The Indian Ocean is the 3rd largest ocean in the world. Its geopolitical importance stems from vast and largely unexplored mineral deposits and also serving as shipping highway. It is surrounded by 51 countries representing 25% of the world’s landmass. In the post-COVID world, the world nations will have to step up efforts to make up for the lost economic grounds. For this, IORA is being regarded as one of the possible avenues for improving international ties – especially as its one of the low hanging fruits.
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What is IORA?
- The Indian Ocean Rim Association is an intergovernmental organization that was established on March 1997.
- It is a regional grouping that spanning the Indian Ocean.
- It is a ministerial-level forum that aims to foster regional economic cooperation.
- From the inception with 14 member states, the membership expanded to 22 countries, which are Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the UAE and Yemen.
- The IORA has 10 dialogue partners – China, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, the UK and the US.
- The grouping has a huge potential as it involves bilateral and sub-regional relationship within the broader context of Indo-Pacific interests.
- IORA is not the first such grouping in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Ocean Commission was established earlier in 1982. Only recently, India gained observer status with this group.
How was it formed?
- The vision of IORA, which highlights the importance of countries bordering the Indian Ocean, originated during the visit by the then President Nelson Mandela of the Republic of South Africa to India in 1995.
- He emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean Rim in the international system.
- Later, on 6-7 March 1997, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, which was later named as Indian Ocean Rim Association, was created.
What are the priority areas of IORA?
In 2011, the priorities of the association were revamped due to the emerging geostrategic challenges that confronted the Indian Ocean Region. These include:
- Maritime Safety and Security
- Fisheries management
- Academic Science and Technology Cooperation
- Trade and Investment Facilitation
- Disaster Risk Management
- Tourism and Cultural Exchanges
In 2014, two cross-cutting focus areas were added – the Blue Economy and Women’s Economic Empowerment.
Blue Economy Aspect:
- The IORA in February brought focus to the concept of ‘Blue Carbon Ecosystems’– a huge portion of which is in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Blue carbon is the carbon stored in marine and coastal ecosystems such as seagrass, mangrove forests, tidal marshes, etc.
- Protection of these systems is necessary for climate change mitigation and biodiversity preservation. Sustainable use of these ecosystems can benefit livelihood in the coastal regions.
- In 2019, the IORA announced the Indian Ocean Blue Carbon Hub at the conference in Dhaka. The Hub was set up for knowledge and capacity building via the establishment of a think tank.
- One of the first concepts discussed by this think tank is Blue Carbon Finance.
Women’s Economic Empowerment:
- The IORA created the Working Group on Women’s Economic Empowerment for driving the collaboration to achieve gender parity in the region.
- In 2016, the IORA Declaration on Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment was issued to formalize the IORA members’ commitment to women’s empowerment.
- The 2017 Jakarta Accord also saw a further strengthening of the association’s commitment to achieving this goal.
- In 2018, the ‘Balaclava Declaration on Women’s Economic Empowerment and Gender Equality as a Prerequisite for Sustainable Development’ was adopted to affirm the necessity of gender equality for sustainable growth.
- The Women Mean Business Project provides resources to the IORA members on issues concerning women’s economic empowerment.
What was the Delhi Dialogue?
- The Delhi Dialogue XI was the 6th Indian Ocean Dialogue- a flagship IORA initiative – that was held in December 2019.
- Indian Ocean Dialogue is a ‘stand-alone Track 1.5 discussion’ event e. both official and non-official stakeholders (scholars, experts, analysts, and policymakers from governments, think tanks and civil societies) are involved in these discussions. The first such dialogue was held in Kerala in 2014 and resulted in the Kochi Consensus.
- The Delhi Dialogue built upon the growing prominence of the Indo-Pacific idea in both strategic and academic circles. It was held on the theme of ‘Indo-Pacific: Re-imagining the Indian Ocean through an Expanded Geography’. The overall theme of 2019 was ‘Advancing Partnership in the Indo-Pacific’.
- At the Dialogue, India announced that its Indo-Pacific policy will include the Western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. This brings in Gulf countries, Arabian Sea islands and African islands.
What are the challenges faced by IORA?
- One of the issues faced while building a partnership in the IORA is the lack of consensus on the meaning of the Indian Ocean region concept and also its geographical extent.
- While countries like the USA recognize the region as terminating with the Indian sub-continent, India includes the western portion of the ocean in its understanding of the concept.
- Some experts believe that converting the various parts of the Indian Ocean into a single entity might not recognize the various region-specific policy interests and concerns.
- Though there is a guiding principle of ensuring that the region remained open and free interactions among the members in the region, the countries to India’s west have fewer mechanisms to achieve this end than the countries to India’s east.
- India and several other countries have been concerned about the increasingly intrusive Chinese presence in the region.
- Compared to the activities and networks evolved by the members of ASEAN grouping in the eastern part of the ocean, the western part is comparatively lacking in geopolitical networking.
- This is further compounded by the long-raging conflicts in the African coasts– such as in Somalia, Yemen, etc.
- There have been segregating international forums as seen from the non-mention of QUAD during the Delhi Dialogue in 2019.
- There is a lack of proper common governance mechanism in the IOR.
What is the way forward?
- There is a need to develop a common vision in the IORA forum to make sure that any effort, when taken, yields to its full potential towards the right goal.
- There is a need for the blending of networks in the various parts of the oceans instead of the segregation strategy.
- Experts have recommended the use of 2 sets of distinctive policies like ‘Act West’ and ‘Act East‘ as part of the Indo-Pacific strategy in addition to leveraging existing mechanisms for cooperations.
- Instead of the narrow focus on defence, there is a need to focus on the region’s development. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor is one of the proposed ideas.
- There is a need to diversify focus to non-traditional issues like climate change, human trafficking, environmental degradation, rising sea levels etc.
- Given the increasing shipping traffic in the waters, there has been an increase in environmental degradation such as the release of untreated ballast waters. Sustainable development is essential to extract long-term benefits from the ocean and the IORA.
- The other non-traditional issues are also gaining importance. Proactive action on these issues is necessary and would also be welcome by many of the IORA members. Eg: the rising sea level poses a great threat to the island members and members with a lot of low lying areas.
- India can consider the provision of what aid is possible to the African countries that are tackling regional conflicts. This is being proposed as a low-hanging fruit that would strengthen India’s ties with the IORA members.
- Many nations find a unipolar Asia undesirable. Hence India is being regarded as a potential counter to China in the IOR as a way to maintain a power balance in the region. This could be used to India’s advantage.
- On the other hand, rather than focusing on competing with China, India can take up a more cooperative approach with the smaller countries. This approach would be more successful as most small nations are wary of taking sides in conflicts involving economic giants.
- While cooperating with naval powers like France, there is a need to prioritize India’s own interest (economic and security) over the race to beat China in the region.
- India needs to articulate its position via a strategy report/white paper to attract cooperation from other members.
- It is to be understood that common issues like piracy and the current COVID-19 crisis can be used as an opportunity for cooperation beyond the political divide.
- There is also a need to evolve the simplistic perception of nations as friends or adversaries to the perception that appropriate associations and deals with any member would be mutually advantageous for India.
There has been a disruption in cooperation on various international forums in the recent past. Countries like the USA have been walking out of international groupings rather than solving contentious issues among the members. In such a time, India has been strengthening its ties in various forums- such as the recent reactivation of the SAARC. In line with this, India can revamp its role in several other forums like the IORA that are yet to meet its full potential. This is especially necessary as many of the current issues require a cross-border solution.
Practice Question for Mains:
India has a strategically significant position in the Indian Ocean Region. Discuss this in the context of India’s role in the IORA. How can India make better use of this forum? (250 words)