Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage, Director Pathfinder Foundation said that the Indian Ocean Region is a region of “strategic competition, strategic alliances for some major powers against others and strategic dilemma for smaller and less powerful states for major powers”.
Dr. Colombage made these comments at the 7th International Conference on Common Development of China and Indian Ocean Economics, organized by the Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economics (RIIO) at Yunnna University of Finance and Economics (YUFE) held in Kunming, China from. Delivering the keynote address titled “Great Power strategy and its regional role in the Indian Ocean: From the perspective of security”, Dr. Colombage stressed that the Indian Ocean Region is presently an area of a developing ‘maritime cold war’ where major powers contest for power and influence and an area of ‘trust deficiency’. This situation has led to an increased militarization and nuclearization of the Indian Ocean.
RIIO founded by Yunnan University of Finance and Economics is an independent academic institute. RIIO under the leadership of Professor Zhu Cuiping is committed to its international, academic and strategic purposes, combining academic research with advisory services, and to strategic and policy studies of theories for the future of Indian Ocean Region. RIIO attach great importance to exchange and cooperation with institutes in China and abroad in related fields. It organizes regular international symposiums and publicize research achievements and information of research activities for governments, enterprises and public through academic thesis, research reports, newsletters, journals and blue books. RIIO is working to make contributions to the development of China and the Indian Ocean Region and also provide intellectual support to governments and enterprises.
The 7th international conference was conducted with the participation of academics, subject matter experts and representatives of think tanks and governments for two days in the ‘Sprint City’ of China Kunming. Countries participated at this conference are Australia, China, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Admiral Dr. Jayanath Colombage of Pathfinder foundation and Additional Secretary to Sri Lanka Ministry of Foreign affairs, Sumith Nakandala represented Sri Lanka in the key event.
Admiral Colomabge’s paper further stated that; Due to the strategic competition and mistrust, and the interest for power and dominance shown by major maritime users, it can be seen that there is a ‘Maritime Cold War’ taking shape in the Indian Ocean in the 21st century, which is also known as ‘Asian Century’. There are different perspectives over status and aspirations, which could descend into long term strategic rivalry between India and China. China has followed the international maritime order in the Indian Ocean and has expressed willingness to work within a comprehensive, collaborative and coordinated arrangement to maintain the freedom of navigation. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, USA’s ‘Cooperative Strategy foe 21st century sea power’ and Japan’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy’, have found a convenient strategic convergence of this maritime trinity in the Indian Ocean. The three major maritime powers have developed a ‘strategic global partnership’ in the Indian Ocean mainly to counter Chinese foray in to this ocean. The role of Australia in this strategic competition is not still clear. China, possibly with Pakistan is on the other side of the spectrum.
The competition for power and influence by major powers has compelled other smaller less powerful countries to capitalize and extract military, economic and political benefits from both sides. Some countries even attempt to play one against the other. But this competition can also lead to political instability. Furthermore, this geostrategic competition has led to greater militarization of the region and there is a need for an urgent consultation process to bring all parties to commit to the rule based good order and to maintain a policy of open and free seas. This process could be a regional maritime security architecture or a Code of Practice (COP) for Major Maritime Users.
Then there are the non-state actors who are keen to operate in the IO, especially to carry out their nefarious activities. The threat posed by non-state actors is far greater in the IO than the other oceans and hence special focus is essential to deal with them. Collaborative and cooperative regional security architecture is needed to combat this threat.
During the Indian Ocean conference held in Colombo on 1st September 2017, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka highlighted the need for and ‘Indian Ocean order’, which is not dominated by one single state. Moreover, he went on to stress that thus Indian Ocean order should emphasize freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes and decision making through consensus. The Indian Ocean cannot be an openocean for some states and a close ocean for others. This is a global common and hence should be accessible for all states for peaceful purposes. Sri Lanka situated in a geographically advantages position and having a balanced and equi-distanced foreign policy could play a catalyst role in moving ahead with a this new ‘Indian Ocean Order’ for maintaining stability, security of seaborne commerce and freedom in the Indian Ocean Region