Tarique Karim, one of Bangladesh's most accomplished foreign service professionals who served as envoy to both India and the United States during a distinguished career, is fond of saying if it were up to him, he would have named the planet not Earth, but Oceania - his logic being the planet we inhabit is 70 percent ocean after all.
All of the recent diplomatic manoeuvring we have witnessed in recent times centring the so-called "Indo-Pacific" - meaning the entire span of the planet served by two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific, would suggest he is on to something certainly. The latest was a two-day conference held in Dhaka this past week, the 6th Indian Ocean Conference.
Bangladesh's hosting of the conference served to confirm its own importance as a vital cog in any regional architecture that emerges around the Indian Ocean, being a gateway to its vast expanses through the Bay of Bengal.
Attending the conference, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar said they believe that a seamless transition into an Indo-Pacific framework is to the collective advantage of the littoral states.
He reiterated India's commitment to the well-being and progress of all nations of the Indian Ocean.
"We have dedicated bodies like the Indian Ocean Rim Association or the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, with their specific mandates. We expand on that belief through the Neighbourhood First policy, the SAGAR outlook and our approach to the extended neighbourhood," Jaishankar said while speaking at the inaugural session.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the conference.
Jaishankar appreciated the personal support and encouragement extended by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, reflected in her presence amongst them.
Referring to Bangladesh which released its Indo-Pacific Outlook on 24 April 2023, Jaishankar said, "By doing so, Bangladesh joined a number of countries ranging from ASEAN and East Asia to Europe and North America in articulating its thinking on this important subject."
He said the Indo-Pacific is a reality and becoming more so with each passing day.
"I am truly glad that Bangladesh has joined the company of those who have done so," Jaishankar said.
He particularly noted from the 4 Guiding Principles and the 15 Objectives of Bangladesh's recently released Indo Pacific Outlook, where its respect for the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is laid down.
It is essential for the credibility of the global order that such foundational regimes are respected and scrupulously observed by all signatories, said the Indian Minister.
He said the views of Bangladesh are particularly noteworthy because of its standing as a progressive and successful developing economy that is making its fullest contribution to regional growth and prosperity.
Jaishankar said, "The world is understandably seized of the larger domain of the Indo-Pacific, we should not underplay the issues and challenges of one of its core constituents - the nations of the Indian Ocean."
He said many nations of the Indian Ocean still face developmental challenges that may no longer be relevant in the Pacific.
"So, even while impressing the essential coherence of the Indo-Pacific, I would urge that we also focus determinedly on the Indian Ocean nations and their challenges," he said.
He said, "When nations disregard their legal obligations or violate long-standing agreements, as we have seen, the damage to trust and confidence is immense. It is therefore essential that all of us take the long view of our cooperation, rather than a tactical one of our interests."
He said many of them in the region are today confronting the consequences of their past choices. "This is time to reflect and reform, not one to repeat and reiterate."
Jaishankar said connectivity is a particularly crucial issue for all of them.Collectively, he said, the more they work on facilitating smooth and effective connectivity, the better off they all are.
"And obviously, we need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity while doing so. Let me therefore underline that from India's perspective, efficient and effective connectivity to ASEAN in particular will be a game-changer. We accord this the utmost priority," Jaishankar said.
He said they must put in place the bilateral, plurilateral and regional tools and mechanisms to achieve their ends.
"It would mean exchanging information on white shipping, cooperating on coastal surveillance or collaborating on maritime domain awareness," he said, adding that diplomacy cannot rest content merely by articulating positions; it equally needs practical action to back it up.
There are some global challenges that also merit regional considerations, Jaishankar said.
"Chief among them are climate action and counter-terrorism. The universality of these concerns is by now well recognized. It is essential that our conversations aim to encourage common positions," he said.
The Indian Minister said they must also be conscious of the threats to social fabric posed by extremism and fundamentalism taking advantage of democratic openness. "The costs of not doing so are also starkly apparent to all of us today."
Nations of the Indian Ocean are among those who lead the rise of Asia and the re-emergence of Africa, he said.
These nations have the responsibility today of shaping the narrative, shaping it about values, practices and correctness, Jaishankar mentioned.
"It is essential that their culture, history and traditions are presented to the world. If we are to compare the relative weight of littorals, that of the Indian Ocean still has to play catch-up. Our challenge, indeed our responsibility, is to hasten that process," he added.
The stability of the countries of the Indian Ocean region, along with communication, crisis management, and aiding others during disasters topped the agenda at the Conference of the Indian Ocean Regional Countries. Representatives from 25 countries participated in the event.
Both public and private level participation is expected at tomorrow's event, which will include civil society members, students, and professionals.
"The aim of the event is to determine the larger agenda and discuss how to work together to deal with issues facing the region," said Shahriar Alam, prior to the conference.
In response to a question about Bangladesh's stance towards China, he said that China has been invited to the event and is not excluded.
He added that Bangladesh's policy towards the crisis in the region is determined by the principle of maintaining friendship with all countries and not having enmity towards anyone.
There are no plans for military ambition or to become a regional power, and Prime Minister Hasina's priority is to improve the lives of her people, he said.
Focus on economic cooperation
Foreign affairs analysts sought efforts to focus on economic cooperation and de-escalation of security threats in the Indian Ocean region which is increasingly becoming an area of strategic competition among the big powers.
Transparency and feasibility for cooperation among the regional countries are the fundamentals that can lead to peace and prosperity, they observed.
The experts made the observation at the sixth Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) hosted by India Foundation and the foreign ministries of Bangladesh and India.
More than 150 representatives, including the President of Mauritius and ministers from 25 countries are attending the two-day event.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the Conference. Talking to reporters before the formal inauguration, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md. Shahriar Alam said Bangladesh does not have any military ambition.
"We want to improve the lives of our people, peace and stability. Our Indo-Pacific Outlook also has a similar vision as well as having friendly relationships with others," he said.
The Indian Ocean region is home to one third of the global population and more than half the world's oil transits the region.
Almost a quarter of the largest container ports are located in this region, with 15 percent of the global fisheries stock. By 2025, the region should account for 20 percent of the world GDP.
The foreign policy analysts say the region is becoming much more complex and contested. Analysts said this is the reality when the Indian Ocean faces some of the major challenges including environmental security, human and drug smuggling, while the immense potentials of the blue economy largely remain untapped.
Sinderpal Singh, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies of Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said one key way to regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean region is establishing economic cooperation and connectivity.
"You can do it one, you can do it the other. This forms habits of cooperation, while security cooperation is normally zero sum," he said at a session on 'rise of a peaceful Indo-Pacific for a resilient global future'.
It may not be the case that all the Indian Ocean states come together for a large alliance, but a few countries can work together on certain issues, for example, the environment, which will be very useful, he suggested.
Singh suggested that China has been making large-scale investments in this region, and as a global power, the US should also make more investments here. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework can be quite effective.
He said the principle that every state is equal, has sovereignty and maintains international law must be maintained by all.
Pankaj Saran, convenor of Indian think tank Centre for Research on Strategic and Security Studies, and ex-ambassador to Bangladesh, said peace and prosperity require some basic things that include equal security for all, trust, openness and transparency.
Dr David Brewster, senior research fellow of National Security College at the Australian National University, said there needs to be effective regional arrangements in the Indian Ocean region for cooperation and collaboration on the issues, including environmental security, flourishing blue economy etc.
He suggested that small and middle powers of the region forge cooperation and show paths for others to follow.
Bangladesh's former foreign secretary Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said instability in Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis are working as blockages behind improving regional connectivity.
"Ambiguity on the Rohingya crisis is not an option," he said, adding that this problem can be a security issue for the whole region.
The US presence
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in pretty much her last engagement before going into retirement, said they are working with the US Congress, for regional maritime security initiatives - partnering with Bangladesh, India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka.
Their cooperation seeks to bolster interdiction and law enforcement capacity in the Indian Ocean's South Asian sub-region, she said.
"Partnership is critical to maritime security, and I want to acknowledge India's leadership in this space... specifically in the fields of anti-piracy, EEZ monitoring, and disaster response," Sherman said, whule participating virtually during a session. The United States was represented in the flesh by Afreen Akhter, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs for Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, leading the delegation.
Sherman thanked Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen for hosting the Indian Ocean Conference 2023 and for inviting her to speak to the esteemed group. She also thanked India's External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar and the India Foundation for their partnership in helping to organize the event each year.
She said this region does face serious challenges. "The climate crisis touches us all, but it has a disproportionate impact on Indian Ocean countries. For some, particularly island states, climate change represents an existential threat."
Meanwhile, she said, piracy, armed robbery at sea, and trafficking degrade maritime security. "And illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing threaten blue economies, which need to be sustainable for future generations to prosper."
All of these challenges require a concerted and collaborative approach among all of them, countries, multilateral bodies like IORA, civil society, and people, Sherman said.
She said the United States is committed to doing their part. "That's why we've announced plans to provide $165 million for programs across the Indian Ocean region that address climate change adaptation and mitigation, including the transition to a clean energy future."
Sherman said the future of the world will be determined in large part by what happens here.
The Indian Ocean region is home to 2.7 billion people - more than a third of the world's population - and with an average age of 30 years, that percentage will only grow.
"It is difficult to overstate the economic significance of this region. The Indian Ocean accounts for one-fifth of the world's ocean surface, and it connects people and economies around the globe," she said.
Its vast coastline includes some of the world's most important shipping lanes - from the Strait of Hormuz to the Malacca Strait.
Eighty percent of the world's maritime oil shipments traverse Indian Ocean waters. Some of the planet's most vital fisheries are here, and they play a critical role in employing people in the region and feeding people around the world.
"So it makes sense that all of us have an interest in a peaceful and prosperous future for the Indian Ocean region. We share the vision embedded in this year's conference theme... Peace, Prosperity, and Partnership for a Resilient Future," Sherman said.
Through USAID, the United States invests more than $33 million in 15 countries each year to promote sustainable fisheries and conserve marine biodiversity.
"And in this region, we are working to identify development assistance, including to Bangladesh, focused on growing sustainable blue economies," Sherman said.
"We are doing this because the promise of the Indian Ocean region is limitless. We are doing this because unlocking its full potential requires all of us to come together," she said, adding that while they are taking action to address common challenges, they are also here to listen.
"I hope you'll share your ideas for how the United States can further develop our partnership with Deputy Assistant Secretary Akhter and the rest of our delegation," Sherman said.
In the coming months, she said they will look for ways to build on the momentum generated in the conversations this week.
"And we'll continue to advance our shared vision so we can build a more peaceful, prosperous, and resilient Indian Ocean region together," the US Deputy Secretary of State told the 6th Indian Ocean Conference.
Bangladesh advocates 'free, secure, inclusive region'
Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen was assigned to provide the closing statement to conclude the conference, which he did by saying Bangladesh envisions an Indian Ocean that is free, open, peaceful, secure, and inclusive, promoting shared prosperity for all.
"We remain committed to working with all our regional partners towards this end," he said, adding that Bangladesh advocates "shared prosperity" through "shared responsibility" over the region, through which they would achieve the global Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
While delivering the closing remarks, the foreign secretary said if they fully appreciate and realize this, they can grow together towards peace, prosperity, and partnership for a resilient future.
Bangladesh considers the stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean as an essential component in achieving her 'Vision 2041' of establishing a modern, knowledge-based developed country by 2041, he said.
The foreign secretary said Bangladesh believes the Indian Ocean countries can significantly contribute to the global GDP, international trade, towards climate action, and growing technological advancements for ensuring global peace and prosperity.
He said Bangladesh stands ready to extend cooperation in the region towards a result-oriented focus that will augment achievement for the common good of the region.
Masud said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggested six priority areas where the Indian Ocean Region should focus on - maritime diplomacy; combating climate change and natural disasters; strengthening partnerships; strengthening mechanisms for maritime safety and security; promoting a culture of peace; and promoting equitable and sustainable development.
"In line with these, we may build on our cooperation and collaboration among the Indian Ocean countries to ensure a better future for us," said the foreign secretary.
On behalf of the government, he expressed sincere gratitude to all the participating countries in this 6th Indian Ocean Conference-2023 in Dhaka.
"With your commitment and contribution, I believe this 6th Indian Ocean Conference has become a remarkable success and we can carry forward the takeaways of this Conference to the next conference and other global discourses," he said.
The foreign secretary said the world's centre of political and economic gravity is moving eastwards to Asia and Africa.
The importance of the Indian Ocean Region needs no reiteration especially for many countries whose existence, prosperity and security were, and will always be, intimately linked to it, he said.
Yet, he said, the Indian Ocean Economy is perhaps not one of the highly integrated regions of the world.
"We should not also lose focus of the fact that the oceans are both an engine for global economic growth and a key source of food security," said the foreign secretary.
Bangladesh puts great emphasis on enhancing physical, institutional, energy, digital and human connectivity, facilitating movement of goods, services, capital, and people in a systematic manner, and promoting technology transfer and access to innovations in the region, he said.
"We would like the other countries in the region to engage and cooperate proactively in promoting food security, water solidarity, and disaster risk reduction," he said.
Cooperation among the countries to address the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, marine pollution, and other significant and harmful impacts on the environment is also critically important, said the Foreign Secretary.
'To walk together with countries in the region'
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the conference, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam said Bangladesh wants to walk together with the countries in the region by resolving the issues through discussion and joint efforts.
He also laid emphasis on sharing good practices among partner countries as Bangladesh seeks cooperation in the region. The state minister had three separate bilateral meetings with Australian Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan and Assistant Minister of UAE.
He said the leaders participating in the Indian Ocean Conference highly appreciated Bangladesh's progress and its continued efforts for establishing regional peace. Shahriar said Bangladesh has emerged as 35th largest economy in the world under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
He said Bangladesh seeks support from its partners in terms of extension of duty-free benefits till 2029.
Responding to a question, the state minister said the government is looking into the agreements and signed joint communique with Japan during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent visit there so that follow up is done quickly on the targets.
A regional architecture emerging
While providing her version of the US view, Afreen Akhter said the United States is committed to regional and multilateral efforts that help advance prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region.
"We want to see this regional architecture grow and solidify, because we believe it is absolutely necessary in realizing the potential of this region," she said, while speaking at the conference on May 13.
As she headed back to Washington, Afreen said she was taking back the perspectives with her, noting that "Your voices will guide our efforts to help build a prosperous, peaceful, free and open Indian Ocean Region."
Next month, the United States will attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association's (IORA) Strategic Dialogue-where IORA Member States and Dialogue Partners will gather to discuss collaboration in the Indian Ocean Region.
"Collectively addressing the climate crisis will be a key priority for us as an IORA Dialogue Partner," Afreen said.
Afreen said in Bangladesh the United States is implementing a $17 million program over five years that will expand Bangladesh's access to affordable clean energy and support innovation in the clean energy economy.
In addition, the United States is working with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and partners across the Indian Ocean region to stop the flow of plastic pollution, develop climate smart agriculture and adapt to the effects of climate change.
The United States is also supporting resilience and prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region by responding to crises and making long-term investments. It is committed to the Indian Ocean region, she said, adding that from the Strait of Malacca to the Arabian Sea, this strategically important region is filled with promise and opportunity.
"We are already working across the Indian Ocean region to support transitions to clean energy," she said.
The U.S. Development Finance Corporation invested $500 million in First Solar to boost solar power production in India. This effort supports Prime Minister Modi's goal to install 500GW of renewable power generation in India, which will help save lives by reducing pollution in major cities.
"Through our Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, we are providing a $500 million grant to build hydropower lines and roads in Nepal," Afreen said. A key component of resilience is, of course, helping the region respond to and recover from the COVID pandemic.
Of the nearly 700 million safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine doses the United States donated bilaterally and in partnership with COVAX, over 265 million were to countries across the Indo-Pacific region - 161 million alone right here in Bangladesh, Afreen mentioned.
Over the last two years, the United States Development Finance Corporation has invested $400 million in funding to grow Sri Lanka's micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises, especially those owned by women. Of this, a $15 million DFC loan to a Sri Lankan polyester yarn manufacturing company, BPPL Holdings PLC, is supporting both increased production - and, of course, livelihoods - while reducing plastic waste.
These are just a few examples of the many ways in which the United States is supporting resilience and prosperity in this vital region. She said South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, especially when it comes to trade and people-to-people contact. "This comes at a huge cost to the region."
Intraregional trade is at one-fifth of its potential with an estimated annual gap of $44 billion. The World Bank estimates that an electricity market of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal would save an estimated $17 billion in capital costs. And improvements in transport and logistics can reduce the 50 percent higher cost for container shipments in South Asia compared to OECD nations. These changes would have a transformative impact on the economies of this region.
"Our Indo-Pacific Strategy makes clear our belief that our shared positive vision for the region cannot be achieved without working in partnership to build collective capacity. Building and leveraging regional architectures is critical to this effort," Afreen said
Groupings like BIMSTEC and SAARC could play helpful roles in unlocking economic prosperity for South Asian Indian Ocean economies, she said.
Additional reporting by AK Moinuddin
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