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DSA is as much yours, as it is ours! (December 2016)

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Global climate change talks are proceeding at a pace not seen in many years. There seems to be a greater earnestness now than there has ever been. Paris and then Marrakech! Eagerness to come to identifiable and implementable goals is the paramount objective. At least so, it appears in public estimation. So when they talk climate and it’s changing nature, they invariably focus on to the most apparent aspect of this phenomenon, the oceans and glaciers. While the Himalayan glaciers are losing water rapidly into rivers to which they give birth, the Arctic and Antarctic glaciers are melting fast enough to see rising seas and oceans as the most fundamental climate change problem.

 

It is in the oceans that the world seems to converge and collide. Global climate change talks expend extraordinary efforts and energies on the warming phenomena and its resultant rise in sea levels and temperatures. They have been discussing it threadbare and seem to find a lot of concern and common ground. So much so that joint action plans are being formulated to be implemented in a time bound manner and within a fixed period. A lot of good words are being uttered and a lot of plans are being made. All of these plans, however, are getting undone by a fundamental conflict at the sea, the ownership and control of waters that should be treated as commons. From the passage of global trade at record volumes never seen before in the human history to fishing, these commons serve a global good just as the name suggests. But some tend to believe themselves more equal than the others and as a result of which what is common good has less importance than what is regarded as national a pride, prestige and possession.

This is not simply an attack on China’s policy vis-a-vis the Spratly Islands/Scarborough Reef issue that has Southeast Asia in convulsions. The world will, of course, criticise China for its attitude and actions, all of which are escalatory and antagonistic, rather than being peaceful and participative. It is also about other nations who have tended to mindlessly exploit the oceans, for fish or minerals. There are parts of the seas where the exploitation has reached critical levels. Fish stocks have depleted beyond repair in some cases. And ocean bed mining has reached a point of no return in some others. None of which is healthy for the world, obviously.

The worrisome aspect of all these economic activities is that these have also being going on in areas that cannot in any way be regarded as national boundaries or even the extended economic zone. So, Chinese fishing trawlers are caught off the Atlantic coast of Argentina or oil exploration occurs hundreds of miles offshore from the coast in some other cases. And all of this happens because these activities have some sort of cover, protection, from national navies or coast guard vessels. This is a cause for concern, for national navies to participate in activities that violate the rules of commons can lead to greater complications.

Despite international efforts such complications are happening. Oceanic waters are not placid or peaceful anymore. Chances of an accident or a larger conflict are the highest in the international waters and it’s an ever lingering threat. This is really surprising considering the enormous efforts that are being made toward international cooperation amongst various navies. The prime example being of course the Indian Ocean region, the numerous joint exercises and protocols which are in existence here. India is in the midst of most of them, as it should be. For if it aspires to play a greater global role it must fully integrate its own front yard first.

Multinational exercises in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, joint patrols in the Straits of Mallaca and the Indian Ocean anti-piracy operations are some of the recurring initiatives that cover the world’s most busy sea lanes. The chances of an accident or deliberate action are always there. The choke points of Straits of Hormuz and Mallaca are always vulnerable to a malevolent navy. The Chinese port at Gwadar has been made precisely with that in mind and now there is a new base in Djibouti, China’s first explicitly military base outside of its territory. Its geographical location is an explanation enough about the potential for future conflict and the emerging dynamics between international navies.

 


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