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Ambassador Ronen Sen's remarks at the opening session of the workshop on "THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION TODAY" at the U.S. National Defence University

Washington, DC
April 8, 2008

I am pleased to have the opportunity of joining you at this opening session of the Workshop on The Indian Ocean Today. I congratulate the National Defence University, the Johns Hopkins University and Lockheed Martin for taking the timely initiative of organizing this event. I am sure that over the next two days you will have useful and productive discussions covering geopolitical, economic, commercial and security issues in this vital region, which is growing in importance with each passing decade.

As the flag bearer of India in this country, I will leave some thoughts with you on why this is the only Ocean on our planet named after a country. The reasons are many and multi-faceted, and I will only briefly refer to some aspects.

Historically, India’s maritime traditions are over 5000 years old. We had trade links with Africa, Arabia, ancient Greece, Rome, China and South East Asia. This was, for instance, manifested in references to India during the reign of King Solomon from 970 B.C. to 930 B.C. The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 AD to 79 AD, was probably the first European to take protectionist measures against India, when he banned the transfer of gold and other precious metals to pay for high quality Indian textiles and other products.

In the geographic perspective, the Indian peninsula penetrates deep into the Indian Ocean, bisecting it and pointing straight to the Antarctica; there is no country between India and the Antarctica. India’s island territories total almost 1200.

It took a tsunami for many people to realize that, after China, India’s second largest neighbour is Indonesia, which is less than a hundred nautical miles from India, and that it is the Andaman Sea which narrows to form the Malacca Straits.

The Indian Ocean littoral States account for about 25% of the global landmass and 40% of the world’s energy resources. While India’s landmass is 1.85 million square miles, its Exclusive Economic Zone is currently 1.25 million square miles. This is expected to rise to over 1.55 million square miles after a decision of the UN Legal Continental Shelf Committee next year. This is of obvious importance in terms of our economic development.

Across the Arabian Sea are States which are vitally important sources of our energy needs, apart from being home to nearly 4.5 million Indian expatriates.

Across the Bay of Bengal are our ASEAN neighbours. We have long been a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN, and a Summit Partner since 2002. We have been actively engaged in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which is the only political and security dialogue forum in the region. We also have sub-regional engagements, such as the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation established in 2000, comprising of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and India. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is another grouping of countries in South and South-East Asia.

To our north, India is separated from Central Asia by less than 40 miles. The Indian Ocean is a natural outlet to the world for energy rich Central Asia.

India is a founding member of the Indian Ocean Rim – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) with 18 littoral States as Members and dialogue partners outside the region, including China, France and the United Kingdom.

India has vital stakes in stability and security in the Indian Ocean. Our country is located at the natural junction of important sea-lanes of communications, and strategic choke points, such as the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Hormuz. The maritime area around India is among the busiest in the world, with over 100,000 ships crossing it every year. Currently, 90% of India’s trade, by volume, and about 75%, by value, move by ship. By 2025, India is poised to become the third largest global importer of oil. Much of this will be by sea. India is the third largest fish producing country in the world. However, our annual catch is only about 8.5 million tons, against a potential of at least 40 million tons a year.

We are seriously concerned about the maritime challenges posed by the increase in piracy, terrorism, trafficking of narcotics, arms, and also human beings. India has unfortunately faced these threats, much before their global nature was fully recognized. The bomb blasts which claimed hundreds of lives in Mumbai in 1993 were caused by explosives smuggled by sea. The ship, Alondra Rainbow, a hijacked Japanese owned and Panama registered ship, was captured, after a tense stand-off, by the Indian Navy in 1999. You will also recall that in June the same year, much before the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was even conceived of, India had intercepted a ship carrying missile parts from East Asia that was scheduled to have a port call in our neighbourhood and proceed thereafter to a North African country.

The Indian Ocean also unfortunately accounts for around 70% of the world’s natural disasters. We remain willing to offer training and capacity building in prediction, modeling and early forecasting of such natural disasters. You will recall that the Indian and the United States Navies had cooperated closely in relief operations after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in end-December 2004, together with those of Japan and, to some extent, Australia. In July 2005, an India-US Disaster Response Initiative was announced.

As a responsible maritime power, India is a major force for stability in the Indian Ocean. We have regular joint exercises with almost all major Navies in the Indian Ocean, including the US Navy. These exercises will continue, with increasing frequency, with the objective of achieving inter-operability and enhancing maritime security.

I will conclude by quoting what our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, said in his inaugural address at the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium hosted by the Indian Navy on February 14, 2008, in New Delhi. He said, “India remains committed to an Indian Ocean region that is stable and peaceful. We would like to cooperate with all like-minded countries so as to ensure the freedom of the seas for all nations, and to deepen trade and economic linkages between Indian Ocean Rim countries.”

I will now welcome your comments and observations, and would be glad to respond to any questions that you may have.