Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Remarks at the Inaugural Session of the Seventh Indian Ocean Conference in Perth, Australia, 9 February 2024

09 February 2024

Your Excellency, President Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka,


Of course, my good friends, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar,




Ladies and gentlemen.


It is great to be back, although I had forgotten that I have been here since the beginning, in 2016. I want to start by thanking Penny Wong for the warm hospitality. I think she even arranged for the temperature to reach 41 degrees today. But, you know what I mean, it is the usual Penny Wong welcome and we are all very grateful to you for getting us all together. I should also say, today is the eve of Chinese New Year. It is a big deal in Singapore. This the day when extended families get together for reunion dinner. So I am sacrificing that for you but, in a way, we are getting together as an extended Indian Ocean family.


The theme for this year's conference is very apt – “Towards a Stable and Sustainable Indian Ocean”. I am going to confine my ruminations today to two themes. First, the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean. Second, the issue of sustainability.


On the first theme, the strategic significance. I checked a large language model while preparing for my speech today, and the question I asked it was, what is the significance of the Indian Oceanand its relation to the Himalayas? It is not something which you think about straightaway when you think about the ocean, and then ask about the Himalayas. But in fact, the story begins there. For almost all of recorded history, the Himalayas, 8,000 meters up, and the dense jungles of Myanmar, served as a major, significant barrier - but not completely impermeable - between South Asia and East Asia, and even to some extent, Central Asia. Because of that, you will understand that it is the Indian Ocean which historically has been the conduit for culture, language, religion, trade, and even in more recent centuries, as the vector for colonisation. In a way, because of that barrier, the Indian Ocean achieved greater salience. I then asked, how many littoral states are there in the Indian Ocean? The answer came back as 26. I quickly checked that Singapore is on that list. Then I asked it the next question – which landlocked countries are dependent on the Indian Ocean? Here, it gave me a more nuanced answer. It said, it depends on what you mean by 'dependent’. Of course, the largest trading partner for Nepal is India. But if you ask them who is the second largest, or an increasing partner, it is China. So, then the interesting question came, how do Chinese goods reach a landlocked nation, up in the Himalayas? The answer – the Indian Ocean. That is why my friend (Nepal Foreign Minister Narayan Prakash Saud) is here today. So, the point I am making is that the Indian Ocean has great historical, linguistic, cultural, economic significance.


The second sub-point about the Indian Ocean is to appreciate that there are choke points in the Indian Ocean. So, where are these choke points? The first is in my part of the world, because if you want to get to East Asia, and assuming you do not want to go over the Himalayas, you have basically two alternatives. You come through the Straits of Malacca, and the pivot point for the Straits of Malacca is Singapore. The alternative is the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. As luck would have it, when the Suez Canal was open, the shortest route between Europe and China and Japan became the Straits of Malacca because you did not have to sail all the way south around the Cape of Good Hope.


Now, I mentioned the words ‘choke points’ because if you fast forward to today and what is happening in the Red Sea, and the stuff that the Houthis have been lobbying at ships, it is a stark reminder that choke points exist and continue to be salient for the Indian Ocean. If the conflagration in the Middle East expands, it is not just shipping through the Red Sea which is affected, but also the Strait of Hormuz. You heard Ram (Madhav) mentioned just now, the significance is that about 70 to 80 percent of oil traverses the Indian Ocean; 50 to 60 percent of container traffic also traverses the Indian Ocean. Any outright conflict, or even the threat of conflict, immediately raises insurance premiums. In the case where you have to divert and avoid the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, there is an additional 4,000 miles and 12 extra sailing days to sail around Africa. This immediately means economic impact.


For a small trading nation like Singapore, and last year, I should add, we actually had a record year for our port. We dealt with 39 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of containers last year. For those of you in the shipping industry, you know this is a very big number. When Singapore says maritime shipping is important, I hope you understand it is not a debating or political point. It is our lifeblood.That is why Singapore has always been a very strong proponent for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Let me explain why this is strategic. This is not a debating point. The moment a ship leaves Perth, or Colombo, or Mumbai, or Singapore, that ship does not have to seek permission from anyone or pay rental to anyone to decide where it is going to call, wherever it is in the world. That is the legal and economic significance of freedom of navigation. Even if you have to traverse territorial seas, or straits used for international navigation, you assert the right of innocent passage, you get to go through, you pay no one, you seek no permissions. Now, this is critical, even today, for economic lifeblood. There is another factoid which is worth remembering – take a moderately large ship that traverses the Suez Canal today. In fact, the largest ship that traverses the Suez Canal today takes 24,000 TEUs. But let us just settle for about 18,000 TEUs, which is a more average number. If I asked you to unload all those containers onto a train, the trick question is, how long does a train need to be, to carry all the containers off one ship? The answer: more than 100 kilometers, which is clearly impractical. Again, this emphasises the importance of maritime shipping, and that even in this day and age, there is no substitute for maritime shipping. Therefore, maintaining the right of freedom of navigation as a right, not by grace of the littoral state, remains absolutely essential. We believe that this is a right that needs to be affirmed, reaffirmed, and we need to hang on to this. For all of us here from littoral states and landlocked states that depend on maritime shipping, this is something which is non-negotiable.


Let me now move on to the second theme, on sustainability.It is a sobering statistic that last August, the average sea surface temperature reached a new record of 21 degrees centigrade. I asked more specifically about the Indian Ocean, and it also said 2023 was a record year for the average sea surface temperature. If you do not believe me, go and visit my good friends in the Maldives. Those of you who have been there in the past, the Maldives is a place where you can see with your own eyes, coral bleaching. So, there is no question that this is a clear and present danger.


On our part, in Singapore, there are a couple of things which we have done at the international stage. Apart from participating in the negotiations that led up to the Paris Agreement and the subsequent COP meetings, last year we co-sponsored the resolution put forward by Vanuatu seeking an advisory opinion from the ICJ, the International Court of Justice, to lay out the national obligations on protecting Earth's climate and the legal consequences for failing to do so. I think there are many developed countries that would be very nervous of this resolution, and more importantly, if and when the ICJ comes up with a hearing. Nevertheless, we felt that this was important. This is important for low-lying island states like Singapore and many of my Pacific Island friends where it is an existential issue, and it goes beyond coral bleaching. It even goes to the point of when many states are at real risk, not just of flooding, but of complete submersion. Last year, we also participated in the successful conclusion of the BBNJ treaty. This is the Treaty on the sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. It is a landmark achievement, and we are very glad that it was a Singaporean Ambassador for the Oceans and the Law of the Sea, Ms Rena Lee, who presided over the successful negotiations. It will provide a critical boost for global efforts to protect the marine environment.


The third sub-point on this, Singapore is also seeking partners for collaboration on green shipping corridors. This allows us to contribute to developing standards, best practices and the technology needed to support decarbonisation, digitalisation, and sustainable growth of the maritime industry. Specifically in the Indian Ocean, Singapore is contributing to what has been called the Silk Alliance initiative. This is an initiative that aims to enable zero-emission shipping across the Indian and Pacific Oceans via green corridor clusters, including focusing on a baseline fleet that predominantly bunkers , and we hope will bunker in Singapore as well. We believe that we need to find collective solutions that brings everyone on board, and leaves no one behind to achieve a sustainable Indian Ocean.


So, let me conclude. Since the IOC was launched in 2016, we have been able to keep attention focused on maintaining the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, of development, and increasingly also focus attention not just on the security aspects, but on the sustainable aspects. I think achieving peace and stability in the Indian Ocean has become even more salient, not less. Our suggestion is maintaining a rules-based global order, negotiating international treaties, complying with those terms, seeking peaceful resolution of disputes and preparing for a sustainable future are critical.


I commend the organisers and Ram Madhav, the India Foundation. And thank you Penny, again, for getting us all together. Thank you all very much.



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Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering remarks at the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth, Australia, 9 February 2024

Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering remarks at the Indian Ocean Conference in Perth, Australia, 9 February 2024

Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


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