India on Wednesday asked the countries in the Indian Ocean region to effectively address the development challenges as it warned them to be clear of the dangers of “hidden agendas” in unviable projects or unsustainable debt, in an apparent reference to China which is accused by the West of “debt trap” diplomacy.
Speaking at the 23rd Council of Ministers Meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) here, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that it is important to maintain the Indian Ocean as a free, open and inclusive space based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), as the Constitution of the Seas.
Later in his remarks to the press, Jaishankar said India’s commitment to the IORA is deeply rooted in the principles of peaceful coexistence, shared prosperity, and regional collaboration.
“For Member States to grow and prosper, development challenges must be continuously and effectively addressed. In particular, we should cooperate on various aspects of the maritime economy, resources, connectivity and security,” he said.
“We should be equally clear where the dangers are, be it in hidden agendas, in unviable projects or in unsustainable debt. Exchange of experiences, sharing of best practices, greater awareness and deeper collaboration are part of the solutions,” he said, without naming any country.
The Hambantota port, which was funded by a Chinese loan, was leased to Beijing in a 99-year debt-for-equity swap in 2017 after Sri Lanka failed to pay off the debt.
China’s takeover of the Hambantota port on 99 years’ lease for a USD 1.2 billion debt swap drew international concerns over Beijing acquiring strategic assets far away from home by providing heavy loans and investment to smaller nations.
There have been global concerns over debt traps and regional hegemony by China using its Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure projects.
China is doling out huge sums of money for infrastructure projects in countries from Asia to Africa and Europe. The US’ previous Donald Trump administration had been extremely critical of the BRI and was of the view that China’s “predatory financing” is leaving smaller countries under huge debt endangering their sovereignty.
China has also been flexing its muscles in the strategically vital region and is also engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS). Chinese naval ships and submarines are also active in the Indian Ocean. China is also sending its surveillance and research ships to Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar said that the Indian Ocean is not only a significant body of water but also a crucial economic and strategic corridor, playing a key role.
“India’s commitment to the well-being and progress of nations of the Indian Ocean, including as first responder and a net security provider, is based on our Neighbourhood First policy, on the SAGAR outlook, and on our approach to the extended neighbourhood as well,” he said.
“It also draws on our broader vision of an Indo-Pacific that is built on a rules-based international order, rule of law, sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sincere respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he added.
Jaishankar is among the 16 ministers who attended the meeting which also includes the foreign ministers of Bangladesh, Iran, Mauritius, Malaysia and South Africa.
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