Rising Strategic Uncertainty in the Indian Ocean
The pursuit of contesting regional orders by major powers has engendered a strategic environment of uncertainty and mistrust in the Indo-Pacific. As geopolitical developments at land and sea feed off one another, the maritime domain has been marked as the latest theater of war. These dynamics have been most evident in the East and South China Seas, where the complexity of issues at hand is telling. A case in point is China’s construction of military facilities on artificial islands proximate to disputed maritime areas, against a backdrop of contesting interpretations of international law.
As regional and extra-regional states face a rising China on all fronts, a climate of strategic anxiety prevails in anticipation of its potential impact on the existing rules-based international order. Such anxieties inevitably spill over into the Indian Ocean Region and manifest in ways unique to that part of the world. A rising India with aspirations to global-power status finds its regional dominance challenged by China’s two-ocean strategy and Belt and Road Initiative. In the maritime realm, India’s response comprises internal naval and port modernization, and increased naval engagements and exercises with neighboring littorals and external powers that have major stakes in the region. This has not, however, had any noticeable effects in tempering regional anxieties.
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Heavy maritime traffic in increasingly congested regional waters operate alongside this tense backdrop. The risk that various surface vessels could collide—whether naval or commercial—and the risk of submarine accidents is on the rise. A number of regional and extra-regional states have forward-deployed their navies in the Indian Ocean, independently or as part of various task forces. There have already been several maritime accidents involving warships and air crashes in the Persian Gulf and the northern Arabian Sea between regional and extra-regional navies—some of which escalated politically. The Iranian Navy, for instance, has confronted its smaller neighbors and the U.S. Navy by conducting high-speed naval maneuvers and missile firings, and it has used drones to shadow U.S. naval assets. Late last year, an Indian submarine attempted to enter into waters close to Gwadar Port and was reportedly repelled by the Pakistan Navy.
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Miscommunications and misperceptions are likely to result from such incidents and could escalate very fast to negative political and military expressions. It is against this setting that a code of conduct (COC) for the Indian Ocean was first proposed.
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Code of Conduct: Key Components
A COC for the Indian Ocean was first articulated earlier this year by the prime minister of Sri Lanka—one of the smaller, yet strategically placed, littorals in the Indian Ocean. A COC was seen as an essential precursor to good order at sea and for handling the emerging traditional and nontraditional security complexities offered by a fast-changing regional landscape.
The primary scope of a COC in this region is clearly expected to be related to the conduct of naval vessels and aircraft traversing the Indian Ocean. During the Lankan prime minister’s February 2017 lecture, he emphasized foremost the need for a stable legal order for the freedom of navigation and overflight. He cautioned that differing interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the shifting balance of power in the region negates the original utility of the existing legal system. Inter-state conflict and unilateral control of the global commons may follow, so there is a pressing need for new mechanisms that can accommodate the evolving strategic landscape.
Discussions on what a COC would entail, however, have been more ambitious. The COC has at times being tasked with tackling nontraditional-security issues, like human and drug trafficking, and sea piracy and maritime terrorism. It has also been flagged as an appropriate avenue for governance over emerging “blue economy” activities such as seabed mining, hydrographic surveying and bioprospecting. A COC, typically considered as a confidence-and-security-building measure, risks overreaching by taking on practical operational cooperation outside its jurisdiction. Attempting to address maritime issues across such a broad spectrum also runs the danger of becoming a meaningless catch-all framework.
How Will It Be Implemented?
The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is currently the only regionwide mechanism designed to facilitate government-to-government dialogue at the multilateral level. Of late, the association has gained considerable momentum, as member states such as India, Australia and Indonesia, among others, have committed greater resources to revitalize this regional body. South Africa, the new association chair, revealed in a recent country statement that regional maritime safety and security was the first of its three priorities, and that it would lead to the establishment of a working group on Maritime Safety and Security. It pledged a financial contribution of approximately $150,000 to the association to fund the establishment of new working groups on the blue economy, maritime safety and security, women’s economic empowerment, and the International Core Group of Tourism, as per the IORA Action Plan 2017–21. An additional $50,000 was to be allocated in support of the African oceans economy projects under the 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy. The association appears, therefore, to be the most suited platform for an initiative such as the proposed COC.