|By Nilova Roy Chaudhury||March 2017|
New Delhi. Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Jakarta for the first ever summit meeting on March 7 of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), a 21-nation group of coastal countries flanking the Indian Ocean.
Crucial state assembly elections and domestic politics kept Prime Minister Narendra Modi away from the two-day summit, marked by the attendance of 16 heads of state or government of the 21 countries. Among those who attended were South African President Jacob Zuma, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.
The organisation, founded in 1997 as the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative in Mauritius, morphed into the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) before becoming the IORA, floundered until quite recently before arriving at a set of goals with which all members can identify.
India has embraced the idea of a stronger, more focused IORA as one which could move the member countries away from China’s proposed ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative, senior officials told India Strategic. A ministerial meeting held in New Delhi in 2011 set out some key markers, including security of maritime lanes, joint anti-piracy operations, disaster management, counter-terrorism cooperation and enhanced and unhindered trade flows.
Speaking of the 2011 meeting, Vice-President Ansari said six concrete areas of focused cooperation were decided; maritime safety and security, trade and investment, management of fisheries, disaster management, science and technology and tourism.
The 21 IORA member states are Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, UAE and Yemen.
Explaining what brought the IORA countries together, Vice President Ansari said, “Ours is a region marked by great diversity of cultures and levels of economic development. Yet for centuries the people on the shores of this ocean have been linked by the winds that blow across it. These facilitated exchanges of ideas through trade, religion and culture. As IORA member States, we recognize that the sea does not separate; rather it is a bridge that connects.”
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo co-chaired the summit Tuesday with the prior chair, the Australian Prime Minister, and President Zuma of South Africa, which is set to assume the chair later this year.
The formal structure of the Association so far has been the holding of official and ministerial meetings. This first summit of leaders, held largely at the initiative of President Widodo, was preceded by meetings of senior officials and ministers.
The Indian Ocean has been largely peaceful so far and India is keen to ensure that China, with its rapidly expanding Navy, does not disrupt the tranquillity of the Ocean’s channels of navigation. Adherence to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a major binding factor among the member states.
Vice President Ansari said maritime safety and security would be the IORA’s main thrust area and the most important thing for RIM countries to be able to cooperate with each other was safety and security. He spoke of the serious problems of piracy and terrorism which had plagued the western part of the Indian Ocean littoral.
Maritime safety and security will be IORA’s main thrust area. Joint action has seen improved security in the region around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, which was earlier infested with pirates. The western part of the Indian Ocean littoral also faces a severe threat from terrorists. The sea routes are now increasingly being used by terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to move out of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and spread their tentacles eastwards.
“We have an imperative need for open trade and open sea lanes that carry it. I call upon the IORA member states to ensure that the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the Indian Ocean is respected by all, as an expression of our commitment to UNCLOS,” Mr Ansari said in his statement at the Summit.
China, one of seven dialogue partners of the IORA, (along with Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the United States and Egypt) has displayed considerable aggression in the South China Sea and refused to accept a tribunal verdict, creating considerable disquiet among IORA and other countries.
The Blue Economy is increasingly a global focus area. The Indian Ocean is at the crossroads of global trade. The Ocean and its littoral are rich in natural resources and home to more than 2.3 billion people. The Ocean is critical to India’s energy security, with over 80 per cent of its energy imports coming via this maritime route, making its security of paramount importance.
Maritime safety and security can be reinforced by institutionalising cooperative mechanisms like White Shipping Agreements and by setting up an Information Fusion Centre to strengthen Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), Vice-President Ansari said. India, he said, is ready to host such a Centre.
The first ever IORA summit saw three critical documents signed; the IORA Concord, which Mr Ansari called “a milestone document that underscores the criticality of maritime safety and security.”
“India believes that our ocean must be protected from traditional and non-traditional threats, particularly piracy. All using these international waters must act with responsibility and restraint,” he said.
IORA ministers adopted a time bound ministerial Plan of Action for the next four years, while leaders signed a Declaration on countering violent extremism.
“Today, terrorism has become the major impediment to development and threatens all pluralist and open societies,” the Indian Vice President said. “No cause justifies the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. IORA must show zero tolerance for State sponsored terrorism. The perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of terrorism must be isolated and face strong sanctions.”
“IORA members have to help each other by sharing intelligence, securing our cyber space, and minimizing the use of internet and social media for terrorist activities. There is a pressing requirement to work out the modalities for institutionalizing an IORA cooperation mechanism,” he said, while proposing a collaboration of Think tanks to counter security challenges.
Around 500 people, including a group of leading business people from India, under the aegis of FICCI, participated in a Business Forum held on the sidelines of the Summit.
India plans to set up the “IORA Centre of Excellence (ICE)” in one of its coastal cities, to provide academics and researchers access to a collective source of data and resource material.