Namaskar and Good evening.
It is a great pleasure to join you all in Perth, Australia’s Indian Ocean capital this evening for the 7th Indian Ocean Conference. As someone who has watched it grow since its inception, the quality of the gathering today gives me great personal satisfaction.
Let me begin by recognizing the distinguished presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka and of so many Ministerial colleagues and senior officials, from across the region. I thank the institutions involved in getting us together: the India Foundation, especially Mr. ram Madhav personally, the Perth USAsia Centre and also RSIS Singapore. I express my deepest appreciation to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, West Australia authorities and my own colleagues at the Ministry of External Affairs for their efforts. But most of all, to my counterpart Foreign Minister Penny Wong for her warm welcome and very gracious hospitality.
2. The theme of the 7th Conference is ‘Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean’. These two adjectives are laden with much meaning in such turbulent times. As we gaze at the Indian Ocean, the challenges besetting the world are on full display there. At one extremity, we see conflict, threats to maritime traffic, piracy and terrorism. At the other, there are challenges to international law, concerns about freedom of navigation and overflights, and of safeguarding of sovereignty and of independence. Any disregard for arduously negotiated regimes like UNCLOS 1982 is naturally disturbing. In between, a range of trans-national and non-traditional threats present themselves, largely visible in a spectrum of interconnected illegal activities. Instability also increases when long-standing agreements are no longer observed, with no credible justification to justify a change of stance. All of them, separately and together, make it imperative that there be greater consultation and cooperation, among the states of the Indian Ocean.
3. Our concerns today also extend to grey areas of various kinds. Some may emanate from climate change and natural disasters. Disruptive events are occurring with greater frequency and deeper impact, forcing us all to factor them into our calculus of resilience. There are also the consequences of distant happenings, such as the fuel, food and fertilizer crises that many of us have experienced. But we should be equally conscious that the ‘normal’ can be manipulated, leading to unsustainable debt, opaque lending practices, unviable projects and injudicious choices. Similarly, there are the complexities of dual purpose agendas that mask visibility and lower our guard. Indeed, such activities when combined with the advancement of connectivity with strategic intent, has emerged as a growing anxiety for Indian Ocean states. Well before we come to policy responses, it is necessary to develop awareness and proper understanding.
4. To these gradually emerging developments, there is now also the challenges that are structurally inherent in the current form of globalization. Over-concentrations of manufacturing and technology are creating both supply-side risks, as well as the possibility of leveraging. The experiences which the world underwent during the Covid pandemic has powerful lessons that we ignore only at our own peril. The need of the day is to disperse production across more geographies and build reliable and resilient supply-chains. The digital era and emergence of artificial intelligence has, in parallel, put a premium on trust and transparency. Our very concept of security has undergone a metamorphosis in a volatile and uncertain existence. As a result, the nations of the Indian Ocean today need to reflect on whether they should pursue more collective self-reliance, or remain as vulnerable as in the past. Our sustainable future lies in concentrating on the drivers of the future: digital, electric mobility, green hydrogen and green shipping, to cite a few.
5. When it comes to solutions, let us note that the Indian Ocean has a set of mechanisms that have evolved, each at their own pace. They include the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Indian Ocean Commission, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, the Colombo Security Conclave etc. As the concept of Indo-Pacific took root, initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative emerged, amongst others. Many of us present here today are members of some of them or all of them. Because the challenges and responsibilities are so complex and multi-dimensional, it is incumbent on us to address them at various levels. While infusing more energy into the Indian Ocean centric bodies, we also need to simultaneously work on the larger Indo-Pacific canvas and the narrower sub-regional ones. At the end of the day, they all reinforce each other.
6. Speaking for India, let me underline that in the last decade, we have been very open and engaging in our outlook. As a result, since 2014, India has joined or initiated 36 plurilateral groups in different domains. Many of them have a direct relevance to the future of the Indian Ocean. Others have a domain relevance that contribute to the well-being and security of the maritime spaces and its littoral territories. There are global endeavours which naturally have a regional application as well. Some have strengthened our bilateral partnership with Australia and the Pacific Islands. As regards connectivity, building on the remarks earlier today by Minister Vivian earlier, let me highlight the need for lateral land-based connectivity across the Indian Ocean region. These are essential to supplement and complement the maritime flows. That is why, the IMEC Corridor to India’s West and the Trilateral Highway to India’s East are so significant. Together, they can be veritable changers connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic. Allow me to now share some thoughts in regard to other priorities.
7. We see the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) fostering cooperation and sustainable development. It contributes to enhancing regional security by addressing maritime safety, piracy, and environmental sustainability. Apart from being the highest contributor to the IORA Special Fund, we have encouraged the formulation of IORA’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and restructuring the Chair of Indian Ocean Studies (CIOS). Capacity building is a priority here and the Indian Navy conducts training and exercises to counter IUU fishing and piracy. Assistance to Somalia and Yemen have been notable in this regard. As the Vice Chair and the upcoming Chair for the term 2025-27, our focus is on structural and institutional strengthening of the IORA in order to realize its full potential.
8. I also draw your attention to the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), proposed by India in 2019. It is an open, non-treaty based global initiative that seeks to manage, conserve, sustain, and secure the maritime domain. In the IPOI, Australia’s leadership on Maritime Ecology, the United Kingdom’s on maritime security, and the co-leadership of France and Indonesia on the Maritime Resources pillars have helped to make a beginning. Over the past year, Italy has joined Singapore in leading the Science and Technology pillar, while Germany took the helm in Capacity Building and Resource Sharing. The United States, in partnership with Japan, now co-leads the Trade, Connectivity, and Maritime Transport pillar, and India leading the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management pillar and co-leading on Maritime Security, has added to the realisation of this initiative. Progress on IPOI reflects a strengthening bond among nations that share a common desire to sustain the two oceans through practical, project-based cooperation. Looking forward, the IPOI aims to launch new projects and initiatives while establishing greater synergy with IORA.
9. Let me also flag the growth of the BIMSTEC, an important regional forum covering the Bay of Bengal. For India, it is a convergence of our "Neighbourhood First” policy, or "Act East” outlook and the Indian Ocean interests. India is the lead country for the Security pillar of BIMSTEC, which covers counter-terrorism and transnational crime, disaster management and energy security. We host the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate near Delhi and efforts are underway to set up a BIMSTEC Energy Centre near Bengaluru. We have been organizing events and activities in areas ranging from agriculture, disaster management, space and remote sensing to transnational crimes, trade and investment. We also offer research and higher education scholarships, while promoting common programmes. Infusing more resources and more energy into this grouping will certainly give it a greater role in the times ahead.
10. A notable development for the region has been the emergence and the consolidation of the Quad grouping. Its upgradation to the Summit level is a message in itself. Today, the Quad addresses maritime security, safety, HADR, environment protection, connectivity, strategic technologies, supply chain resilience, health, education and cyber security, amongst others. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness are larger endeavours that have emerged from the deliberations of the Quad. The Quad is today a forum for global good that is particularly active in regard to the global commons. Its deepening is in the interest not only of its members but of the larger region which draws benefit from its activities. Let me underline that it supports the larger architecture in this part of the world that has been painstakingly built up over so many years by ASEAN processes. Those who mischievously suggest that Quad questions the centrality of the ASEAN are playing their own . I am confident that ASEAN will see through it.
11. It is natural that I speak here about India’s growing relations with the Pacific Islands. In the last decade, they have evolved steadily and the May 2023 Summit in Port Moresby has laid out some ambitious goals. India is committed to building a hospital and an oceanic research centre in Fiji, as well as a cyber security hub and space application centre in Papua New Guinea. With all other members, we will be engaging on education, solarisation, desalination, dialysis facilities, artificial limbs, sea ambulances and SME development. This is in tune with our larger outlook vis a vis the Global South.
12. Before, I conclude, a few words on India – Australia relations. Not because we happen to be in Perth, but because it is truly an increasingly consequential relationship. We are today officially Comprehensive Strategic partners, Quad members and share trilaterals with France and Indonesia. Our bilateral architecture caters to regular meetings of Foreign, Defense, Trade, Power, Education and Skill Ministers. We do 2+2 meetings, we conduct Exercise Malabar amongst many others, we collaborate on a Maritime Fusion Center and we reciprocally host deployments. The Indian community in Australia has expanded significantly, and the ECTA has visibly boosted our trade. Every Australian Prime Minister in the last decade has met his Indian counterpart, a far cry from the past. The current ones have actually met seven times. My conversations with Foreign Minister Penny Wong now go well beyond our bilateral ties and bring out the many similarities of our approach to world affairs. In short, we have a strong, comfortable and deepening relationship. A foreign policy survey in India released just two days ago puts Australia among our top 3 partners in terms of reliability. But to all of you who are gathered here, I want to emphasize that these ties are and will be a force for regional and global good.
Ladies and gentlemen,
13. The Indian Ocean, more than any other region, bears witness to India’s greater contribution, responsibilities and interests. From a new Indian Institute of Technology campus in Zanzibar to Solar Mamas in the Pacific, the world sees a more empathetic, efficient and reliable India. We espoused the cause of the Global South and Small Island Developing States during our G20 Presidency. We similarly took forward the message of reformed multilateralism and climate justice. Our Indian Ocean region may be extraordinarily diverse and immensely complicated. But its inherent unity, so deeply rooted in our traditions and cultures, are today best advanced by more intense cooperation among member states. This Conference is a very useful gathering to encourage those very processes. And I conclude by once again expressing my deepest appreciation to the organizers and to our hosts in Australia, who have brought us around the table today.
Thank you for your attention.