“The Indian Ocean is warming at a higher rate than the other oceans around the world,” revealed Swapna Panickal, a meteorological scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, based on the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC shed light on the potential disasters that the world and the Indian Ocean region might have to face in the coming decades. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues concerning the Indo-Pacific. But the threat of an existential crisis due to natural disasters for a number of island states in the region requires a joint plan of action to tackle the current situation.
The dormant Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) has the ability – and the need – to take the initiative on protecting the region’s interests amid the unfolding climate crisis.
The decline of multilateralism and multilateral institutions has led to a lack of accountability among states in responding to global challenges. A multilateral body with the ability to promote cooperation is the need of the hour. Climate change and the potential havoc it might bring to the Indian Ocean region can and must serve as a wake up call for the IORA. However, this must also be used as a base to address other long-standing problems concerning the region as a whole.
Global warming and its implications for the Indian Ocean region remain the foremost issue that needs to be addressed. With warming levels estimated to be three times higher than in the Pacific, coastal areas across the Indian Ocean region are likely to see a continuous rise in sea levels, resulting in severe coastal erosion. This in turn will result in frequent flooding in low-lying areas. The Indian Ocean is rising at a level of 3.7 millimeters annually, and extreme sea disasters can be expected nearly every year.
The recent IPCC Report also mentions how the southwest monsoons in the Indian subcontinent are set to change trajectories due to climate change. Monsoons in the region will soon intensify in the summers, resulting in short spells of heavy rainfall in different places.
Island nations, such as the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, are part of the IORA and must be a top priority for the organization. These island states are extremely vulnerable to impending changes and need to be provided support to mitigate the effects of climate change. Southeast Asian nations, such as Thailand and Indonesia, also part of the IORA, suffered the maximum damage during the 2004 tsunami and continue to remain among the nations most prone to flooding. The IORA must collectively develop a framework along with other necessary contingency plans for the region to handle any major environmental disaster in the near future.
The Indian Ocean region also remains a biodiversity hotspot, one that is home to several million species of flora and fauna. Increased pollution levels, combined with overfishing, pose a major threat to the rainforests, marine reefs, and other ecosystems in the region. The environmental threats also have significant implications for the fishing community. Millions of fisherfolk depend on the natural resources of the region for their livelihood, which is at stake in the current situation.
These issues require an immense collaborative effort ranging from African states in the west all the way to the Australian continent in the far east. The IORA, which includes states across the region, should play a unifying role in the environmental conservation and sustainability process. At the same time, the forum must provide alternative solutions to communities dependent on the ocean’s resources.
One of the priority areas of the IORA remains the protection of maritime interests (national security, the marine environment, and human security) in the region, along with providing adequate security measures. The establishment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 saw a rapid increase in the funding of Chinese maritime infrastructure projects across the region. From ports in Southeast Asia all the way up to Djibouti on the east coast of Africa, China’s maritime presence has gradually increased across the Indian Ocean.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for China to showcase its aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and Chinese maritime militia could pose a considerable threat to security in the Indian Ocean region as well. IORA members India and Australia, also part of an alternate grouping called the Quad, have already signed a “joint guidance” for naval cooperation. Bilateral military engagements have also seen an uptick following the pandemic, with the Indian and Vietnamese navies recently conducting maritime exercises in the region.
While minor steps are being taken to ensure the protection of national security in the maritime domain, the region needs all hands on deck to prevent any intimidation by other actors. The IORA should serve as a platform for all the Indian Ocean states to raise security concerns. This can act as an effective strategy for counterbalancing aspiring hegemonic powers of the region.
Trade and Economic Development
The Indian Ocean region accommodates one-third of the world’s population and remains critical for the global oil trade. It is also home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, such as India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. However, economic ties between the states remain rudimentary, and the pandemic has effectively brought domestic economic growth to a standstill. This can be corrected through a multilateral forum such as the IORA.
There has been active interest in improving economic relations between the African and Asian states, which the IORA serves as a perfect platform for. South Africa recently praised Bangladesh’s economic growth and called for the development of greater ties between the two states. Australia’s A$25 million foreign infrastructure project, the South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity initiative, seeks to develop the transportation and energy sector in the region. Bangladesh has even urged the IORA member states to strengthen economic cooperation. Plus, Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly shown an interest in having Russia join the IORA. This could serve as a major economic boost for the states already part of the forum.
The IORA must look to build on these developments to create a conducive environment for increasing the trade volume and economic ties between the Indian Ocean states. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership should serve as potential frameworks to the IORA for negotiating a mutually beneficial economic partnership for all its members.
The Indian Ocean region, and the Indo-Pacific in general, faces abundant problems that need to be addressed by a collective entity. Multilateral groupings can ensure a joint effort to battle through the pandemic, economic decline, and potential climate disasters. The IORA should take a great leap forward in establishing a “Blue Economy” in the Indo-Pacific, balancing economic growth and environmental conservation. The IORA has the capability to bring together many different states to address critical global issues. The prospect of facing another natural disaster due to climate change should serve as a focal point for increased collaboration of the IORA.