By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, October 16: The 23rd Council of Ministers (COM) Meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) was held in Colombo on October 11. Sri Lanka took over the Chair of the IORA from Bangladesh and will be in charge till 2025. India will be the Vice-Chair during this period.
The theme of the meeting was: “Strengthening Regional Architecture: Reinforcing Indian Ocean Identity.” This is significant because the Indian Ocean has to see itself as a distinct geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic entity. For that, it has to have an identity and an appropriate architecture to sustain that identity.
The IORA is striving hard, against odds, to attain these objectives since its founding in 1997.
Currently, there are 23 Member States in IORA. They are: Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, France/Reunion, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
The IORA has 10 Dialogue Partners: China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
It also has two Specialised Agencies: The Regional Centre for Science and Technology Transfer (RCSTT) based in Tehran, Iran; and the Fisheries Support Unit (FSU) based in Muscat, Oman; and has two Observers, the Indian Ocean Research Group (IORG) and the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA).
The IORA countries encompass about a third of the world’s population; account for about 10% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP); and 40% of the world’s trade passes through the Indian Ocean.
The IORA consists of coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean. It brings together representatives of governments, businesses and academia to promote cooperation and closer interaction among them.
The objectives of the IORA are: (1) To promote sustainable growth and balanced development of the region and Member States; (2) To focus on those areas of economic co-operation which provide maximum opportunities for development, shared interest and mutual benefits; and, (3) To promote liberalisation, remove impediments and lower barriers towards a freer and enhanced flow of goods, services, investment, and technology within the Indian Ocean rim.
Decisions are consensus-based, evolutionary and non-intrusive. There are no laws and binding contracts. Co-operation is based on principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, political independence, and non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States, peaceful coexistence and mutual benefit.
The IORA Charter explicitly excludes bilateral and other issues likely to generate controversy that become obstacles or impediments to regional co-operation. Co-operation within the Association does not prejudice the rights and obligations of the Member States within the framework of other economic and trade cooperation arrangements. It does not seek to be a substitute, but tries to reinforce, be complementary to and consistent with, the bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral rights and obligations of Member States, in line with an open regionalism approach.
The IORA’s apex body is the Council of (Foreign) Ministers (COM) that meets annually. A Committee of Senior Officials (CSO) meets bi-annually to review and prioritise IORA’s activities.
The Association has Functional Bodies. These are: (1) Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group (IORAG);(2) Indian Ocean Rim Business Forum (IORBF); (3) Working Group on Trade and Investment (WGTI); (4) Working Group on Women’s Economic Empowerment (WGWEE); (5) Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security (WGMSS); (6) Working Group on Disaster Risk Management (WGDRM) (7) Working Group on the Blue Economy (WGBE); (8) Working Group on Science Technology and Innovation (WGSTI); (9) Core Group on Tourism (CGT); (10) Core Group on Fisheries Management (CGFM).
The other pan-regional grouping in the IOR is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) which provides a valuable forum for networking and dialogue among the region’s navies. Its working groups promote dialogue on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security and information sharing and interoperability. It is also encouraging its members to sign up to a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) that may help reduce the risk of accidental conflicts between naval vessels.
The annual budget of the Secretariat is based on annual membership contributions by the Member States.
In his statement to the media at the 23rd. Foreign Ministers’ meeting on Wednesday, the Indian External Affairs Minister Dr.S.Jaishankar spoke about India’s commitment to the IORA.
India’s commitment is to the well-being and progress of nations of the Indian Ocean, including as first responder and a net security provider. It draws on India’s broader vision of an Indo-Pacific that is built on a rules-based international order, rule of law, sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation and over-flight, and sincere respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, Jaishankar said.
“ At the initiative of India, IORA’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific was adopted by the 22nd Council of Ministers’ meeting. We will again endeavour to give it practical shape in the days ahead.”
“The Indian Ocean is not only a significant body of water but also a crucial economic and strategic corridor, playing a key role in the development and prosperity of the nations around it and beyond it. India’s message of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or ‘the world is one family’ can act as a binding force for IORA Member States.”
“The IORA brings together 23 member states, including India, with a shared goal of harnessing the immense potential of this region for the benefit of all. India, with its extensive coastline, maritime interests, and historical ties, fully appreciates the importance of fostering collaboration and dialogue in the Indian Ocean.”
“Our commitment to the IORA is deeply rooted in the principles of peaceful coexistence, shared prosperity, and regional collaboration. For Member States to grow and prosper, development challenges must be continuously and effectively addressed. In particular, we should cooperate on various aspects of the maritime economy, resources, connectivity and security,” Jaishankar said.
Pointing out to some dangers lurking in the background, the Indian Minister said: “We should be equally clear where the dangers are, be it in hidden agendas, in unviable projects or in unsustainable debt. Exchange of experiences, sharing of best practices, greater awareness and deeper collaboration are part of the solutions.”
“India views the IORA as a platform for promoting sustainable development, economic growth and prosperity, and stability in the region. As the Vice-Chair of IORA, India will work on consolidating and streamlining efforts to promote cooperation in the realms of the 6 priority areas and 2 cross-cutting themes of the IORA, with particular emphasis on maritime safety and security, and blue economy. We seek to engage our fellow member states and partners to develop mutually beneficial initiatives.”
Strategic competition in the IOR is growing and will likely contribute to an ever more unstable regional order, points out Dr.David Brewster, an Australian National University, an expert on the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
“The IOR also faces a growing list of environmental security threats — including overfishing, loss of fish stocks, climate change and natural disasters that can further exacerbate strategic competition.”
“The maritime realm is particularly demanding of regional cooperation. A boat used for illegal fishing can just as easily be used to smuggle arms, drugs or people. The vast size of the Indian Ocean also demands a cooperative response to threats,” he points out.
The construction of naval bases by several external powers is also worrying,” Dr.Brewster says.
“The vast distances across the ocean, its diversity and the limited resources of most states inhibit sustained engagement. As a result, the IOR lacks the supporting institutions that can help create consensus on security-related issues,” he says.
A major flaw in the IORA is that it is plagued by “limited interest from its members, a lack of resources and limited outcomes that adversely affects its credibility,” Dr.Brewster points out.
Sounding a note of warning, he says: “IORA is increasingly attracting interest from extra-regional players that want to build their regional influence. The grouping has or will likely receive cash funding from China, a German political foundation and France. This increased interest benefits IORA, although there is also the possibility that some extra-regional powers may seek to manipulate the grouping for their own ends.”