New Delhi: After more than a decade of moribund existence, India is aiming to breathe fresh life into a grouping of Indian Ocean nations for greater economic cooperation.
Loosely modelled on the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the 18-member Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) was launched in Mauritius 1997, bringing together countries from Australia through Singapore and Indonesia to Yemen. But 14 years into its existence, the grouping has little to show for itself and practically no recall value.
Fresh thinking: Foreign minister S.M. Krishna may attend a meeting of the grouping in August.
Founder member India is hoping to change this when it chairs a meeting of the group in August. Foreign minister S.M. Krishna is likely to head the Indian delegation at the deliberations that will aim to infuse “fresh thinking and a new plan of action”, said an Indian official, who did not want to be named.
“There are many reasons for the initiative not taking off,” he said. “The chairmanship rotated among the member states and interest waned without a proactive agenda to act on. This is what we are hoping to change when India takes the chair of IOR-ARC in August.”
According to Francis Kornegay, senior research associate with the South Africa-based Institute for Global Dialogue, plans to revive the IOR-ARC at this point could work because of “the trend towards an ever-accelerating uptick in economic links and activity between east, south and South-East Asia with the Middle East and Africa.”
A.K.Pasha, a professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, blamed divergent foreign policy objectives of key states for stymying the growth of the grouping. A reorientation in Indian foreign policy that prioritized reworking its ties with the US after India’s nuclear tests in 1998 was a contributing factor, he said.
“Australia, too, was looking towards the US at about this time. Then came the US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which resulted in Australia focusing more attention on these issues. There was a divergence of perceptions where India and Australia were concerned and not much coordination,” Pasha said. “In the case of South Africa, after initial hesitation, it was emerged as a partner in the initiative.”
But in recent times, India has been signalling a revival of interest. In a speech to the National Maritime Foundation in November, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao underlined the importance of the Indian Ocean region for India in terms of trade and as a source of energy supplies.
“Trade with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean constitutes close to 40% of India’s total trade,” she said. “The maritime dimension is also vital for our energy security.”
She also spoke of the importance of the region to global geopolitics. “Fifty per cent of the container traffic and more than 70% of crude and oil products” pass through the region, she said. “The disruption of energy flows in particular is a considerable security concern for littoral states, as a majority of their energy lifelines are sea-based,” Rao said, pointing out that the region was also vulnerable to terror attacks.
India’s concerns and interests in the Indian Ocean region also include Somali pirates and an increased Chinese naval presence in what it considers its sphere of influence, said Pasha.