Why It Matters

Winds of peace in Indian Ocean

Unlike the South China Sea and East China Sea, which have been dogged by territorial disputes, the Indian Ocean is relatively free of such troubles.

It is important that its waters stay that way as 80 per cent of global seaborne trade flows through the region.

Government leaders of several countries on its rim acknowledged as much at last week's Indian Ocean conference in Singapore, organised to discuss the strategic importance of the vast body of water, which touches the shores of more than 40 countries that are home to about 40 per cent of the world's population.

But what was particularly reassuring was their message. With one voice, they called for cooperation.

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said her country was committed to working with others to keep the peace in the region.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suggested setting up an "Indian Ocean order", with rules emphasising freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes and decision-making through consensus. No single nation should dominate the Indian Ocean, he added.

This spirit of partnership is music to the ears of Singapore, a small country whose lifeblood is international commerce, an economic activity that requires a world order based on collaboration and clearly defined regulations in order to thrive.

Cooperation can also arrest the dangers posed by piracy and the potential threat of terrorism.

Joint sea patrols off the coast of Somalia have reduced the threat of piracy in the area significantly. But such efforts need to besustained to completely free international shipping from the scourge.

A combined naval presence can also be a pre-emptive move against calls by terror groups such as Al-Qaeda to target cargo ships and oil tankers plying maritime routes.

As Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: "How we handle the challenges of the Indian Ocean and resolve our differences will have a profound impact on our future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Winds of peace in Indian Ocean'. Subscribe