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The country's advantage is its strategic position which gives it the influence and leverage to make a difference

by Makarand R Paranjape

Hanoi, the capital of Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a country of some 95 million people, is the host of the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference. I have just returned to the conference after a visit to the most important monument in the country, at the Ba Dinh Square, dedicated to President Ho Chi Minh. It was at this site that Minh, that President of the Communist Party of Vietnam (1951-69), read out the declaration of independence on September 2, 1945. The mausoleum, inspired by Lenin’s in Moscow, took nearly two years, from August 1973 to September 1975, to build.

Within Vietnam

This massive and impressive grey granite building overlooks a big square, with extensive gardens. Hundreds of visitors line up, walking nearly half a kilometre in batches, conducted by female ushers in traditional costumes, to the central hall. There, in a glass case inside the cold solemn sanctum, lies the embalmed body of their leader, bathed in unearthly warm white light. Guards maintain discipline, forbidding any disrespectful behaviour including eating, drinking, smoking, taking photographs, wearing inappropriate dresses, even putting hands in pockets.

Though adorned with military regalia and socialist memorabilia, this monument is nothing short of a sacred shrine. I have now completed visiting the holy trinity of embalmed Communist leaders, Lenin in the Red Square, Mao in the Tiananmen Square, and now Ho Chi Minh in the Ba Dinh square. I came back from the unforgettable experience, which also includes walking through Minh’s palace gardens and museum next door, drenched in the rain.

As the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wikremesinghe, said in his keynote remarks on the first day of the conference, the Indian Ocean is “the ocean of the future”. That is because it houses the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, who are also economic powerhouses of the world.

The Indian Ocean, in addition, is the waterway through which over 100,000 ships, constituting half the world’s container traffic, 40 per cent of its oil supply and 60 per cent of its oil trade, pass. Freedom of navigation and protection against disruption are thus of great importance to all the countries of the Indian Ocean rim. It is, therefore, imperative for them to come up with a robust, rule-bound, and stable architecture of governance for the region to solve disputes and conflicts.

India being way behind China on almost any given parameter of power, this conference is one way to create a counter narrative to our eastern giant neighbour’s ambitions. The latter, some would say, including flexing its might and muscle in “our” Indian ocean. But from the Indian perspective, the Indian Ocean belongs to all the countries of the region, big or small, in a rule-bound order of friendly cooperation and exchange. China, we might remember, has to mind the Pacific front too, not just the Indian Ocean.

The Advantage

That is India’s advantage; our unique position bang in the middle of this vast water body gives us the influence and leverage to make a difference. While China is investing trillions of dollars in its Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI), India’s “Sagarmala” can afford us considerable traction for much less. World powers like the US and Japan, not to mention other regional players such as Australia and Iran, are also interested in counterbalancing China’s predominance. Even Russia, which so far does not have a major presence in the conference, is also keen to have its say in the Indo-Pacific region.

In his keynote address at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore in June earlier this year, PM Narendra Modi once again reiterated India’s push in the region based on samman (respect), samvad (dialogue), sahyog (cooperation), shanti (peace) and samridhi (prosperity). He called the Indian Ocean “key to India’s future”. In the inaugural session, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated India’s foreign policy priority in “nurturing a climate of peace and stability in this region”. She said, “Our vision for the region is one of cooperation and collective action.”

Security Architecture

The Indian Ocean series of conferences is the brainchild of BJP strategist, ideologue, and national general secretary Ram Madhav. He told me, “We try to bring ministers, senior bureaucrats, and policymakers on one common platform so that they can take concrete steps towards building a security and governance architecture for the Indian Ocean.”

Retired Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch, now director, India Foundation, flagged terrorism as a growing “cause of concern”: in the November 26, 2008, attack on Mumbai, in which 164 people lost their lives, the terrorists “came by sea”. Stressing that the region needs reliable dispute resolution systems, Shakti Sinha, director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and one of the organisers, said: “While band-wagoning is useful and necessary,” smaller countries should also “avoid being used as pawns” by big powers.

Vietnam, as the venue of the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference, is important since it has opposed imperialism for over a thousand years, not just Chinese rule in the distant past or domination in recent years, but also French colonialism and US occupation. Today Vietnam is taking an active role towards building maritime safety, security, and prosperity in the Indian Ocean region.

What is key to the success of any such international initiative is cooperation based on mutual interest and respect for each member state. The Indian Ocean littoral nations vary vastly in size, population, military and economic might, but all of them have one overriding common cause: to keep the waters safe and open for trade, commerce, and movement.