Diplomats transform themselves into rock stars when the areas they specialise in assume exceptional prominence. Once upon a time, decolonisation was on top of the UN agenda, but today, the stars of that era are hardly remembered. Then came disarmament. Human rights come alive whenever there’s a spectacular violation. The environment has taken the pride of place since the Rio conference of 1992 and those who have played a role in climate change were the stars in Paris. Their future success lies in identifying the next sunrise issue and developing expertise on it.
Addressing a group of mid-level diplomats, on the verge of becoming ambassadors, at the Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi, this writer advised them to start specialising in the “Blue Economy”, the newest candidate for stardom in coming years. The oceans, which have always been a source of livelihood, trade, colonialism, storms and piracy, present opportunities and challenges. Professionals connected with the oceans, including the negotiators of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), have been prominent since the 1980s. The traditional blue-water economy has been in operation and diplomats have been playing a role in it.
The new blue economy, introduced by Gunter Pauli in his 2010 book, The Blue Economy: 10 Years — 10 Innovations —100 Million Jobs, has opened new avenues for bilateral and multilateral work, involving the environment, energy, defence and food production. The blue economy, as distinct from the blue-water economy, encompasses in it the “green economy”, with focus on the environment, and the “ocean economy” or “coastal economy”, with its emphasis on complementarities among coastal and island states for sustenance and sustainable development. The newly set up Blue Economy Strategic Thought Forum India, under the auspices of the National Maritime Foundation, has already envisaged the multiple ways in which the blue economy will influence human activities. It defines the blue economy as “marine-based economic development that leads to improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.
The central principle of the blue economy is the idea of cascading nutrients and energy the way ecosystems do. Cascading energy and nutrients leads to sustainability by reducing or eliminating inputs, such as energy, and eliminating waste and its cost, not just as pollution, but also as an efficient use of materials. The book contains fascinating innovations to open a new world of production and lifestyle. These game-changing ideas will entice entrepreneurs. Surprisingly, these innovations have the potential to increase rather than shed jobs, as emulating natural systems will mean the deployment of humans rather than machines. Ideas like eliminating air in freezing water, use of food-grade ingredients as fire retardants, growing mushrooms with coffeeshop waste, silk as a replacement of titanium, electricity generated by walking and talking, etc, are mind-boggling.
Maritime diplomacy had its heyday back in the 1980s, with the sensational discovery of manganese nodules and cobalt crusts on the ocean floor. The euphoria over marine mining led to the establishment of the International Seabed Authority. The UNCLOS, the “constitution of the seas”, which came into force in 1994, became the basis for the legal rights for mining in the open sea. The interest in seabed mining flagged because of escalating costs, but it’s being revived on account of the demand for minerals and metals in industrial development, particularly in China, Japan and India.
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The Indian Ocean has been a fulcrum of Indian diplomacy since Independence. During the Cold War, India was extremely active in the UN Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean in its bid to keep the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, which, in essence, meant keeping the Indian Ocean free of great-power rivalry. But the littoral and hinterland states differed on the meaning of the zone. Many sought the presence of external powers to counter India’s growing strength. But even at that time, cooperation for ocean resources was a priority.
Today, India is working with the states in the Indian Ocean region and others to strengthen security and economic cooperation. The re-emergence of piracy has added a new dimension. The new focus on the Asia-Pacific highlights the security and economic dimensions. The US rebalancing of forces and counter-measures by China have created a new cold war. New partnerships are in the making in the Asia-Pacific, seeking Indian participation by competing powers. The blue waters of the Indian Ocean have become a new theatre of tension.
The Chinese initiative — one belt, one road (Obor) — is a $150 billion grandiose development strategy and framework for China to push for a bigger role in global affairs and to increase its exports. Some see it as an opportunity for India, others as a challenge. The choice has to be made cautiously, balancing our security concerns about an expanding China with economic engagement. Given the history of Sino-Indian relations, it’s difficult to look at Obor as a benign initiative. But it will be difficult to stay out of a new global highway linking Asia with Europe. The blue-water economy will become central to the development of the entire region. Our competition with China is likely to be exacerbated by the competition for a piece of the blue economy, as evidenced in Bangladesh.
Both the traditional blue-water economy and the new blue economy are important for India’s sustainable development. The imperatives of cooperation and the need for adept diplomacy are evident. Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the blue economy during his visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. The joint statement with Mauritius envisages close cooperation in vital areas.
The importance of regional organisations has increased in the context of the blue economy. PM Modi spoke of the blue economy to Saarc leaders. In September 2015, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) hosted the first Ministerial Blue Economy Conference and identified priorities. Goal 14 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” — makes detailed references to the reduction of marine pollution, conservation of coastal and marine areas and regulated fish harvest. The convergences in the IORA and SDG agendas have to be developed into action.
India’s neighbourhood policy assumes primary importance in light of the blue economy. India can profitably integrate its ongoing programmes like Make in India, smart cities, skill development and self-reliance in defence. Delhi’s forthcoming chairmanship of the BRICS will offer a splendid opportunity to highlight the cooperation needed for the blue economy.
Diplomats aspiring to a “blue diplomacy” should begin to grasp the immense possibilities of the blue economy. Although the nodal ministry will be the prime mover, it will be diplomats in coastal and island countries and with the UN, IORA and Saarc, who will have to operationalise it. The time to start training a diplomatic cadre is now.