Changing geo-strategic imperatives in the Indian Ocean region

The ‘x’ generation of the 21st century is one marked with increasing substance in human rights implementation, increasing prevalence of civil wars and an increasing significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The continuum of this region stretches from Iran, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the north to Antarctica in the south, and from Indonesia and Australia in the east to Africa and Arabian peninsula in the west. The name of the ocean stems from the fact that it shares the longest shoreline with India.

India was one of the first four ‘cradles of civilisation.’ Not surprisingly was it also one of the earliest regions in the world to engage in trade, both internOally and externally. While trade along the silk route flourished, outshining it was the trade across the ‘spice route’ of the 15th century. Here began India’s historical spice-trade ties with Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Starting with the establishment of Kozhikode and the ancient port Muziris in Kerala, trade of spices took flight from Kerala and substantiated cross-national ties with present-day Oman, Iran, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt.

But the history of India’s maritime trade dates back to the 2700 B.C.E, a time when Meluhha (recognised by many scholars as the Indus Valley/ Harappan Civilisation) was the prime land of ‘sea-farers,’ as mentioned by various Mesopotamian texts. These texts also mention exchanges in carnelian, lapis lazuli, copper, gold, varieties of wood, spices, and garment, between Meluhha and the regions of Dilmun and Magan, recognised by most scholars as modern day Oman and Bahrain island, respectively. The world’s first dock at was situated at Lothal, a Harappan site in Gujarat.

The classical era witnessed maritime trade across the Indian Ocean being dominated by the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean, the Han Empire in China, the Mauryan Empire in the Indian subcontinent and the Achaemenid Empire in the Middle East region of Persia. Pliny’s ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ provides detailed records of these historical interactions spanning across the IOR. Not just commodities, interactions across Indian Ocean were also bolstered by religious discussions and spread of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. While Buddhism was one of India’s greatest gifts in shaping China’s social foundations, Islam adopted a similar route during 700 C.E to spread to India, China and surrounding regions of Middle East and Central Asia.

Also dating back to the 4th century B.C.E are the India-Africa ties. India’s links with Africa are centuries old and entrenched in these links are extensive historical trade relations, people-to-people ties and tales of socio-political support. The Periplus described thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, vessels of glass, lapis lazuli, gold and silver plates, silk, yarn and indigo as main items exchanged between India and Africa, highlighting the wide expanse of this import-export network. An important aspect was also the trade off Swahili coast in East Africa during 7-8th centuries B.C. While Africa was famous for the export of ivory, gold, and slaves, it received beads, cloth, ointments, oils, and decorated bowls in exchange from Western India. In fact, the north Swahili coast from Lamu to Unguja (Zanzibar) was used by vessels from the Middle East and western India for trans-shipment purposes. Much later in the history of the world, India and Africa strengthen these bonds through shared values of anti-racism and anti-colonialism, while forming the basis of Asia-Africa solidarity under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s rule in Delhi. Today, these centuries-old links are being fostered by the 2.7 million Indian diaspora occupying Africa, as well as the increasing shift of diplomatic focus towards our old friends.

In its attempt to consolidate its geo-strategic and democratic strengths in the IOR, India’s foreign policy in the last decade has been largely focused on expanding co-operation with its Asian neighbours, as well as with western superpowers of the European Union and the United States. Moreover, China’s greater presence in the IOR and its ‘string of pearls’ threatens India’s footprint in the region, geo-politically and militarily. Hence, simultaneous to this have been the India’s attempts to counter domination of China in the region, and across global economic, technical and developmental aspects. In the process, India has been attempting to gain on Chinese developments in the global context, from inviting Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) at large, to prioritising military security and technological advancement for economic prosperity. Even as he came in power, PM Modi conducted what was called a ‘mini SAARC Summit.’ The country’s changing geo-strategic viewpoints, inclined towards the east and south, have undermined its historical connections across the continuum with Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe.

Efforts to rekindle these historical ties are now defining characteristics of Modi foreign policy, 2.0. One such efforts is called ‘Project Mausam.’ Started by the Indian Ministry of Culture in 2014, Project Mausam aims to revive maritime ties among the Indian Ocean ports across Kerala, Sri Lanka and Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, such as Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. At a micro level, it also attempts to understand India’s cultural predispositions in a maritime milieu. While the geo-political aim of the project is noble, it remained dormant for a long time after its grand inauguration during the World Heritage Summit at Doha, Qatar in June 2014. However, last year, Project Mausam was extended up to 2020 with the pre-approved fund of about Rs. 60 lakhs under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as the implementing party, and with research support of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Also under focus were efforts to rigorously regenerate connections with the African subcontinent. PM Modi’s first ever tour to four African nations in July 2016, a month right after President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the continent, was a powerful symbol of the revived friendship between the two subcontinents. India’s focus on multilateral engagements like BRICS, UN General Assembly and G-20 is also a pivotal development, while its increasing participation in India-Africa Summits and IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) creates a better future for both India-Africa connectivity. Most importantly, in the process, Global South-South Cooperation is being enhanced immensely.

As history suggests, the geo-strategic imperatives of the Indian Ocean Region significantly outlined the cooperation among India, Africa and the Middle East. While our overarching approach has been dominated by policies like the ‘Look East’, ‘Act East’, and cooperation with major global superpowers, Projects like ‘Mausam’ and reclaiming the ‘Spice route’ need to cover wider ground. This historical outlook must help us realise the need for constancy in our foreign policy towards our ‘old friends and old family’.

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