The 6th Indian Ocean Conference in Dhaka 2023: Can Bangladesh Lead for Collective Prosperity in Future?

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On May 12–13, Dhaka hosted the sixth annual Indian Ocean Conference, an event that typically brings together government officials, diplomats, and think tanks from different countries, notably littoral and island ones, to explore ways to bolster regional collaboration. Since its inception in 2016, the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) has become the ‘flagship consultative platform’ for governments in the area to meet and discuss regional matters, including maritime security, fishing regulation, marine resource allocation, strategic issues, and the overall politico-economic stability of the region.

With the key theme of ‘Peace, Prosperity, and Partnership: for a Resilient Future,’ this year’s Indian Ocean Conference widely shed light on preserving peace and order to guarantee the economic growth of nations bordering the Indian Ocean. Participants at the summit emphasized the need to find a long-lasting remedy to the Rohingya situation and enlist the help of Bangladesh’s neighbors to do so. They also stressed the importance of increased cooperation between countries in the Indian Ocean region in the facets of trade, security, marine resources, the green economy, green energy, sustainable development, and ecological harmony.

However, along with the secretaries general of three regional and international organizations (SAARC, D-8, and BIMSTEC), forty government delegations attended the meeting, including 17 at the ministerial level. About 150 international visitors, including academics, politicians, and members of civil society, attended the meeting. Organized by the Bangladesh foreign ministry in coordination with the Indian foreign ministry and the Indian foreign ministry’s associated research center, India Foundation, this year’s conference focused on diverse policy goals regarding the region.

Along with the discussion of regional collaboration to achieve Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), the most important dynamic that has been competent to catch the eyes of all participants is the focus of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the six priority areas that mark the leading approach of Bangladesh in ensuring collective prosperity in the region and beyond. In this regard, Prime Minister said, ‘a better future for the region is only possible if the nations work together to create partnerships and promote peace and prosperity.’

Decoding the Six Priority Points: A Landmark for the Future Resilience

In her inauguration speech at the 6th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC)-2023, Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina put forward “six areas of focus” for nations in the Indian Ocean with a view to making them conscious of collectively ensuring the future prosperity and resilience of the region. In this respect, before pointing out the points, she noted that ‘although the area has much potential, it has diverse problems. Therefore, the nations of the Indian Ocean need to work together for the common good of peace and prosperity.’ However, the first essential point she underscored is ‘maritime diplomacy’. There is no doubt that, with the emergence of great power politics and regional politico-economic dynamics, a structural framework for maritime diplomacy has become very significant and well-pursued for all the littoral countries. In this respect, developing nations in the Indian Ocean have various rooms to utilize their potential to foster maritime diplomacy in order to secure a bright future.

The second priority point in this regard marks the importance of bringing about resilience to ‘climate vulnerability’, which is a crying need for all the developing countries in this region. Many nations in the area are particularly susceptible to climate change, making it imperative that they work together to mitigate the effects of inevitable natural catastrophes. Likewise, the third point sheds light on ‘strengthening the respect of each nation for others and improving mutual trust among the parties’ for the sake of lasting partnerships that will safeguard the Indian Ocean’s future. Moreover, in discussing the fourth point, which is mainly on ‘strengthening the current mechanisms on maritime security and safety,’ Sheikh Hasina highlighted that, in line with international law, the nations must bolster current procedures on marine security and stability in the Indian Ocean, such as the handling of maritime crises, the performance of search and rescue, and the protection of the rights to free navigation and overflight.

The fifth priority area includes the notion of a ‘culture of peace and people-centric development.’ The premier argues that as half of the world’s population is women, listening to them is essential to developing peaceful, fair, and inclusive cultures in the Indian Ocean region. In this respect, she said that the ‘culture of peace’ is vital to the development of lasting peace in Bangladesh. Finally, the sixth priority area laid down by Sheikh Hasina focused on ‘upholding a transparent, open and rules-based system that would ensure sustainable development’. Following her interpretation, in order to foster sustainable development and inclusive progress in the area and beyond, it is necessary to establish open, transparent, rules-based international frameworks that encourage inclusive economic growth securing the interests of all nations.

Geostrategic Importance of the 6th IOC-2023 for Bangladesh

Most critically, however, the Bangladeshi government recently launched a formal “Indo-Pacific Outlook,” coinciding with the timing of the Sixth Indian Ocean Conference. The current Indo-Pacific Outlook of Bangladesh aims to fortify relationships with the United States, the West, as well as India for involvement in this region, speeding up economic progress, and overcoming common challenges confronted by the other countries located in the area. Bangladesh is hesitant to choose a side in the ongoing geopolitical competition between the United States and its allies and China. In order to emphasize Bangladesh’s geopolitical position in the area and its goals to go ahead pursuing a nonaligned foreign policy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has unveiled the new Indo-Pacific Outlook. In a nutshell, Bangladesh would likely use Indo-Pacific Outlook to define its role in the area and assume a leadership role as a regional outlier rather than adhering to any one political group.

However, the strategic importance of the region stems from a number of factors. For a long time, it served as an important maritime route for countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Some marine connection initiatives have their focal point in the Indian Ocean. India’s International North-South Transport Project (INSTP) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) both traverse this ocean. The United States has also shifted its focus from the Asia-Pacific region to the broader Indo-Pacific, which also includes the Indian Ocean region. In this regard, as Bangladesh attempts to strike a balance between China, India, and the United States, it is essential to take into account the changing strategic dimensions in the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean area. In such a milieu, through the recent Indian Ocean Conference, by fostering closer ties with other member nations, Bangladesh stands to benefit much of geostrategic importance from the collective approach in this respect.

Bangladesh as A New Stakeholder in International Arena

To attain its ‘Vision 2041,’ Bangladesh’s goal of being a developed, modern and smart country by 2041 depends on the region’s security and prosperity, which has remarkably been upheld at the 6th IOC-2023 by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and other high officials such as Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen and Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen. However, by playing host to the Indian Ocean Conference in 2023, Bangladesh has advanced to further strengthen its ties with nations all throughout the region and beyond. Per the Foreign Minister, ‘by hosting the conference, Bangladesh has again become a significant actor in the context of regional politics,’ which might help the country sketch and leverage the potential for future political stability and economic growth.

Moreover, in bolstering world and regional prosperity, the Indian Ocean holds the potential to bring about a substantial contribution to the littoral and other nations’ GDP, trade and commerce, climate resilience, and expanding technical breakthroughs that invoke a collective action in which Bangladesh has many arenas to lead by its leadership footprint. Noting that significance, the foreign secretary of Bangladesh argued that Bangladesh is committed to broadening regional collaboration with a view toward a results-oriented approach that would increase regional accomplishment for the benefit of every party. In this respect, the framework of six priority points laid down by Sheikh Hasina can be gauged as a catalyst for all future political, economic, social, and strategic trajectories in this region. Following these priority areas, the participant countries can fortify the bonds of cooperation among the stakeholders of the Indian Ocean to guarantee a brighter future for all, in which Bangladesh can lead from the front.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in The Geopolitics [Link]