The past week saw a number of discussions, in different forums, that turned the spotlight on the Indian Ocean and its strategic importance for countries in the region as well as outside. Coincidentally, it appears. Here in Sri Lanka there was the 'Galle Dialogue,' a two-day international conference on maritime security organised by the Ministry of Defence and the Sri Lanka Navy.
A talk held in Colombo on Thursday at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies as part of the India-Sri Lanka Foundation's inaugural lecture series, also dealt with related issues. On the topic of "India and Sri Lanka and the Asian resurgence," the speaker, former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran drew attention to the shift in the centre of gravity in the global economy towards India and the Pacific.
In his presentation at the Galle Dialog, the US delegate Robert M. Scher, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asian Affairs, remarked on the increased importance that US policymakers assigned to the Indian Ocean.
He said it "now surpassed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as the "world's busiest and most critical trade corridor." Parts of the speech seemed to reflect the influence of Robert D. Kaplan's eye-opening book "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power" (Random House, 2010). He was clearly referring to Kaplan's statistics when he said that "By some measures over fifty (50) percent of the world's container traffic and seventy (70) percent of global energy trade transits through the Indian Ocean. These numbers are only expected to grow over the next decade, fuelled by the Asian economic expansion and the growing need for raw materials and energy resources from Africa and the Middle East."
Was it coincidental that just two days later US President Barack Obama announced the decision to deploy 2500 marines in northern Australia, with a view to asserting its military presence in the region? A day after announcing that agreement with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in a speech to the Australian parliament Obama asserted the US's intention to play a decisive role in shaping the future of the Asia Pacific region. The move has irked China. "It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region," Liu Weidman, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said" the New York Time reported.
The northern tip of Australia where the new American base is to be set up would represent the eastern edge of the swathe of oceanic territory that comes within Kaplan's analysis. He defines this Greater Indian Ocean area as encompassing the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Java and South China seas.
Referring to the U.S. Marine Corps "Vision and Strategy" statement covering the years to 2025 Kaplan observes that "Along with its continued dominance in the Pacific, the U.S. clearly seeks to be the preeminent South Asian power. This signals a momentous historical shift away from the North Atlantic and Europe."
It would appear that Sri Lanka is aware of the importance newly assigned to the seas around it. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his opening remarks noted that "the energy security of many nations also depends on the Indian Ocean, as the fuel requirements of many industrialising nations are met through the energy resources transported through it. For all these reasons and more, the Indian Ocean's importance in the global context is very great."
He went on to flag some of the external threats to maritime security in the region. These included piracy originating in Somalia, arms smuggling and human and drug trafficking. Rajapaksa appealed for greater international cooperation to address the threats while acknowledging the responsibility of coastal nations in particular, saying "we must not shirk our duty."
While Sri Lanka is eager to showcase the capabilities of its battle-fresh, well trained armed forces -- including the navy that played a vital role in the defeat of the LTTE -- Sri Lanka would also need to be wise to the underlying power-play amongst the big powers when it responds to overtures that may be made as a result of shifting global priorities. The new emphasis placed on the Indian Ocean region relates to the rise of two emerging economic powers, India and China, both friendly nations as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. The anxieties of the US in relation to China are not those of Sri Lanka.
It is interesting that while the US delegate's presentation, by his own admission, mainly sought to look at how the Indian Ocean region affected the US and how the US could best address its own interests, the tail end of it included a reference to human rights. "The Obama administration has made it clear that it will pursue policies that include both engagement with those with whom we share interests AND on behalf of improvements in human rights," he said, following it up with the now familiar refrain on "accountability for serious violations of human rights during the war" in Sri Lanka.
President Barack Obama in his speech to the Australian parliament also referred to China in similar manner. Asserting that the US welcomed the rise of "a peaceful and prosperous China" and sought greater cooperation, he also referred to China's "poor record on human rights," according to Doordarshan. "We will do this even as we continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people," he was quoted as saying.
For analysts a question of interest is whether human rights have become the west's new weapon for control and domination of regions that are of strategic importance, in their calculations. China's economic expansion and outward thrust has typically been peaceful and non-confrontational. But the same cannot be said of the US, whose record has shown it will not hesitate to launch military operations that violate sovereignty of other states in pursuit of its 'high-value targets' such as Osama bin Laden (killed in Pakistan) and the al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki, (killed in an air raid in Yemen).
Robert Kaplan in a talk on his book at the Carnegie Council last year referring to China's projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma, observed that while China provides "significant military and economic assistance" to countries where it is building or helping to build ports, China does not intend to have naval bases in these places. "To have permanent naval bases in any of these ports would be too provocative to India. China is at pains to convince people that its military and economic rise is benevolent and non-hegemonic." His reference to Sri Lanka at that talk would seem to explain the current swirl of activity and discussion relating to the Indian Ocean in general and Sri Lanka in particular:
"Why is Sri Lanka important? Because it is right at the crux of the great international sea lines of communication. It's where tens of thousands of ships and merchant vessels pass each year. In this new geographic I'm detailing, Sri Lanka is going to be a very important major player."