Ministers of 19 member countries belonging to the India Ocean Region-Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) met in Perth on November 1 for their 13th meeting. In a symbolic but significant move, they decided to rename IOR-ARC as Indian Ocean Rim Association or IORA. The renaming is an attempt to strengthen the organisation and forge a wider Indian Ocean identity, which will depend on the political will on the part of member countries to deal with the vital issues confronting the region.
The association, set up in 1997, is the only organisation which brings together Indian Ocean countries from Africa, Asia and Australia together on a common platform regional co-operation. IORA consists of 20 members which include 11 Asian (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Oman, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen; eight African (Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania); and Australia. China, Japan, Egypt, France, the UK and US are the six dialogue partners. Indian Ocean Organisation and Indian Ocean Research Group are the two observer organisations. The six priority areas for co-operation identified by the organisation are: include maritime security and safety, trade and investment, fisheries management, disaster and risk management, science and technology, academic co-operation and tourism.
The IORA declaration issued in Perth, dubbed as Perth Principles, seeks to take forward co-operation in these areas. But it falls short of developing a framework for security co-operation. The Perth declaration declares that IORA will devote itself to “development, security, resources and environmental challenges”. It recommends stronger control at ports, collaboration in disaster response and risk management, fisheries, science and technology and maritime security and oceanic research. IORA work takes place through a Committee of Senior Officials, IOR Trade and Investment Working Group, IOR Academic Forum, and IOR Business Forum. For meaningful collaboration, IORA would need considerable resources which it lacks at the moment. IORA is in favour of private sector participation in its activities.
The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) has emerged as an important forum for navies of the Indian Ocean to meet periodically and discuss issues. It is appropriate that all IORA members are invited members of IONS.
With an area of over 68 million square kilometres, the Indian Ocean is the busiest artery of global trade. Although smaller than Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it is vital to global commerce carrying nearly 100,000 ships every year, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the world’s energy trade. With eight choke points and a number of regional hotspots, it is a highly militarised and unstable region of the world. Stability and safety in the Indian Ocean region is crucial for the global economy. The region faces a host of security problems ranging from terrorism, piracy, WMD proliferation, to human trafficking and organised crime. In addition, the adverse impact of climate change such as the sea level rise, acidification of sea waters and pollution affect many countries of the region. Yet, the region does not have a common security architecture to discuss and resolve these problems.
Australia has in recent years promoted the idea of Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic region combining the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The idea is ambitious but underdeveloped. Australia is keen to project an Indian Ocean identity. That is why it hosted the ministerial summit in Perth. It will try to position IORA as a premier regional organisation in the Indian Ocean region. However, it will have to be adroit in ensuring that interests of all member countries, many of whom are from Africa and the Gulf region, are duly addressed. Else, rifts might develop in the organisation.
The Indian Ocean is a complex area with a huge spread from the shores of Africa to Australia. For the organisation to emerge as a regional one, much more needs to be done.
First, the IORA meetings should be held at the summit level. The ministerial level is simply not enough for important initiatives to be taken. The IORA charter should be amended to reflect present-day realities. Second, IORA should be proactive to take position on maritime security issues. It should have a consultative mechanism to arrive at common positions. It should develop co-operative links with other regional organisations to develop synergies. Third, it should undertake some high-profile, high-visibility projects which can be seen as providing benefits to the people of member nations. For instance, regional youth festivals, games, adventure sport, expeditions, etc. should be considered. It would also be useful to set up centres of excellence on oceanic and fisheries research. Fourth, public awareness about IORA should be increased, visa regimes relaxed and substantial number of scholarships to students and professionals with IORA brand should be provided. Indian Ocean studies should be introduced in the curricula of universities. Fifth, a substantial IORA fund should be set up to undertake collaborative activities.
Sixth, a Track-2 initiative tanks on the lines of ASEAN Regional Forum’s CSCAP (Conference of Security Co-operation in Asia-Pacific) should be set up for serious discussion of contemporary security issues in the region. The forum could be called IORA Security Cooperation Forum and provide inputs to political leaders on security issues.
India is a key nation situated right in the middle of the region. It can gain hugely by developing an ocean-centric economy. India has the premier navy in the ocean. It has long-standing seafaring traditions which have been forgotten. Shipping is critical to India’s trade. Thus, it is natural that India should engage proactively with IORA and help it develop into a vibrant regional organisation.
Unfortunately, India missed a great opportunity of putting its stamp on the growth of the organisation during its chairmanship. Bold vision was lacking. Only small, hesitant, symbolic and light measures were taken to invigorate the outfit. After Australia, Indonesia, another major Indian Ocean country, will take over the reins of the organisation. Hopefully, in the next four years, IORA will carve out an identity for itself.
IOR-ARC has been a dormant organisation for a long time. IORA, its new avatar, is still in a nascent stage of development. Political will will be required to ensure it gets a higher profile. It will have to compete with other regional organisations for international attention.
The author is director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.