Managing the Indian Ocean

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Managing the Indian Ocean

Few people have heard of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. That’s a shame.

The recent visit to Australia by U.S. President Barack Obama, the APEC meeting in Honolulu and the East Asia Summit in Bali all overshadowed a meeting in November of an extraordinary international organisation of 19 states from Asia, Africa and Oceania.

Officials from the countries, who gathered in Bengaluru, India, are united by their common interests in sharing the world’s third-largest ocean. Yet with the aphabet soup of regional bodies that now exists, few have heard of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (or its unpronounceable acronym of IOR-ARC), despite it being more than a decade old.

The Assocation’s membership of Indian Ocean littoral states includes Australia, Iran, India, Madagascar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and 13 other states large and small. Yet so far, the Assocation, which has a secretariat in Mauritius, has been largely moribund.

Could this be about to change? India has now taken over as chair of the Association for two years, with Australia assuming the role of vice chair, before chairing the group in 2013 and 2014. That’s sensible: Australia is the largest Indian Ocean state in terms of area of maritime jurisdiction. Indonesia will chair the group after Australia’s term expires.

There’s no doubt the Association has enormous potential. The countries of the Indian Ocean rim, with a population of about 2.5 billion, make it an attractive market. And it’s also a huge energy and trade maritime highway, particularly for the booming economies of Asia – it carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments.

Looking ahead, key components of the Association’s roadmap include trade liberalization and trade and investment facilitation. Intra-regional trade amounts to 24 percent of global trade, and is increasing, although intra-regional investment flows are modest.

But perhaps as important as the economics is the fact that the Indian Ocean is where key geo-political differences will play out between the rising powers of India and China.It’s with the potential for the tensions that this could spark in mind that the Association should work to build a common approach toward sharing resources and expertise over fisheries, maritime transport, marine research (this is the least studied of the world’s oceans) and disaster management.There’s also real potential for cooperation in science and technology, agriculture and culture.

Unfortunately, the range of interests – and the wide differences in national capabilities of the Assocation’s members – will make cooperation difficult.Still, the IOR-ARC would do well to embrace all littoral states, including Pakistan and big external users such as China, the United States and Japan. Only through a fully inclusive mechanism can competition be translated into co-operation.

The group’s recent meeting made some progress, with members agreeing to share information on piracy and ways of consolidating co-operation in education, marine resources management, trade and investment promotion, as well as tourism. But as a state with growing Indian Ocean economic and security interests, and as vice chair of the IOR-ARC, Australia would be well advised to push harder to try and breathe new life into these efforts.

If these 19 states can start working  together, the results could be extremely worthwhile for everyone involved.  They could perhaps even start by coming up with a more user friendly name.

Anthony Bergin is Director of Research Programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and co-author of 'Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean.'