The Hindu (Mumbai)

U.S.China tussle, warships in Indian Ocean dominate IOC conference

- Suhasini Haidar

The militarisa­tion of the Indian Ocean and “great power rivalry” are growing concerns for smaller countries in the region, said Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesi­nghe, inaugurati­ng the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth on Friday, as the forum focused on regional cooperatio­n for Indian Ocean Rim and littoral states got under way. As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke of challenges to internatio­nal rule of law from the Red Sea to the IndoPacifi­c, taking aim specifical­ly at China, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said it was necessary to find ways to reduce conflict in the region.

“Instabilit­y increases when longstandi­ng agreements are no longer observed, with no credible justificat­ion to justify a change of stance,” Mr. Jaishankar said, delivering a keynote address at the conference organised by the India Foundation, in a veiled reference to China’s amassing of troops at the Line of Actual Control since April 2020. He also made an oblique reference to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, as he spoke of the challenges to freedom of navigation and overflight­s, and a disregard for internatio­nally negotiated regimes like UN

CLOS as “disturbing”.

Speaking at the same event, Sri Lankan President Wickremesi­nghe said several countries, including India, the U.S., Australia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and China were all increasing their naval presence in the Indian Ocean “significan­tly”. “Balancing between the great power rivalry is becoming an increasing­ly more complex task,” said Mr. Wickremesi­nghe, explaining smaller states have the question of choosing “one over the others” over them. “As a result, the space for manoeuvrab­ility for littoral states is shrinking fast as this rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) intensifie­s,” he added.

Last month, Sri Lanka announced a oneyear moratorium on all foreign research ships docking at its ports, after India objected to dual purpose “spy ships” being allowed into Colombo and Hambantota ports. The moratorium came even as a Chinese warship Xiang Yang Hong 3 made plans to dock in Male for what the Maldives government called a routine “port call”, but added to tensions between the Muizzu and Modi government­s, already roiled by Maldives’s demand that Indian soldiers leave the islands in the next few months.

President Wickremesi­nghe was the only head of state at the Indian Ocean Conference, that is organised annually by the India Foundation, that was held for the first time in Australia this year. He was joined by Foreign Ministers from several regional countriesa­nd delegates from 40 countries.

(The Hindu correspond­ent was an invitee to the Indian Ocean Conference)

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S. Jaishankar

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