At recently concluded Raisina Dialogue, Australia’s foreign minister highlighted Indian Ocean as a key emerging region in world affairs and strategic priority for Australia and India.
Among minister’s announcements was A$25 million for a four-year infrastructure program in South Asia (The South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative, or SARIC), which will primarily focus on the transport and energy sectors.
She also pointed to increasing defence activities in the Indian Ocean, noting that in 2014, Australia and India had conducted 11 defence activities together, with the figure reaching 38 in 2018.
Furthermore, Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper seeks to support IORA in areas such as maritime security and international law.
The Indian 0cean region comprises of the ocean itself and the countries that border it. These include Australia, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Somalia, Tanzania, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
How Indian Ocean region is an emergent power in world affairs?
Demographically, the average age of people in the region’s countries is under 30, compared to 38 in the US and 46 in Japan. The countries bordering the Indian Ocean are home to 2.5 billion people, which is one-third of the world’s population.
Economically, some 80% of the world’s maritime oil trade flows through three narrow passages of water, known as choke points, in the Indian Ocean. This includes the Strait of Hormuz – located between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman – which provides the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.
The economies of many Indian Ocean countries are expanding rapidly as investors seek new opportunities. Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Tanzania witnessed economic growth in excess of 5% in 2017 – well above the global average of 3.2%.
India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. With a population expected to become the world’s largest in the coming decades, it is also the one with the most potential.
Politically, the Indian Ocean is becoming a pivotal zone of strategic competition. China is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across the region as part of its One Belt One Road initiative.
For instance, China gave Kenya a US$3.2 billion loan to construct a 470 kilometre railway (Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project in over 50 years) linking the capital Nairobi to the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa.
Chinese state-backed firms are also investing in infrastructure and ports in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bangladesh. Western powers, including Australia and the United States, have sought to counter-balance China’s growing influence across the region by launching their own infrastructure funds – such as the US$113 million US fund announced last August for digital economy, energy, and infrastructure projects.
In security terms, piracy, unregulated migration, and the continued presence of extremist groups in Somalia, Bangladesh and parts of Indonesia pose significant threats to Indian Ocean countries.
Ecologically, the reefs, mangroves, and marine species that live in the Ocean are under imminent threat. According to some estimates, the Indian Ocean is warming three times faster than the Pacific Ocean.
Overfishing, coastal degradation, and pollution are also harming the ocean. This could have catastrophic implications for the tens of millions of fishermen dependent on the region’s marine resources and the enormous population who rely on the Indian Ocean for their protein.
The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges. Its future is intertwined and heavily dependent on how nations cooperate on these challenges and opportunities.
As of today, there is a logical leadership role for India, being the largest player in the region. India could focus more on how to promote the Indian Ocean. Notwithstanding India’s energy and organisational growth, Indian Ocean cooperation is weak relative to Atlantic and Pacific initiatives.
Other countries in the region too need to proactively collaborate to build economic strength and address geopolitical risks in the region.
Thus, India must continue to strengthen its ties in the region – such as with Australia and Indonesia – and also build new connections, particularly in Africa.
Although, more than previous Indian Prime Ministers, Modi has travelled up and down the east coast of Africa to promote cooperation and strengthen trade and investment ties, and has articulated strong visions of India-Africa cooperative interest.
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