With economic pressures beginning to impact countries, both East and West, in a major way, it is only to be expected that states with legitimate claims to ocean and sea-based resources would be beginning to focus more sharply at present on subject areas, such as, ocean governance and maritime security opportunities. Fortunately, some Sri Lankan sections have taken cognizance of the topicality of these questions.
The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI), Colombo, for instance, took the initiative to conduct a highly discursive forum on the above topic on May 8. The LKI was partnered in this venture by the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The key issues that were discussed at the widely representative and well attended forum were: (a) Treaty of the High Seas – Bio Diversity beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) Agreement and the Way Forward (b) Regional Security Cooperation on an Open and Rules Based Regional Maritime Architecture and (c) Environmental Protection and Disaster Preparedness.
Opening remarks at the conference were made by Secretary, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Aruni Wijewardene and ambassador, Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Denis Chaibi. A special presentation was made by Ms. Paola Pampaloni, Deputy Managing Director, Asia and Pacific of the European External Action Service (EEAS), while the keynote address of the conference was delivered by Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs M.U.M. Ali Sabry P.C.
It ought to be plain to see that the topics discussed are of importance to the world community. Their special importance to countries such as Sri Lanka, that are currently grappling with questions arising from maritime and environmental disasters, cannot be stressed enough. However, equal importance should be attached by these countries to security cooperation, considering the fundamental relevance of the issue to international peace.
As could be seen, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is attracting as never before, big power naval activity and engagement. These trends have intensified in tandem with heightening big power rivalries in the world’s oceans.
While the pressing need for ocean-based resources accounts to a considerable degree for big power involvement of this magnitude in the IOR, the continuing scramble among these heavyweights for the carving out of spheres of influence and power should not be lost sight of as a major reason for the conspicuous presence of these powers in the IOR in particular. Likewise, some of these powers’ unresolved territorial disputes need to be seen as motivating them to be unflaggingly present in the oceans.
For small states of the IOR, such as Sri Lanka, these stepped-up big power rivalries have foreign and security policy implications of considerable weight. For instance, in view of their present poverty and economic backwardness these countries cannot afford to antagonize any of the principal powers. Most small states need the assistance of all these powers to survive in one piece. For instance, they cannot afford to fall foul of neither the US nor China.
Whether they prefer it that way or not the majority of these small states are compelled to be Non-aligned as never before currently, considering that their material survival hinges crucially on the largesse and charitableness of these major powers.
Accordingly, for small states, Non-alignment is no longer an option; it is a dire necessity. This could be considered a highly ironic turn of events in the history of the developing South.
Accordingly, for how long could states, such as Sri Lanka, hold out against the pressures major powers, for instance the US, bring on them to fall in line with the latter’s security policy requirements in the IOR? This is the question that could clamour for an answer, going forward.
However, the issue to be borne in mind is that economics drive politics. Depending on its degree of indebtedness to the predominant powers, a small state could eventually end up being a client state of either the US or China, presuming that the latter powers would be the biggest actors in international politics in the foreseeable future as well.
For the time being, however, smaller players in the international system would need to be as Non-aligned as possible. They would also need to work out ways of grouping together in collective organizations that could serve their common interests. There is considerable urgency to initiate measures on these lines in the IOR on account of the high presence the predominant powers maintain in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Peace Zone (IPZ) proposal, initiated by Sri Lanka in the early seventies, although seen as stillborn by many, should if possible be reactivated by the South to ensure that it is not rendered a docile pawn in the hands of the major powers who have made the Indian Ocean a veritable happy hunting ground. In these efforts the South would need to come together as a united collectivity.
The question would arise as to the practicability of this project. True, the majority of Southern countries are poor and powerless but the stronger among them could think and act constructively to achieve some gains for the underdeveloped countries on the economic front in particular.
There is the example of India to watch. Recently, for example, at the Forum for India-Pacific Island Cooperation, conducted in Papua New Guinea, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a 12-point development plan for the Pacific Islands. The plan featured assistance in areas, such as, healthcare, renewable energy and cyber security. Projects on these lines could be replicated in other regions of the South as well, as long as they are backed by major powers of the hemisphere, such as India.
The fact that fresh ground in South-South cooperation is being broken in the Indo-Pacific region should not be lost sight of. This region has turned out to be the economic nucleus of the world and boasts of some of the world’s most dynamic countries in an economic sense. A case in point is ASEAN. However, it has its fair share of poor countries, such as the Pacific Islands, and is also witnessing stepped-up big power naval activity.
The Taiwan Straits could very well turn out to be a flash point for a region-wide war, considering the heightening China-Taiwan tensions and the rather overt US involvement in the region’s inter-state politics.
Accordingly, inter-state security cooperation measures in the IOR, spearheaded by the region’s bigger players, emerge as an urgent need. Regional as well as world peace could depend considerably on these solidarity projects that begin by putting things right on the economic plane.