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A fresh view from India

THE Indian Ocean region faces increasing strategic competition and a range of transnational maritime security challenges. To tackle these problems, a new paradigm of burden-sharing and joint responsibility between governments and the corporate world is necessary.

India and Australia have a central, critical role to play in the rejuvenation of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

In order to fully exploit the opportunities offered by the geo-economics of corporate globalisation, the Indian Ocean Rim needs to be re-imagined as encompassing not only ‘spaces of places’ but also ‘spaces of flows’.

Such a perspective challenges the conventional geo-graphical scale and requires foreign policy, military and commercial establishments to reorient themselves.

With both State and non-State players looking for definitions and certainties in a period that is itself struggling to find answers, the issues related to identity, boundaries and sovereignty need to be handled by the intellectuals and institutions of statecraft within a much larger oceanic vision.

The Independent World Commission on Oceans has called upon States to cooperate and uphold international law and order at sea and demonstrate much greater commitment to ecologically sustainable development and management of resources. Despite political, military, economic, social, cultural and language differences, varied national interests and threat perceptions, the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim need to cooperate on issues of common maritime security concern, such as terrorism, piracy, gunrunning, marine pollution, disaster management, and search and rescue.

The challenge of de-territorialised threats

 De-territorialised threats of this kind seriously undermine the pursuit of economic growth and commercial interdependencies, and hence cannot be left entirely at the discretion or disposal of States and governments – a reality insufficiently acknowledged by the corporate world.

Combating transnational crime calls not only for high levels of inter-governmental cooperation and commitment, but also the creation of more economic opportunities, through international cooperation among State and non-State players at both bilateral and multilateral levels, in the Indian Ocean’s economically deprived sub-regions.

The Indian Ocean littoral is also host to an increasingly complex geopolitical economy of organised violence, with various terrorist hubs (LTTE in Sri Lanka, Al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Singapore and Pakistan, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia).

Arguably, the centre of gravity of terrorism at sea is currently located in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the two dozen or so terrorist groups identified as having engaged in maritime terrorism, at least nine are currently active, five operate in the Indian Ocean.

This situation is further complicated by the regional presence of Asia’s two principal illicit opium production areas –  the Golden Crescent (Afghani-stan-Iran-Pakistan) and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar-Laos-Thailand), and high-seas piracy.

Strategic competition

The growing militarisation and nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean region is but the latest in a series of developments reflecting the numerous strategic rivalries converging in this theatre. Here, traditional major sea powers such as the US, Russia and Britain are not on the decline, while new sea powers such as Japan, China and India (around 97 per cent of the latter’s trade is sea-borne), whose growing maritime interests and naval capabilities cannot be ignored, are on the rise.

In a vastly transformed world, the US is unquestionably the most dominant power in the Indian Ocean and is likely to remain engaged in the region on several counts – the war on terrorism, safety and security of sea-lanes, markets and energy security imperatives.

China, with its the growing economic and trade contacts in the Indian Ocean littoral, is also likely to pay increasing attention to the region – particularly to ensure uninterrupted access for strategic and commercial purposes.

A new regionalism?

The fusion of India’s ‘look East’ policy (against growing dissatisfaction with the painfully slow progress of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) with Australia’s ‘look West’ policy – combined with post-apartheid South Africa’s need for a regional identity and the widely perceived need to respond effectively to the challenge of globalisation – resulted in the fairly enthusiastic launch of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) in 1997.

The IOR-ARC initially had 14 member countries (Australia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Oman, Yemen, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, Mauritius, and Madagascar). In 1999 this expanded to 19 countries (with Thailand, Bangladesh, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates and Iran).

In addition, there are five dialogue partners (Egypt, Japan, China, UK and France) and one observer (Indian Ocean Tourism Organisation). Australia, India and South Africa appear to be the three key players.

Although not explicitly stated in the IOR-ARC charter, and despite arguments made both for and against, “open regionalism” was eventually adopted as the organisation’s guiding principle. Essentially, open regionalism does not bind member countries to any commitments, is based on voluntary action, and decisions are taken on the basis of consensus.

This perhaps was not surprising, given the commitment of the leading economies in the region, including Australia, to the World Trade Organisation.

But as early as 1998, the IOR-ARC, seen by many as complementary to existing regional organisations such as APEC, the EU and NAFTA, had lost its direction as well as momentum. There are at least two key reasons for this.

First, as a tripartite institutional arrangement (comprising business, academics and officials) imposed from above, without an established background of regional cooperation among either business or academic groups, the IOR-ARC appears to be lacking meaningful roots within the region. There is therefore a pressing need to cultivate both academic and business interest in the IOR-ARC, which at present is exercising minimal influence among member countries.

Second, the pro-active role and enthusiasm of Indian business organisations such as the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) and the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) and their counterparts in Oman has not been matched by the business interest from other countries, including Australia, Singapore and South Africa. An uncritical acceptance of the APEC model to begin with, combined with a relative neglect of realities specific to the Indian Ocean region – where bilateralism remains restricted mainly to certain subregions – has led to a situation where expectations are not matched by an overarching vision, political will, or the necessary building blocks.

It is time to restructure and reorient the IOR-ARC along the lines of a new regionalism, dictated and driven by functional cooperation in sectors marked by a growing convergence of interests among States and the corporate world (for example, securing energy flows and safeguarding sea-lanes of communication) and willingness to adapt to new realities.

The current inward-looking, autonomy-seeking, geopolitically driven, Euro-centric style of regionalism, so typical of the 1950s and 1960s, is likely to further reinforce a ‘govern-mentality’ that is exclusively concerned with institution building. Instead, what the Indian Ocean demands and deserves, in my view, is an adaptive regionalism, which is outward-looking, and based on broadly conceived, flexible, market-sensitive, functional-sectoral cooperation.

What is of critical importance here is not so much a commonly accepted definition of an Indian Ocean ‘region’ as an acknowledgment of the fact that the Indian Ocean is part of the world-ocean, and lacking inclusive networks of cooperation willing and able to confront uncertainty, promote confidence-building and incorporate uncertainty.

Perspectives on and from India

India’s foreign policy today – both bilateral and multilateral – are marked to a large extent by unprecedented pragmatism and proactive thrust as well as a growing ascendance of geoeconomic over geopolitical considerations.

A new mapping of the Indian Ocean region by India’s political and economic elite, especially in the context of the nation’s ‘look East’ policy, is well under way – a process that is likely to bring about a change in India’s image of itself vis a vis the rest of the world.

There are positive indications that India is both able and willing to question its own ‘land-centric’ mindset and engage far more actively with issues related to maritime security, broadly defined.

There is also a growing appreciation that such issues straddle the traditional ‘civilian-military’ divide – where responsibility for the former is assigned to various civilian ministries/ departments and agencies, while responsibility for the latter is assigned to the Ministry of Defence and armed forces – and therefore demand a new institutional landscape as well as higher levels of coordination.

Against the backdrop of growing regional militarisation, the diffuse complexities of terrorism, insecurities related to energy flows and environmental degradation, the idea of broadening the scope of the IOR-ARC as an Indian Ocean-centric architecture of maritime cooperation, based on adaptive regionalism, and achieved through both bilateral and sub-regional initiatives, deserves the critical attention of both State and non-State players with a stake in the region.

The new challenge calls for burden-sharing and joint responsibility between governments and the corporate world to help defuse mutual suspicions, conflicts and rivalries.

Both India and Australia have a central, critical role to play in the rejuvenation of the IOR-ARC. Together, they could impart a badly needed vision as well as agenda for dialogue and action to this one and only experiment in Indian Ocean regional cooperation.

p Dr Sanjay Chaturvedi is coordinator, Centre for the Study of Geopolitics, Panjab University, Chandigarh, India

 

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