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Indian Ocean rim group hopes India can revive regional body

November 08, 2011 23:14 IST

The Indian Ocean group hoped to reconnect the old linkages but it has not been easy to do so due to large difference in the economic development of member countries. Shubha Singh reports.

India is all set to chair the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) for a two-year term in November when the regional body holds its annual meeting in Bangalore. The most important question that will be on the minds of those attending the meeting is likely to be whether India can revive the largely moribund organisation.

The regional body started with great promise a decade and a half ago but has made little headway. A regional group of the Indian Ocean states had a great idea on the drawing board but have been unable to build a productive synergy mainly due to the inertia of some of its members.

The Indian Ocean Rim grouping stretches from South Africa to Australia. The Indian Ocean has been one of the most important trade routes in the world; for century's seafarers, traders, fishermen and pilgrims have traversed its waters generating a shared history of the region. But the age old ties between the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean dislocated during the colonial period and by the end of colonialism there were few direct shipping routes between the countries along the Indian Ocean Rim.

The Indian Ocean group hoped to reconnect the old linkages but it has not been easy to do so due to large difference in the economic development of member countries.   

It was South Africa that first mooted the idea of a regional association of the countries bordering the Indian Ocean at a meeting in India in the early 1990s. Australia took up the idea enthusiastically, and India, though initially wary of a new regional group, later adopted the idea. In the early days the move to discuss political and security issues in the new forum created some glitches in the concept moving ahead. Finally, the IOR-ARC was formally launched in 1997 with the aim to facilitate and promote economic cooperation in the region.

There was a good deal of interest in the new body, which led to a rush to join the Indian Ocean group and its membership soon went up to 18. The IOR-ARC membership now comprises of 18 littoral states of the Indian Ocean – Australia, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Kenya, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. China, Japan, Egypt, France and Britain are dialogue partners in the grouping.

The inter-governmental Indian Ocean group also involves an academic group, a business forum and a committee to promote trade and investment. The IOR-ARC's top decision-making body is the Council of Ministers (COM) and has three working committees - the Academic Group (IORAG), the Business Forum (IORBF), and the Working Group on Trade and Investment (WGTI).

These groups make proposals to the committee of senior officials, which evaluates the proposal for the council of ministers. At the last annual meeting it was decided that the committee of senior officials should meet twice a year and the first biannual meeting was held in Canberra, Australia, in March 2011.

It is said that IOR-ARC is too disparate an organisation to work without a strong vision and a driving force. It is a region of great diversity economic development, culture, race, religion, and strategic interests. The grouping expanded its membership even before the organisation acquired an identity or momentum. Ties within the grouping are still based on individual bilateral relations without any sense of a regional identity being formed. 

The Indian Ocean region has several regional and sub-regional organisations that evoke much greater enthusiasm amongst their members than the oceanic connection. Almost all members are actively involved within other region bodies. ASEAN, SAARC, and the GCC are old and established regional bodies, and the African countries are members of Southern African Customs Union (SACU), Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Even BIMSTEC - - the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which was founded around the same time has begun to perk up.

In the recent years, India has strengthened its ties with Africa, particularly its relations with countries in the eastern coastal states. India's look east policy has helped build ties with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar as well as the other South-east Asian countries. India-Australia bilateral relations have strengthened in the past few years with India emerging as a major trading partner of Australia.

The issue of piracy and the security of sea lanes have brought home the importance of the region. The Indian Ocean has become a region of important strategic interest to India as well as to Australia. With India's greater interest in the countries of the Indian Ocean region it is in a position to give the thrust to the regional body.

Australia was appointed vice chair for two years and will take its turn as the chair after India's tenure ends in 2013. The annual meeting of the council of ministers is to take place on November 15, after the working groups and the committee of secretaries have held their meetings.

During a visit to Perth, Australia to attend the commonwealth heads of government meet last month, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna told his Australian counterpart that both India and Australia viewed the Indian Ocean as a potential area for greater cooperation among the countries of the region. "We have to work closely together to realise the potential of IOR-ARC and also to transform it into an active and vibrant forum," Krishna added.

Shubha Singh in New Delhi