New Delhi: India will aim to revitalize economic and security cooperation among Indian Ocean nations this week as it hosts a meeting of the 18-member Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).
With nearly half the international container traffic and more than 70% of crude and and oil products passing through the region, according to Indian government data, the importance of the Indian Ocean as a trade corridor and energy highway is undeniable.
The IOR-ARC bloc was formed in Mauritius in 1997, bringing together countries from Australia to Singapore and Indonesia to Yemen, but has not been too successful in deepening regional cooperation.
S.M. Krishna (File Photo)
That is what founder member India will hope to change when it chairs the 15-16 November meeting.
Foreign minister S.M. Krishna will host IOR-ARC representatives in his home city of Bangalore.
Except Indonesia, Madagascar, Oman and Thailand, all other member states will be represented by senior ministers, according to the foreign ministry. “This shows the level of interest and belief in the potential of the grouping,” said an Indian official, who declined to be identified.
The official said rotating chairmanship of the bloc among member states and the absence of a proactive agenda were the main reasons for the IOR-ARC failing to make an impact. Krishna, he said, will outline a new plan of action to infuse fresh energy into the group.
Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd, who arrived in Bangalore on Monday, said his country’s trade in goods to IOR-ARC countries in 2010-2011 was more than Australian 80 billion Australian dollars, or 17% of its total exports. “Australia is as much an Indian Ocean nation as we are a Pacific Ocean nation,” he said in a statement issued by the Australian high commission in New Delhi.
“IOR-ARC, as the region’s most representative group, has the potential to play an important role in addressing the increasing challenges facing the region. It is already active or expanding cooperation in areas such trade facilitation, disaster management, cooperation on climate change, sustainable fisheries management and maritime safety and security,” Rudd said.
India’s former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, in a speech to the National Maritime Foundation think-tank last November, had pointed out the region was vulnerable to a number of security threats, including terrorism, piracy, warlordism, smuggling and drug trafficking.
“These issues will definitely be on the agenda of the meeting,” said the official cited above. Krishna could focus on piracy off the coast of Somalia, given that “the Gulf of Aden is a major trading route for India and about $110 billion of our trade passes through it”.
India also contributes around 7% of the world’s merchant mariners, some of whom have been abducted and held hostage by Somali pirates, he said.
The IOR-ARC meeting could also discuss China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region, which India has considered its traditional sphere of influence, said A.K. Pasha, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
There have been recent reports that China has established a diplomatic presence in the Maldives and made huge investments in infrastructure in countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar—bordering India.
“It is not yet officially on the agenda,” Pasha said, “though the Indian delegation has discussed the issue with some participating countries.”