Today's Editorial

03 February 2017

Oceanic destiny -- I



Source: By Govind Bhattacharjee: The Statesman



India is a member of several prominent regional associations and supra-regional groupings like SAARC, ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), East Asia Summit (EAS), South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation and Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC). This is in addition to the country’s membership of several global and transcontinental organisations, such as the United Nations, Commonwealth, G-20, G-77, BRICS, etc. and an observer in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Some entities like ASEM, EAS or IORARC have not seen much activity in recent times, and some, like SAARC, have practically achieved nothing in so many decades of their existence, except indulging in occasional exercises in symbolism and tokenism.


After isolating Pakistan last year, the forum itself has now become practically defunct. SAARC has never been a great integrating force within South Asia; in fact, the kind of integration that has transformed the socio-economic and political landscapes in Europe and other continents still remains a distant dream in South Asia, despite an almost infinite potential for cooperation in infrastructure, creation of energy grids and transport networks, for erecting common architectures for handling intra-regional security and harnessing river potential to improve the lives of people.


The time has come to explore and harness the strengths of other supra-regional groupings, by tapping the synergies that flow from historical and cultural bonds. For India, one such group that is vital to our geo-strategic and economic goals is the group of Indian Ocean countries. However, caught in the stranglehold of stagnation in thinking, political leaders and opinion-makers have so far neglected the socio-cultural and economic bonds of these countries with India -- bonds which were forged by history through centuries of maritime trade, as well as religious and political affiliations. These bonds still remain strong and vibrant, and cherished in many of these countries. As the former external affairs minister Mr SM Krishna had stated in 2011, the Indian Ocean remains “an integral part of our collective destiny, and we need a holistic vision for a cooperative response to the challenges in the region”.


There are 59 countries in the rim of the Indian Ocean spanning a total length of 63000 km, of which 21 countries now constitute the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC) -- with seven more countries (including USA, China, UK, France, Japan and Germany) being the dialogue partners. These 21 countries, which include India, Australia, Indonesia, Iran, Thailand, South Africa, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, UAE, Myanmar and Tanzania together, form an economic powerhouse generating among themselves an annual income of more than $7 trillion. As the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had articulated in propagating the compelling vision of a “United States of Asia” in 2007, the Indian Ocean Region has the potential to transform itself into a free trade zone, and may even work towards adopting a common currency.


The region has immense geostrategic and geopolitical significance. It is home to 2 billion people spanning three continents -- Africa, Asia and Oceania -- with three strategic naval chokepoints at the Strait of HormuzBal-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Malacca, connecting the Indian Ocean region with the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the South China Sea respectively.


The Indian Ocean accounts for the transportation of the highest tonnage of goods in the world, with almost 120,000 ships transiting its expanse annually, carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil shipmentsone-third of bulk cargo traffic and half the world’s container shipments. It accounts for more than 20 per cent of the global trade. An estimated 40 per cent of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the Indian Ocean.


The IORARC, which is the only pan-Indian ocean grouping that brings together diverse countries from three continents, had its origin in the 1990s, thanks to the initiatives taken by India and South AfricaIt was set up in 1997 with the stated objectives of economic cooperation for sustainable growth and balanced development, and liberalisation and removal of impediments towards freer trade with free flow of goods, services, investment, and technology within the Indian Ocean rim. The apex body of the IORARC is the Council of Foreign Ministers of the member countries. Its Secretariat is located at Port Louis, Mauritius, which is probably not the best place to exploit its full potential.


As Jivanta Schöttli from the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University had pointed out, the forum had suffered from a lack of visionary leadership and various other drawbacks since inception. The sheer diversity in geography, culture and economic development of the members made it a somewhat unwieldy entity. The track record indeed has very little to show in terms of tangible gains achieved. Projects taken up had either faded away or collapsed, in the process leaving a number of parallel organisations, like the Indian Ocean Rim Academic Groupthe Indian Ocean Rim Business Forum and the Working Group on Trade and Investment whose only job purportedly is to provide inputs to the apex body of the fledging organisation.


The three players who could have made a difference are India, South Africa and Australia. As Schöttli pointed out, Australia’s enthusiasm dwindled after the second ministerial conference in Maputo in 1999 had ruled out voluntary trade liberalisation. South Africa’s priority shifted towards African organisations after the election of Thabo Mbeki as president. India’s interest waned as the forum failed to open up new regional space to stimulate investment and trade.


The irrelevance of the forum was highlighted when the tsunami of 2004 had failed to elicit any large-scale cooperation for relief and rehabilitation of the thousands of hapless victims. Other groups and events have since taken over -- BRICS, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, developments in the South China Sea areas. The forum is now practically dysfunctional and nothing is known of its activities except occasional meetings.


In recent years there has been a reorientation of our strategic focus in foreign relations in which the essential elements are maritime securitymodernisation of the Indian Navy and cooperation with major naval powers such as the United States, Japan and Australia, while asserting our presence in the Indian Ocean only as a ‘catalyst for peacetranquility and stability’. But the rules of the game are changing slowly, in a marked departure from the past when benign rhetoric used to define and determine our policy on the Indian Ocean.


The 26/11 Mumbai carnage in 2008 rattled us into reckoning and revising the Maritime Doctrine first formulated in 2004. The doctrine revised in 2009 highlighted threats arising from maritime terrorism, piracy, coastal security and the heavy presence of extra-regional forces including the world’s most powerful fleets in the Indian Ocean to safeguard their strategic interests. It identified, among the primary elements of our maritime doctrine, the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf region which is home to seven million expatriate Indians, the importance of key chokepoints in the Indian Ocean. The Southern Indian Ocean Region, including Antarctica, South and East China SeasWestern Pacific Ocean and the Mediterranean were identified among the secondary areas of our maritime interest.

Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly underlined the fact that the Indian Ocean Region is one of India’s ‘foremost policy priorities’, while projecting a vision for ‘SAGAR’ which means Ocean and stands for “Security And Growth for All in the Region”. India is now ready to mark its presence in the wider Indo-Pacific region and may even consider building military bases outside. The country’s interest in developing the Chabahar port in Iran is a reflection of this new-found determination to break from the passivity and hesitation of the past. But we need a vibrant organisation to back up and stimulate these efforts, so as to optimise the outcome. This is why IORARC needs to actively and energetically engaged with.