The militarisation of the Indian Ocean and “great power rivalry” are growing concerns for smaller countries in the region, said Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, inaugurating the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth on Friday, as the forum focused on regional cooperation for Indian Ocean Rim and littoral states got under way.
As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke of challenges to international rule of law from the Red Sea to the Indo-Pacific, taking aim specifically at China, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said it was necessary to find ways to reduce conflict in the region.
“Instability increases when long-standing agreements are no longer observed, with no credible justification to justify a change of stance,” Mr. Jaishankar said, delivering a keynote address at the conference organised by the India Foundation, in a veiled reference to China’s amassing of troops at the Line of Actual Control since April 2020. He also made an oblique reference to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, as he spoke of the challenges to freedom of navigation and overflights, and a disregard for internationally negotiated regimes like UNCLOS as “disturbing”.
Speaking at the same event, Sri Lankan President Wickremesinghe said several countries, including India, the U.S., Australia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China were all increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean “significantly”.
“Balancing between the great power rivalry is becoming an increasingly more complex task,” said Mr. Wickremesinghe, explaining smaller states have the question of choosing “one over the others” over them. “As a result, the space for manoeuvrability for littoral states is shrinking fast as this rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) intensifies and spills over into decision making on political, economic and security issues,” he added.
Last month, Sri Lanka announced a one-year moratorium on all foreign research ships docking at its ports, after India objected to dual purpose “spy ships” being allowed into Colombo and Hambantota ports. The moratorium came even as a Chinese warship Xiang Yang Hong 3 made plans to dock in Male for what the Maldives government called a routine “port call”, but added to tensions between the Muizzu and Modi governments, already roiled by Maldives’s demand that Indian soldiers leave the islands in the next few months.
President Wickremesinghe was the only head of state at the Indian Ocean Conference, that is organised annually by the India Foundation, that was held for the first time in Australia this year. He was joined by Foreign Ministers from several regional countries, including Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nepal, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Tonga, Timor-Leste and senior officials and delegates from 40 countries.
The Maldives, that has in the past sent its Vice President to the conference, sent Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Shereyna Abdul Samad this year. In a signal of the change in its stance, the new Muizzu government sent its Vice President Hussain Mohamed Latheef to a parallel “Indian Ocean Region Forum” hosted by China in Kunming in December, however.
The question over the militarisation of the IOR dominated the conversation at the conference, which is sponsored this year by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
In his introductory remarks, President of the India Foundation, Ram Madhav said that the “global power axis” had shifted to the region due to its economies of scale and purchasing power.
“Over 70% of the world’s container trade and 80% of the energy trade passes through the sea-lines of this region. Regrettably, these days, it is here, that many warships and submarines also started appearing regularly,” he added.
When asked whether Australia would like other countries in the region to follow Sri Lanka’s example in placing a moratorium on all foreign research vessels this year, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said these were “sovereign choices”.
“I would hope that in making those decisions, they could make their own sovereign choices, their own free choice about what they believe is in the stability of the region and of their own stability,” she said in response to a question from The Hindu, during a press conference here.
(The Hindu correspondent was an invitee to the Indian Ocean Conference)