April 18, 2021
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Frost sprouting
Indian Ocean: Reviving IOR-ARC forum

After successful efforts to bring 35 navies of the Indian Ocean littoral states under the banner of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, first inaugurated in February 2008, India has taken another grand initiative to revive the 15 year old moribund Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

The declared objective of the IONS is to increase maritime co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean region by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues.

In the process, it endeavors to generate a flow of information between naval professionals that would lead to common understanding and possibly cooperative solutions on the way ahead.

On the other hand, the IOR-ARC seeks to promote the sustained growth and balanced development of the region and among the member states, to create common ground for regional economic co-operation.

Both IONS and the IOR-ARC should complement each other in promoting peace and stability in the maritime area. Being a leading economy and leading military power of the Indian Ocean, India is required to play a dominant role in keeping afloat the flag of these organizations at the top in the entire region.

Cooperative approach

Though the seeds for cooperative relations among littoral states of Indian Ocean were sown 15 years ago, not enough water and fertilizer was provided to help the organization grow as a mature, fruit yielding tree.

However, the recent initiatives of the member states have shown renewed interest in the revival of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation as an important player in the maritime region bounded by Asia, Africa and Australia.

During the Gurgaon meet in November, the IOR-ARC members have shown their resolve to revive this almost moribund group of 19 States as an influential entity in the maintenance of peace and stability in the area.

With the changed geo-political environment, the importance of Indian Ocean has increased tremendously.

Because of its huge importance as economic links between Oceans and Nations, this third largest water body on earth demands increased attention from not only the littoral states but also non littoral powers as protection of their economic interest demands collective effort for the maintenance of peaceful environment in the area.

Considering the deep interest shown by the navies of the littoral states in joining IONS, the IOR-ARC will also expand in the coming years which added Comoros as the 20th member at the Gurgaon meeting.

Indian Ocean is a major sea route connecting middle-East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and Americas. The Ocean carries heavy traffic of petroleum products which are carried from gulf and the ASEAN region to the other parts of the world.

In fact, 70 percent of the global traffic of energy and 50 percent of container traffic passes through Indian Ocean which is also rich in resources like rare earths, minerals, fishery etc.

This Ocean is directly important for India considering the fact that 90 percent of Indian energy imports are from Indian Ocean and 80 percent of Indian international trade is conducted via Indian Ocean.

India’s total trade with the IOR-ARC region has grown more than eight fold from US$ 19 billion to US$ 156.3 billion during the period of 2001-2010. India’s exports to the region amounted to US$ 69 while imports amounted to US$ 87.3 billion. India contributed 15.6 per cent of the total intra-regional trade in 2010.

With the emergence of Africa as a prospective economy, the major powers are vying for a piece of the African cake. Indian Ocean will prove to be a major link and its islands as major launching pad to promote the strategic and economic interests of the far flung nations in the African continent.

To protect their national power, the major powers are also increasing their military presence in the maritime area. China has recently been seen scouting for rest and recreation facilities for its naval assets in the Indian Ocean. This has created concern in the Indian strategic circles.

Considering the huge potentials, countries like China, UK, France, Japan and Egypt have become dialogue partners and US also showed keen interest for involving itself as Dialogue partner which was accepted by the 19 member states during the ministerial council meeting held in Gurgaon in November.

Iran was initially hesitating to approve the proposal of accepting US as a dialogue partner but India played a key role in requesting Iran to drop its objections.

Dialogue partner

Reacting positively on the consensus decision to accept US as dialogue partner the Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, “the US has a very important role in world governance and world institutions.”

He said their participating as a dialogue partner will add value to the discussions and deliberations that take place here and certainly make our decisions more far reaching and get endorsed more in a sense, globally than we would be doing it only if we restrict it ourselves to the rim.

Undoubtedly, US has a central role to play in the maintenance of peace and stability in the maritime area as it maintains a mammoth military presence, under its Central Command, in the Ocean at the Mauritian Diego Garcia  Island, leased by the British to the Americans.

Established in Mauritius in March 1997, IOR-ARC is the only pan-Indian Ocean Association for regional cooperation. To quote the Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, “the geo-strategic importance of the Indian Ocean cannot be underestimated.”
Its stability and well-being are critical for global economic prosperity, and even more so for the countries on its Rim.

“We are convinced that we can augment our capacities to deal with our common challenges in a more effective manner by forging enduring partnerships amongst ourselves. We support closer interaction between our Association and regional organizations in the Indian Ocean, such as the African Union,” he said.

Since last few years the Indian Ocean has attracted strategic interests of the nations because of increased incidence of piracy by the Somali pirates who are seriously threatening the maritime trade traffic which has the potentials of disrupting economic activities of the nations.

Almost 30 countries have positioned their warships to protect their merchant ships from getting hijacked by the pirates. This unprecedented congregation of the navies of the world in the Indian Ocean region has resulted in seeking their permanent presence in the Ocean.

This has potentials of creating ripples in the Indian Ocean. In this background, the Gurgaon meet has taken a significant decision to organise IOR-ARC seminar on maritime security in 2013 in India to consider concrete proposals of cooperation in this broad area, including institutionalization of a regional mechanism for continuing exchange of views and monitoring of the situation.

According to the declaration of the meeting, “Economic development cooperation requires a conducive environment to flower. Security of maritime commerce and safety of seafarers are of concern to all of us. There is a need, for example, to be more precise in defining High Risk Areas in the Indian Ocean, based on actual incidents of piracy, as this impacts adversely on insurance premiums and adds to the cost of shipping in our region.”

To thwart the nefarious activities of the sea pirates and other non state actors, the IONS can be a very powerful instrument which in the process will help the IOR-ARC in meeting the objectives of fast regional growth.

Even the evil designs of the State actors can be thwarted through the collective efforts of the IOR-ARC member states.

Being an Indian Ocean power, India has to play a lead role in bringing the two forums together for combined efforts to help maintain peace and tranquility in the area.

During the cold war days when the Americans and the Soviets were roaming in the Ocean, Indian cry for declaring Indian Ocean as Zone of Peace was not heeded.

Now is the opportune moment for India to bring awareness among the littoral powers for serious collective efforts to promote economic and strategic cooperation for the benefits of the people of the region.