The 6th Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka 2023: Can the Member Countries of IOR Harmonize their Visions?

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The Indian Ocean is one of the most strategic regions in the world, connecting three continents and facilitating trade and commerce between countries. It has become an important region in global politics due to its strategic location, vast resources, and emerging economic potential. The region spans over 70 million square kilometers, encompassing the shores of 36 countries and 25% of the world’s population of over 2.7 billion people. It is home to some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, connecting the economies of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East making it a critical artery for global trade and commerce. The region is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, making it a key driver of global economic growth. However, the region is also facing several challenges, including geopolitical competition, maritime security threats, and environmental degradation.

The Indian Ocean has become a major focus of geopolitical competition, with global powers vying for influence and control over the region. The United States (US), China, India, Japan, and other major powers have increased their military presence and economic engagement in the region by taking different strategies like the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India’s Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR) and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP). This has also led to a rise in tensions among regional powers, leading to conflicts and disputes over maritime boundaries, resources, and security. The diverse visions of member countries regarding the Indian Ocean further complicate the situation. Some countries view the region as a space for cooperation and development, while others see it as a platform for asserting their geopolitical interests and influence. There are also differing views on the role of external partners, with some countries seeking greater engagement and others advocating for greater regional autonomy. The conflicting visions and interests of member countries have the potential to create tensions and conflicts in the region.

In this context, the 6th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) will be held in Dhaka in 2023, with the theme “Peace, Prosperity, and Partnership for a Resilient Future”. The theme highlights the importance of partnership for a prosperous Indian Ocean region overcoming all the differences and divergences. The conference is being organized by India Foundation in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh and is expected to bring together policymakers, academics, and experts from across the region to discuss the challenges facing the Indian Ocean and explore ways to enhance cooperation and promote harmony among member countries. The 6th IOC will discuss ion maritime security and safety; sustainable development and ocean governance; connectivity and infrastructure; and cultural and people-to-people ties.

The IOC is significant for different reasons. First of all, it provides a platform for member countries to address key challenges facing the region, including maritime security, economic cooperation, and sustainable development. Secondly, it provides an opportunity for member countries to address underlying causes of conflicts and tensions, promoting greater understanding and cooperation. Finally, it provides a forum for member countries to engage with external partners in a constructive and mutually beneficial manner, promoting greater cooperation and collaboration.

One of the key objectives of the conference is to encourage member countries to harmonize their diverse visions and develop a common agenda for the region. As the Concept Note of the conference highlights, “member countries of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have diverse political, economic, and strategic interests, which often lead to conflicting priorities and visions.” This can impede cooperation and hinder the region’s ability to address common challenges such as maritime security, climate change, and sustainable development. In addition to promoting cooperation and harmony among member countries, the conference also seeks to highlight the Indian Ocean’s potential as an “ocean of the future.” An article by India Foundation notes, the region is “poised to become a hub of economic and strategic activity in the 21st century,” with opportunities for growth and development in areas such as trade, tourism, energy, and fisheries. The conference will explore these opportunities and identify ways to harness the region’s potential for the benefit of all member countries.

However, the conference comes at a time when the Indian Ocean region is facing multiple challenges and uncertainties. One of the biggest challenges is the increasing geopolitical competition and rivalries among major powers. As a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) notes, “the Indian Ocean has become a focal point for geopolitical competition, particularly between China and the US.” This competition is fueled by a range of factors, including economic interests, strategic considerations, and political influence. Another challenge facing the region is the threat to maritime security, including piracy, terrorism, and illegal fishing. These threats have a significant impact on the region’s economies and security, and require a concerted effort by member countries to address them.

Through the conference, member countries can explore ways to harmonize their different visions and interests. Moreover, they can identify areas of common interest and collaborate on projects and initiatives that benefit all countries in the region. For example, countries can work together to improve maritime security, combat piracy and illegal fishing, promote trade and investment, and address environmental challenges. The Indian Ocean region has enormous economic potential, but it also faces significant challenges related to infrastructure, connectivity, and trade barriers. The conference aims to explore ways to promote greater economic integration and cooperation, including through initiatives such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). This includes exploring the potential of the blue economy, which is the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, jobs, and improved livelihoods. Collaboration and cooperation in such functional areas can have positive spillover effects, leading to increased trust and the potential for greater cooperation in more sensitive areas over time.

The 6th Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka 2023 provides an important platform for member countries to engage in dialogue and build consensus on key issues facing the region. By promoting cooperation and harmony among member countries, the conference can help to enhance the region’s resilience and ability to address common challenges. But most importantly, member countries can have the chance to harmonize their diverse visions by using the conference as a platform. Nonetheless, it can also help to unlock the region’s potential as an “ocean of the future” and create opportunities for growth and development for all member countries. As Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh said during the first IOC in 2016 that “we must follow the path of cooperation and collaboration in the Indian Ocean, and strive for a future that is peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable.”

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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