The sixth international Indian Ocean Conference is set to begin in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka from May 12 which will be attended by about 150 delegates, including high-level representatives from 25 countries.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Peace, Prosperity and Partnership for a Resilient Future’ due to the post-Covid situation and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate the conference. She will also host a dinner in honour of the guests who will participate in the conference.

Speaking about the two-day conference, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen said that the event was mainly organised for the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean, but in the changing global context, various important and relevant issues are expected to be discussed.

The Mauritius president, Maldives vice-president and Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar are among the dignitaries who will attend the conference. “Foreign Ministers of Bhutan, Nepal, Bahrain and Singapore alongside the ministerial representatives of Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Madagascar will also participate in the conference,” Momen said.

AK Abdul Momen told reporters that around 150 foreign guests will participate in the conference including representatives from D8, Saarc and BIMSTEC.

The participating ministers will also visit Bangabandhu Memorial Museum at Dhanmondi Road 32 to pay respect to Bangladesh’s Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The conference is being organised by the India Foundation in association with the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Bangladesh minister said that by organising this conference, it is expected that the partnership with the countries along the Indian Ocean will be strengthened in the regional political sphere with Bangladesh.

Bangladesh foreign minister also said that from the discussion of this conference, the participating countries will get an idea of what kind of steps they will take in the future in view of the ongoing global events, and it will be helpful for Bangladesh to take necessary decisions to deal with various crisis situations and overcome them.

The Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) was started in 2016 and in the last six years it has emerged as the “flagship consultative forum” for countries in the region over regional affairs.

The conference endeavours to bring critical states and principal maritime partners of the region together on a common platform to deliberate upon the prospects of regional cooperation for Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

However, 6th Indian Ocean Conference in Bangladesh, most importantly, is taking place at a time when the Bangladesh government has recently set an ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’ officially. the overarching goal of Bangladesh’s recent Indo-Pacific Outlook is to enhance the country’s ties with the USA and West, India for engagement in this region, accelerate economic growth, and address common issues shared by the other nations. Despite Indo-Pacific Strategy’s widespread support, some countries have claimed that it’s only likely to serve to escalate regional instability, slow China’s growth, and Bangladesh’s lean towards the US. Bangladesh is hesitant to take any sides in the conflict between the US and its allied countries and China. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh had announced a fresh Indo-Pacific Outlook to highlight Bangladesh’s geopolitical standpoint on the region as well as its objectives to move forward as a nonalignment foreign policy. In other words, Bangladesh will likely clarify its own stance in the Indo-Pacific region through Indo-Pacific Outlook to take the position of regional leader, rather than join any political bloc. In this way, India-US-Bangladesh relations would reach a new level. Bangladesh could gain the trust of the Indian government because India is an active member of the Indo-Pacific alliance. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is handling the Chinese predicament intelligently because its goal is to engage structurally rather than militarily. Chinese ambassador to Dhaka has already stated that Many of Bangladesh’s Indo-Pacific outlook concepts are similar to China’s.

Bangladesh essentially sets an example for the other littoral nations by outlining its Indo-Pacific orientation. Bangladesh-like nations can adopt the method because it is so well-balanced.  It aims to strengthen regional economic cooperation, guaranteeing the security of maritime commerce, combating climate change, investment opportunities and introducing new strategic alliances with other countries. Through upholding norms of international order, the freedom of trade and commerce, prosperity, and the sovereign equality of all countries, their outlook aims to help advance the goal of an open, free, and fair Indo-Pacific region. In addition, Bangladesh aspires to boost its economy through increased investment and trade; particularly in the areas of public investment and technological networking.

The world has dramatically changed in the past few years. When the block was formed, regional and global political landscape was relatively peaceful and harmonious. China, USA, India, Russia and European Union had minimal conflict of interests. It was a time when multipolarity enjoyed a positive vibe in international relations despite their underlying competition. Today, the world has gradually become polarized and divided on issues of power, resources, and hegemony. The Quad-China confrontation and Ukraine War has been the ultimate test of strategic visions that the West has against China and Russia.

Against this backdrop, India has been promoting the idea of ‘net security provider’ in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Again, the geopolitics of Indian Ocean region is now brewing through new strategic and security initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Australia, UK and US (AUKUS) let by the USA and its allies. Besides, India also announced SAGAR vision (Security and Growth for all in the Region, India and its Neighborhood).

The alliance has recently been reactivated by the rise in smuggling, arms trade, and human trafficking in the Indian Ocean Region. Maritime Safety and Security, Countering Terrorism and Radicalization, Combating Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime, Cyber Security, Protection of Critical Infrastructure and Technology, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. Maritime security and countering terrorism and other crimes in the Indian Ocean have emerged as a focus area for India as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy and the doctrine of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

The main task of this grouping will be to maintain security in the sea area and stop human trafficking and smuggling. The members of the alliance may also work on providing mutual humanitarian assistance. To this end, they will provide mutual training to their Navies and Coast Guards for the next one year. Member States should conduct Naval exercises that would be a milestone for the IOR.

The gains that Bangladesh can expect from its participation are strengthening bilateral relations with member states. Bangladesh must reassess the evolving strategic dynamics of South Asia, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region. Particularly, conflicting approaches and strategies of China and India and the US are critical considering Bangladesh’s Three-way balancing. But all states should work together to combat non traditional security threat.

The Indian Ocean gets its strategic significance for various reasons. It was a great maritime route for Asian, European and African States for many years. The Indian Ocean has been considered as a hub of the maritime connectivity project. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and India’s International North South Transport Project (INSTP) go through this Ocean. Even the US Government has transformed its strategy from the Asia Pacific to the Indo Pacific to include the Indian Ocean. The Japan and India proposed ‘Cotton Route’ is also a big issue that can be taken into consideration. Japan-India-Bangladesh strategic troika is also a consideration in recent times.

But there are some problems too. Transnational crimes such as illegal narcotics trade, weapons and human trafficking issues, piracy, armed robbery, drug smuggling, illegal fishing, terrorism, environmental degradation issues are some issues. The Indian Ocean has been used as a safe passage by some evil players. States on the Indian Ocean face these serious challenges every day.

Illegal drug trafficking from India and Afghanistan, Iran through the Indian Ocean route is known to all. According to some sources, the UNODC has estimated that 54 per cent of the heroin in India is produced domestically, while 45 per cent originates from Afghanistan. India is particularly vulnerable to the Southern route due to its Western border with Pakistan. Near this border, in the Western Indian States of Punjab and Haryana, is where many of the heroin seizures occur. In 2012, 105 kg of drugs were seized, which had been trafficked from Pakistan along rail routes. In 2013 alone, the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau reported seizures totaling 4,609 kg. Data collected through seizures by various authorities has confirmed India as a transit country for Southeast Asia, West Africa and North America.

Bangladesh also faces significant problems due to the drug trade through the Indian Ocean and India. The country suffers from illicit drug use among its population, such as in Dhaka where there are an estimated 2.5 million people using drugs. India is a large provider of heroin to the Bangladeshi market, and it is trafficked over the Western and Eastern borders. However, it is unclear whether the heroin originates from Afghanistan or India, as this data has not been sufficiently collected.

Both India and Bangladesh are becoming ever more dependent on maritime trade, with these states importing goods worth over US$ 52 million and US$ 447 million respectively. Therefore, to function effectively they require an absence of maritime crime in order for trade to be uninterrupted, and for their economies to thrive.

Bangladesh faces piracy, illegal fishing and human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal. Although the Bangladeshi Navy and the Coast Guard are very active in the region, the perpetrators are very clever. The Rohingya crisis worsened the situation. Various gangs are involved in human trafficking. Bangladeshis are trafficked to Malaysia, Thailand and North Africa to Greece and Italy (Europe) through the marine route via the Mediterranean Sea.

Marine resources

Many fishermen from Myanmar and India are involved in illegal fishing in the jurisdictional area under Bangladesh. So, Bangladesh faces economic losses in terms of marine resources. Some armed groups kidnap Bangladeshi fishermen for ransom. Basically, fishing in the Sundarbans region has become very dangerous.

Sri Lanka has also faced an increase in heroin use within the country, as well as becoming a transit country for trafficking destined for other places. Much of the heroin entering Sri Lanka arrives on fishing boats or by air, often coming through India or Pakistan. The numbers of seizures which Sri Lankan authorities have conducted remains relatively small, meaning that the data collected is not always reliable. Smugglers in Sri Lanka have come from a variety of countries, including Pakistan, India, Iran and the Maldives.

Environmental degradation in the sea is common now. Climate Change and the rise in sea levels are among other issues. The transnational terrorist threat is seen as a serious threat.

Bangladesh focuses on the Blue Economy. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina inaugurated the third Ministerial Conference titled “Promoting Sustainable Blue Economy — making the best use of opportunities from the Indian Ocean” of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) at the Inter-Continental Dhaka in 2019. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India can work together in this regard. All these states are members of some regional platforms such as BIMSTEC and SAARC.

Not only Bangladesh, countries like India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and all States across the Indian Ocean face the same problems. In the disaster period, regional cooperation is much needed. In the past, regional countries helped each other through various operations during disasters.

Now Bangladesh as a host country has got a regional platform to address these problems. To ensure better maritime security, all regional countries should work together to tackle the problems. India and Sri Lanka have given their full support to this alliance. They have promised to hold bilateral or joint military exercises with each of the countries in the alliance. This such a platform. Bangladesh expects cooperation from the other stakeholders and wants to help others to face the challenges.

Thus, there are some opportunities for Bangladesh and other partners to focus on countering terrorism and extremism, transnational crimes such as narcotics, weapons and human trafficking, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and protecting the maritime environment.

Dr. Shakuntala Bhabani. Kolkata-based educator ( Assistant Professor) and Southasian affairs researcher in the Political Science department at a Kolkata Honors College which is affiliated to the University of Calcutta