‘an inclusive and open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region’. Perhaps the only difference between the two speeches is the reference to ‘conserve and sustainably use the maritime domain’ which relate to the ‘health, wealth and use’ of the oceans which are encapsulated in Blue Economy, a broader thematic that has resonated in Prime Minister’s thought “Blue chakra or wheel in India’s national flag represents the potential of Blue Revolution or the Ocean Economy”. Furthermore, his mantra, “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) provides a sound basis for conservation of the marine space and for promoting sustainable use the resources across the entire swath of the Indo-Pacific.

It is useful to advance and encourage Prime Minister Modi’s mantra of SAGAR for the wider Indo-Pacific and pursue a new narrative for this oceanic space for at least two reasons. First, the Indo-Pacific is currently being viewed only from a strategic prism. i.e. as a containment strategy. The Chinese strategic community and media have vociferously argued that the “main purposes of the Indo-Pacific strategy are clear. On one hand, the US tries to establish an Indo-Pacific geopolitical order that targets China; on the other hand, the US aims to formulate a trade rule centered on itself,” Likewise, the Global Times has labeled Indo-Pacific as an overt ‘containment strategy’ by the West against China through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) among Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

Second, the Indo-Pacific is seen as a competitive strategy i.e. US’ initiative to promote the Blue Dot Network among Australia, Japan, the US to fund infrastructure. Under this initiative, the respective “governments, the private sector and civil society are to promote high-quality, trusted standards for global infrastructure development” and provide “globally recognised evaluation and certification system for roads, ports and bridges with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region”. This would essentially be similar to Michelin's unique restaurant rating system! The Chinese state media has dismissed the Blue Dot Network.

However, there is a near absence of a convergent strategy and this gap can be filled by SAGAR which has at its core the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a mechanism to encourage member states, to ‘strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals’. Environment, ecology and sustainable use of ocean-based resources have found reference in several SDGs. Goal 14, titled “Life Below Water”, list 14 targets to be achieved over the next 15 years up to 2030 to help ensure good health of the oceans as also contribute to the sustainable use of marine resources for economic growth and human well-being.

There are several risks to the health of the oceans due to marine pollution, ocean acidification and damage to coastal-marine areas. Goal 14 calls on states to reduce marine pollution, address the impacts of ocean acidification, conserve coastal and marine areas, and facilitate transfer of technology to improve ocean health and to enhance marine biodiversity. It is worth mentioning that at least 12 other Goals under the SDG 2030 are closely connected to Goal 14.

At home, the Indian government has put in operations several strategies for conserving and sustainably using the seas and the oceans. Some of the significant issues under active operations are (a) strengthening marine research; (b) eco-friendly marine industrial and technology; (c) National Fisheries Action Plan; (d) Coastal Ocean Monitoring and Prediction System; (e) Online Oil Spill Advisory System; (f) National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan; (g) Sustainable fisheries ; etc.

It is noteworthy that all Indo-Pacific countries are committed to SDG 2030 but are yet to come out of silos and follow a horizontal approach to sustainable development. This can be achieved through convergent strategies based on sharing of ocean and marine related information, extending excess capacities among other regional countries and work towards a regional approach for the implementation of the SDGs.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

© 2018 Kalinga International Foundation Designed by Nescant Info Systems