The fifth Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) 2021 will be held in Abu Dhabi from Dec. 4-5, 2021. Chaired by the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it will be attended by the Indian External Affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar among other top dignitaries.
The event is being organised by the India Foundation under the theme — Ecology, Economy, Epidemic. In an exclusive interview, Ram Madhav, member of the India Foundation governing council and a former national general secretary of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), elaborates on how the Indian Ocean community can make best of the current situation.
The selection of Abu Dhabi to hold the Fifth Indian Ocean Conference is significant. Your comments?
Indian Ocean conference is a platform for the stakeholder countries in the region to get together to discuss future cooperation and agenda. In the last couple of decades Indian Ocean has emerged as the lifeline for all big powers, not only in the region but around the world.
Together with Western Pacific Ocean, the Indo-Pacific is today the world’s most happening place. It is here that the global power axis is located in 21st century. It is here that economies of scale and emerging markets exist, populations and purchasing power exist and defence cooperation is happening.
Arab countries are an important and integral part of this region. They depend heavily on the Indian Ocean for their trade and commerce. They have developed into the hubs of global ocean trade through Indian Ocean.
UAE is among the leading Arab powers. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah together constitute important global trading hubs in the Arab region. It is for that reason that the fifth edition of the IOC is taking place at Abu Dhabi.
In order to highlight the role of Arab nations in global economy and trade, it was decided to host the conference in the region this year. UAE is known for its world class hospitality infrastructure. Together with the Expo Dubai 2020, this event will be a milestone in Indian Ocean regional dynamics.
The focus of the conference is quite wide this time. Ecology, Economy, Epidemic. What’s the running thread in it?
Leaders of the world see Indo-Pacific as a zone of conflict. When they get together on the global forums, the discussions largely centre around security, military and conflict resolution only. Many predict the 21st century Cold War to take place. But the countries in the region have a different take.
All the important countries in the region — from India and its neighbourhood to ASEAN to Gulf member states — look at the Indian Ocean region as an opportunity for prosperity and development; not conflict and Cold War.
Issues for the regional powers are the ones that the conference discusses each year. It is a non-security focus conference. Regional countries see huge opportunities in ocean trade, supply chains and markets. They face challenges on marine ecological front that adversely affect lives, livelihoods and economies in the regional countries.
Natural disasters like Tsunamis to man made calamities like unregulated fishing and exploitation of oceanic resources pose a serious danger to regional countries. Climate change related challenge of raising ocean levels is leading to the prospect of inundation of habited and uninhabited territories in different countries in the Indian Ocean.
On top of these issues was the current challenge of the pandemic. It calls for greater cooperation and support among the world powers in general and regional powers in particular.
The IOC 2021 will discuss these three major issues that have direct relevance to the future of the region and the world. Presidents, Vice Presidents, Prime Ministers, ministers and officials from over 25 countries will address the conference and share their ideas with their colleagues for better networking in the region.
Significance of the initiative can be gauged from the fact that it takes place in important Indian Ocean countries annually, highlighting the significant role they play in the region irrespective of their size of economy and geography. Destiny of the Indian Ocean region must be in the hands of the regional powers.
The conference has grown into the most important regional multilateral initiative in the last five years. At the conference in early 2020 at Male in Maldives, over 40 countries have participated with a ministerial level participation from 17 countries.
At Abu Dhabi this year, despite Covid restrictions, 15 countries are expected to take part at the ministerial level in person and another 10 countries virtually. That proves the efficacy of this exercise and the importance that regional stakeholder countries attach to it.
India and the UAE has come closer than ever before. How do you see it playing out in the region around Indian Ocean?
India and UAE have strong bilateral ties for many years which got further strengthened in the last few years. The UAE leadership considers India as an important partner in the regional initiatives for prosperity and development.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are like second home to millions of Indians today. They are global centres providing huge economic opportunities to Indian investors and entrepreneurs.
This bilateral relationship is one of the defining relationships India has with the Arab world, which is an integral part of the Indian Ocean trade and commerce. Beyond economy and commerce, our two countries work together in establishing peace and stability in the immediate neighbourhood of the region too.
In view of danger of the new variant of Covid spreading, how do you look at the cooperation between the Indian Ocean community?
Covid has thrown a serious health care challenge to the entire world. Countries are struggling to secure the health and lives of their citizens. In the process they are forced to sacrifice their economic interests leading to widespread joblessness, poverty, economic decline and consequent social unrest.
Countries in the region need to come together to defeat the pandemic through cooperation in vaccine production, distribution and affordable availability. Supply chain issues need intergovernmental cooperation and networking. Indian Ocean region has all the strengths to address the challenge.
It has best vaccine production facilities in countries like India; it has extensive network of ports and trading hubs to take care of supply chain issues.
Need of the hour is for the leaders in the region to come together in the spirit of camaraderie and strategise their response. Indian Ocean Conference is one such platform for cooperation and networking.
(The interview was conducted by Sheela Bhatt for Gulf News on December 1, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)