The College of William & Mary in Virginia was the site recently of a major international gathering of scholars, policy analysts and business leaders from around the world to discuss the emergence of the Indian Ocean Basin as a key strategic region in the world.
According to a fact sheet issued by the organizers of the Critchfield Conference, "The Indian Ocean Basin is the 21st century Marine Silk Road. It is the world's energy highway, connecting petroleum and gas producers to burgeoning markets in India, China, Japan and the rest of the world. Half of all commercial shipping crosses its waters. The security of key choke points Aden, Hormuz, and Malacca is a major concern for participants in this trade, particularly the U. S. and increasingly India, China and Japan."
According to Stephen Hanson, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Director of the Reves Center for International Studies, the inspiration for holding such an important conference at William & Mary came from Lois Critchfield, a member of the Reves Center's Advisory Council and founder of James H. Critchfield Memorial Endowment for Middle East Studies.
"The Critchfield conference on Marine Silk Road was truly innovative in its scope to discuss the emergence of the Indian Ocean Basin as a key strategic region in the world," Hanson said in an interview with the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette.
The impact of the gathering will be twofold, he said, forging a community of analysts interested in interdisciplinary discussions of such a vital region and demonstrating that open-minded people coming from very different academic and professional backgrounds can still find common ground in studying vital global issues.
This sentiment was echoed by Kathleen Ridolfo, executive director of the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington. She was sent to the conference as an observer.
"This very important conference highlighted a growing trend by scholars to focus on the once neglected Indian Ocean Basin," she said. "The conference was a tremendous success and one that is likely to put William & Mary on the map as a center for the study of the Indian Ocean. The College continues to increase the number of its faculty with specialization on the region. It widens the College's reach and scholarship Participation in such events helps organizations such as mine to meet scholars and analysts we might not otherwise meet."
Such a report, when it reaches Sultan Qaboos bin Said,, the ruler of the Arabian Gulf state of Oman, one of the closest allies of the United States in the region, would demonstrate that William & Mary has become a major international center for high-level meetings about global affairs.
The W&M partnership with Oman was formalized in 2011 with the establishment of the Sultan Qaboos Professorship in Middle East studies and Oman's vital role in the Indian Ocean Basin was the focus of several presentations and discussions at the conference.
Responding to the question, what was the motivating force that made her establish the Critchfield Memorial Endowment for Middle East Studies at William & Mary, Lois said: "To honor my late husband, who repeatedly said that his education was the dominant influence in shaping his life, preparing him for diverse challenges that took him to the far corners of the, world. Much of that focus during his career and mine centered on the broader Middle East."
Reflecting on the Indian Basin conference, she said: "I look at this magnificent conference as a launch pad to prepare today's students to meet the challenges and become informed leaders for our country in the 21st century. I am confident that W&M is well positioned to prepare its students to navigate the policy issues that will affect commerce, diplomacy and conflicts in a turbulent world."
Robert D. Kaplan, foreign correspondent for the Atlantic, Chief Geopolitical Analysts for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in his keynote address painted an all-encompassing portrayal of the region, including history, conflicts, resources and its future..
"The Greater Indian Ocean will form the maritime interstate of the World-Island's commercial and military traffic," wrote Kaplan in his path breaking book, "Monsoon." "And so this ocean is once again at the heart of the world, just as it was in antique and medieval times."
In the words of Lois Crutchfield, "The subject of the conference was to raise awareness about this important region so that policymakers of tomorrow can deal from strength in addressing ever changing issues there."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.