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Issue no 50, 12-18 March 2022

Blue Diplomacy in Indian Ocean Region: India's Stakes

On 20th February 2022, India and France adopted a Roadmap on the Blue Economy and Ocean Governance to make the Blue Economy a driver of the progress of their respective societies while respecting the environment and coastal and marine biodiversity. Both countries aim to contribute to scientific knowledge and ocean conservation while ensuring that the ocean remains a global common, a space of freedom and trade based on the rule of law. This development holds immense importance as India will get access to the French Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean, accounting for more than 10% of the total surface of the ocean.

India and littoral states of the Indian Ocean have been ardently pushing their agendas at international fora, including the UN, seeking the rule of law in the maritime domain to ensure sustainable use of marine resources, which have become a casualty of China's excessive strategic ambition. The most recent example of China's overly aggressive approach was the opening up the world's largest marine reserves, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, by pacific nation Kiribati to commercial fishing.

China has been looking to increase fishing activities in the Pacific region after it overfished tuna in the high seas of the Indian Ocean- where fishing of the species is not regulated, leading to a drastic reduction in the quantity of the fish in the region. As per data released by the Indian Navy's Gurugram-based Information Fusion Centre Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR), a total of 592 incidents of illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing were reported in the Indian Ocean Region and adjoining waters in 2020-21. Against this backdrop, India has expedited its blue economy diplomacy supported by the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) mission that Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched in 2015. In the same year, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) hosted the first IORA Ministerial Blue Economy Conference titled "Enhancing Blue Economy Cooperation for Sustainable Development in the IORA Region" in Mauritius. The group identified four priority areas for development: Fisheries & Aquaculture; Renewable Ocean Energy; Seaports & Shipping, and Seabed Exploration & Minerals.

Speaking with Employment News Professor Harsh V. Pant, Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi says,"I think SAGAR is a very important initiative for India because when New Delhi says security and growth for all in the region, it is trying to place India in a larger context of the Indian Ocean Region and make the case that India's growing role in the global economy is not only meant to help India but also regional partners to attain security and greater prosperity."

Professor Pant reckons that the SAGAR mission has made some progress so far. The progress would have been much more but for the volatility in global polity and how the Indian Ocean Region is increasingly becoming contested with major powers playing a role in the Indian Ocean.

Nevertheless, India's eagerness to be involved with maritime neighbours through organisations like ASEAN, IORA, and its Act East Policy provide some headroom against its competitors.

Meanwhile, India has been grappling with some limitations in capacity and execution, which according to experts have given opportunity that China exploited in expanding its outreach in developing infrastructures in the Indian Ocean Region.

 "Limitations in capacity and execution are big hurdles for India. Often, smaller countries in the region complain that India is not attentive to their concens and that India does not complete projects in time. Compared to the way China can project economic power in the region, India is often unable to do so. Part of the reason, of course, is the capacity differential between India and China. China has a much larger reservoir of economic resources it can use whereas India has to operate within certain constraints. Within those constraints, India's ability has been marred by various obstacles. India tries to rectify this, as it has done in recent years, with streamlining of process and a greater focus on completing projects on time. Such efforts can eventually change India's perception in the region. Doing so would not be very difficult as Chinese projects are debt-heavy (as China creates a debt burden among countries). With examples from Indian Ocean countries to all the way to Africa, I think countries will be cautious in approaching China and India would gain from that," Professor Pant concludes.

(Views expressed are personal).