Rethinking ‘Indian Ocean’

M Azam Khan

IN his well-known treatise published in 1945, ‘India and the Indian Ocean’, the late Indian diplomat cum journalist KM Panikkar makes a long drawn case and touts why the Indian Ocean should remain ‘truly Indian’. Fast-forward 21st century. Numerous internationally acclaimed scholars today fiercely dispute the claim advancing powerful justifications.
The world has witnessed dramatic changes since Panikkar wrote his exposition. We live today in a much transformed and dynamic era. In the contemporary interconnected interdependent world, the term ‘maritime commons’ is often invoked while referring to the maritime domain. The ocean and its highways truly embody a ‘common dominion’ shared by 193 United Nation member states inclusive of coastal, hinterland and even landlocked countries.
The intercontinental maritime highways are lifelines that drive the global economy and prosperity. Oceans now frequently unleash nature’s fury in the form of tsunamis, cyclones and other natural disasters. These disasters require a shared regional if not global response to mitigate the savagely wide-ranging reverberations that may follow in their aftermath. Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 being just one of the examples.
A few years back, an Australian scholar suggested that the term ‘Indian Ocean’ is inappropriate. He argued that this ocean expanse is a ‘string of closely related regional systems stretching from East Asia around the continent and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa to which a new generic name, such as ‘the Asian Seas’ might well be given’. Yet another eminent scholar in his book, ‘The Indian Ocean’, first published in 2003 suggests replacing the term, ‘the Indian Ocean’ with ‘the Afrasian Seas’.
According to him, the term the ‘Afrasian Sea’ is appropriate for the whole area of what is conventionally called the Indian Ocean, for it avoids assuming Indian centrality as implied in the Indian Ocean term, or Arab dominance as in the Arabian Sea. Instead, the term is all-inclusive, taking in not only the Asian shores—but also the often-ignored area of East African coast.
In what is being increasingly described as the ‘century of oceans’ and Asia, the new centre of international trade and Indian Ocean, underpinning global economy, India or any other nation cannot claim exclusive or sovereign rights over the Ocean. Also, issues of legal ownership are now defined under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS).
The time may perhaps be ripe for the world at large therefore to rethink and revisit the title, ‘the Indian Ocean’. Indian strategic community is entitled to its own ideas and perceptions but international laws must prevail over vague visualizations. Navies of several countries now operate independently and as part of various coalitions to safeguard national interests and preserve order in the vital highways of the Indian Ocean. Pakistan considers collaborative maritime security efforts to be of fundamental significance for maintaining peace and stability in its area of responsibility (AOR).
Since 2003, Pakistan Navy (PN) has been a torchbearer in several international coalitions conducting sustained and diversified operations in the western Indian Ocean region. It has busted several criminal cartels and remains in the vanguard of anti-piracy operations off Somalia’s troubled coast.
The key international and national initiatives of PN have included AMAN series of biennial multinational exercise preceded by an International Maritime Conference (IMC), setting up of a Coastal Command and a Joint Maritime Information and Coordination Centre (JMICC). PN has besides swiftly responded to several local and regional level natural calamities.
On 18th February 2014, while conducting a joint drug bust operation, Pakistan Navy and Australian navy ships, PNS Alamgir and HMS Melbourne seized a fishing dhow off Oman’s Masirah Island. The dhow was carrying 4,000 bricks (nearly two tonnes) of cannabis resin hidden in a secret compartment. Pakistan Navy played a central role in the spectacular release and rescue of MV Suez from Somali pirates in 2010.
The pirates demanded a ransom of USD 2.1 million. The merchant vessel had a multinational crew and included Indians, Egyptians, Pakistanis as well as Sri-Lankans. PN has initiated number of measures to pre-empt any act of piracy around Pakistan’s EEZ. Now brimming with challenges that impinge on regional as well as international economy and security, any exclusive claims over Indian Ocean cannot be but only part of history.

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