SINGAPORE - The Indian Ocean's placid waters hardly make the headlines, but it is important to ensure that peace and security across its vast expanse is maintained, government leaders from several countries on its rim said at a conference on Thursday (Sept 1).
The key artery of global commerce has been relatively free of maritime tensions that have created ripples in the South China Sea and East China Sea in recent years, and must stay this way so trade can continue to flourish, they added.
One way, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, is for the countries in the Indian Ocean region to set up an order that is not dominated by a single nation.
This "Indian Ocean order" should emphasise freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, and decision-making through consensus, he added.
"The Indian Ocean Region has an extraordinary opportunity to create something new in the global context and something historically unique," he said.
Mr Wickremesinghe noted that the Indian Ocean region was increasingly mentioned in the same breath as the Asia-Pacific, proof of its rising global significance.
He was speaking at the welcome dinner of the Indian Ocean Conference, organised to discuss the strategic importance of an ocean which touches the shores of over 40 countries that are home to some 40 per cent of the world's people.
The two-day conference, which ends on Friday, is jointly organised by four think-tanks: Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the India Foundation, the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, and Sri Lanka's Institute of Policy Studies.
About 250 government officials, business leaders, and academics from 21 countries are attending the discussion at the Shangri-La Hotel.
India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking from New Delhi via live video link, said her country was committed to play its part in keeping the peace in the region.
She identified maritime terrorism, natural disasters, and illegal fishing as some of the issues that might threaten its security, and said India would work with other states to combat these problems.
"Security is a priority for India," she said. The Indian Ocean has not just facilitated trade, but also allowed cultures from different continents to interact, she added.
"We do not see the Indian Ocean as just another water body, but as a global stage for social and cultural action," she said.
Addressing the participants at the dinner, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan noted that from as early as 3,000 years ago, South Asian influences in language and religion were "borne across the waves of the Indian Ocean" to South-east Asia.
In later centuries, Western countries used the Indian Ocean to project their naval power and expand their colonial rule in Asia.
Today, 80 per cent of all seaborne trade flows through the region.
"There's no question that it is an essential conduit that all of us depend on, and how we handle the challenges of the Indian Ocean and resolve our differences will also have a profound impact on our future," Dr Balakrishnan added.
"This choice between an inter-dependent world characterised by cooperation, versus a narrow, exclusivist, independent world defined by rivalry and might - that is the central political challenge of our time."