By: Vaibhav Borude, Research Analyst, GSDN
The Indian Ocean is the third-largest of the world’s five oceanic divisions, covering 19.8% of the water on Earth’s surface. It is bounded by Asia to the north, Africa to the west and Australia to the east. To the south it is bounded by the Southern Ocean or Antarctica. Along its core, the Indian Ocean has some large marginal or regional seas such as the Arabian Sea, Laccadive Sea, Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Indian Ocean is strategically and geo economically one of most important place of earth. Indian Ocean connects the petroleum producing gulf region to the wider market, thus makes an important place for transport and service sector.
The sea lanes in the Indian Ocean are considered among the most strategically important in the world with more than 80 percent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil transits through the Indian Ocean and its vital chokepoints, with 40 percent passing through the Strait of Hormuz, 35 percent through the Strait of Malacca and 8 percent through the Bab el-Mandab Strait.
Considering, this many countries had always tried to increase their power differentials in Indian Ocean space. Britian has long standing dispute with Mauritius on Chagos archipelago. USA has its naval base in Diego Garcia. Now, China wants to control the vital Indian Ocean, so is using its power to develop military bases and economic trade point like Chinese port in Djibouti.
With world gearing up to increase their influence in Indian Ocean, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is trying to provide an unique platform for countries in this region to increase cooperation and coordination in Indian Ocean.
Indian Ocean Rim Association is an intergovernmental organization established on March 07, 1997. The late President of South Africa Nelson Mandela inspired this vision of Indian ocean rim association during his visit to India. “The natural urge of facts of history and geography should broaden itself to include the concept of an Indian Ocean RIM for socio- economic cooperation” was the vision of late president Nelson Mandela.
The structure of IORA consists of apex body ie the Council of Foreign Ministers (COM) which meets annually. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) assumed the role of Chair from November 2019 – November 2021, followed by the People’s Republic of Bangladesh November 2021 – November 2023. A committee of Senior Officials (CSO) meets twice a year to progress IORA’s agenda and consider recommendations by Working Groups and forums of officials, business and academics to implement policies and projects to improve the lives of people within the Indian Ocean Member States.
The charter of IORA has defined the various objectives that members seek to achieve. This includes, to promote the sustained growth and balanced development of the region and of the Member States, and to create common ground for regional economic co-operation. To focus on areas where economic cooperation can be achieved. To look for all avenues for trade liberalization, strengthen cooperation and dialogue among countries. The Priority Areas of the Indian Ocean Rim Association are:
1. Maritime Safety and Security;
2. Trade and Investment Facilitation;
3. Fisheries Management;
4. Disaster Risk Management;
Science and Technology Cooperation; and
6. Tourism and Cultural Exchanges.
The IORA has also started many flagship initiatives such asIndian Ocean dialogue. The Indian Ocean Dialogue is established in its role as a stand-alone Track 1.5 discussion, encouraging an open and free flowing dialogue by key representatives of IORA Member States such as scholars, experts, analysts, and policy makers from governments, think tanks and civil societies on a number of crucial strategic issues of the Indian Ocean Region.
Somalia and Yemen development program is organized as a special capacity building program for this region. As the region has been the worst sufferer of conflict, radicalisation and civil war. The IORA has also launched theIORA Sustainable Development Program. The IORA Sustainable Development Program (ISDP) was introduced in 2014 and is dedicated for the least developed countries (LDCs) that require assistance and support to conduct projects, and with the main purpose to promote sharing experiences and best practices among IORA Member States. IORA has collaborated with UN Women to strengthen research on women’s economic empowerment, and promote the Women’s Empowerment Principles in the region, supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
India’s Role in IORA
- India continues to promote its official policy of “coordination, cooperation and partnership” in the regional maritime domain.
- As coordinator to the priority area on disaster risk management, India has published guidelines for IORA. It has also urged partners to join the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure launched at the UN in September 2019.
- India has been trying to emerge as the net provider of information in the IOR and in that direction it created the Information Fusion Centre located in Gurugram to assist member countries of IOR with real-time crisis information. Bangladesh, Mauritius, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Seychelles have been part of the information support structure of India.
- Indian policy takes into consideration that IOR is not an India-run maritime domain and that is reflected in the government’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) programme, which aims to turn the region more inclusive.
With rising importance of the Indian Ocean Region, a secure maritime environment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is crucial for both India and African countries for securing national interests and achieving sustained national development. Such security means not only guarding the coastline or territories, but also safeguarding the countries’ interests in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as well as protecting trade and shipping routes, and sea-lanes of communications (SLOCs).
There are a number of challenges this region is facing. The region around western Indian Ocean is prone to threat from pirates. They threaten the development of secure sea lane communication in the region. India has net security provider of Indian ocean, has deployed its Naval forces to act against these threats and has been successful in reducing the intensity of pirate attacks.
The next big challenge of the region is in China’s ambition of making the Indian Ocean as its own backyard, like USA maintained its hegemony in the Pacific Ocean. China is trying to increase its influence in the region by using its Strings of Pearls theory. That aims to encircle India by the sea-route. They are aiming to gain upper hand in sea lanes of communication in this region for this they have launched a maritime component of Belt and Road Initiative ie Global Maritime Silk Route. That aims to develop trade links all around the world from China to Europe. China is also using its debt trap diplomacy to force countries in taking unsustainable debts and then when they fail to repay their infrastructure are taken on long lease by them. The Chinese have used this strategy well in Sri Lanka and also is trying to use it in Maldives and Mauritius.
The next big challenge facing this region is rising sea levels due to climate change. Many of this region face existential threats due to rising sea level. Many parts of this region would be submerged thus resulting in threat to survival for these countries. Despite many of them being net negative carbon emitters, the threat they face is highest. Mainly due to emission from developed countries.
However, with challenges come opportunities. India has a lot of opportunities in this region. Indians have a sizable number of diaspora in many of these countries that have been able to create an image of good friendly neighbour. India’s soft power has been greatly enhanced.
Along with it the rising stature of the Indian economy provides opportunities for the region to align with our trade goals and in the end develop their own economy. With the rising middle class in India, many countries of this region can develop from tourists from India. In an effort to become the primary source of information in the IOR, India established the Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram, which provides member nations with crisis information in real time. Bangladesh, Mauritius, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the Seychelles have all contributed to India’s information support system. The Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) program, which strives to make the region more inclusive, reflects Indian policy’s recognition that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is not an Indian-run maritime domain.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association A(IOR) must be India’s main priority. IOR’s mission to advance regional development that is both sustainable and equitable must be the cornerstone of any new initiative in the region. A unique regional cooperation initiative on the blue economy must be taken into consideration by IORA. That will fulfil the aspirations of the IOR countries.