Indian Ocean shouldn’t become like South China Sea - Harsha | Daily News

Indian Ocean shouldn’t become like South China Sea - Harsha

State National Policies and Economic Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, at the conference yesterday.  Picture by Siripala Halwala
State National Policies and Economic Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, at the conference yesterday. Picture by Siripala Halwala

We must ensure that the issues in the South China Sea do not happen in the Indian Ocean, said State National Policies and Economic Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva to a panel at the ‘Indian Ocean: Defining our Future’ Conference, at Temples Trees, yesterday.

But the State Minister’s appeal for a common maritime vision for the region may prove to be difficult to sell to one of the world’s least connected regions.

“Key questions with regard to safety and security of the region depend on whether littoral states are willing to rise above strategic mistrust and reach a common understanding which benefits all,” said the State Minister.

He suggested that mechanisms and operational measures could be developed if all could reach a common consensus.

India’s Deputy National Security Advisor Pankaj Saran, also addressing the panel, said that India-led regional organisations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium at present offered good multilateral forums for discussion and all cooperation must reflect “diversity among littoral states such as size, resources, levels of development and security.”

“The common good of the Indian Ocean requires collective respect, sovereign equality and a common spirit of cooperation instead of competition, and the rule of law needs to be respected. Interests of others cannot be harmed in this process.”

In the years ahead, he said India would engage more extensively in the maritime domain and would value Sri Lanka as a valuable partner and the country’s independent role in realising the common good of the Indian Ocean region,

“We should not return to an era of great power rivalries. An Asia of rivalry will hold us all back, but an Asia of cooperation will shape the century.”

Director-General of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department of the China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Yi Xianliang, observed that there were over 10,000 regulations prescribed by regional and UN bodies when it came to navigation and security, but interactions and connectivity between the over two billion people in the South Asian region remained low.

He said that whilst China fully respected UNCLOS, they would need time to consider the details of any agreement proposed at the forum. China has always preferred to deal with nations bilaterally rather than through multilateral organisations.

Yi also clarified that despite concerns, the Belt and Road Initiative was an economic endeavour and was not for “political or security” reasons.

“Eighty percent of Chinese trade worth US$ 4 trillion must go through sea lanes and 50 percent of that passes through the Indian Ocean. So no one is more concerned about safety and security of navigation than China.”

Yi however stressed that the priority for the region should be peace and sustainable development.

A more detached response came from US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador Alice G. Wells when she said the priority for the United States in the region was a “strong, prosperous and self-reliant Indian Ocean region.”

She highlighted several initiatives the US was currently funding to support maritime security, improve capacity and further information-sharing in the region.

In addition, she said the US government was encouraging more private-sector-led growth in the region, as the only form of long-term development, especially in their areas of focus: infrastructure, digital economy and energy.

Wells encouraged states to renegotiate tariffs and custom procedures to increase intra-regional trade which currently stands at less than five percent.

“It is cheaper for India to trade with Brazil than its neighbours,” said Wells. South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Department Deputy Director-General and Chair, Committee of Senior Officials of IORA, Dr. Anil Sooklal said that the increasing number of military bases in the Indian Ocean was worrying in terms of rivalry and that a “robust and honest” discussion would be needed if it was to remain a “zone of peace” as first proposed by Sri Lanka in 1971.


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