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Strengthening maritime cooperation and security in the Indian Ocean

Delivering the Keynote address at the Shangri-La dialogue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore on 1 June 2018, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time articulated India’s vision towards the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ and placed it firmly at the heart of India’s engagement with the world.

This is based on India’s geographical, historical and civilisational links with the region as well as its importance for India’s current and future prosperity and security. Prime Minister Modi defined this essentially maritime region as stretching “from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas” , thereby incorporating the Arabian Sea/Gulf region, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. India’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is to be based on the five S’ in Hindi: Sammaan (respect); Samvad (dialogue); Sahyog (cooperation), Shanti (peace), and Samridhi (prosperity).

India and the Indian Ocean
At the same time, Prime Minister Modi made clear that the Indian Ocean held the “key to India’s future”. Indeed, in March 2015 he became the first Indian prime minister in decades to articulate a five-pronged vision towards the future of the Indian Ocean, called Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) (meaning ‘lake’ in Hindi). Key elements of this envisaged that “collective action and cooperation will best advance peace and security in our maritime region. It will also prepare us better to respond to emergencies”, while seeking “a more integrated and cooperative future in the region that enhances the prospects for sustainable development for all”. Finally, he noted that “the time has come for a strong grouping around the Indian Ocean. We will pursue this with new vigour in the years ahead”.

Importantly, Prime Minister Modi returned to both these themes at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue when he noted that “In the Indian Ocean region, our relationships are becoming stronger…we promote collective security through forums like Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). We are advancing a comprehensive agenda of regional co-operation through Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). And, we also work with partners beyond the Indian Ocean Region to ensure that the global transit routes remain peaceful and free for all”.

Region-wide Organisations – IORA and IONS
Unfortunately, there has been limited and slow progress in building a ‘strong grouping around the Indian Ocean’ in terms of either a collective security mechanism or strengthening regional cooperation. This is due to the Indian Ocean’s geographical vastness and consequent disconnect among its sub-regions and the absence of a region-wide common or convergent narrative or perspective on political or security matters. The latter is a result of intense diversities and complex sub-regional security threats and challenges; mistrust over the roles of key regional and extra-regional powers; preference for bilateral rather than multilateral engagements by certain countries and major power competition for regional influence. The formation of a new region-wide organisation for cooperation and maritime security is also not likely to take place for precisely these reasons.

Moreover, there is an absence of a truly region-wide organisation in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean region is dotted with sub-regional inter-governmental organisations which have limited effectiveness, roles or mandates. The eight-member South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the seven-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are currently dormant amidst sharp political differences among their Members; the 10-Member Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is active but has serious political differences; the 7-Member Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the 15-Member Southern African Development Community (SADC) have narrow economic mandates; and the five-member Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) has limited regional jurisdiction.

In effect, it is only the IORA and the IONS that can be considered as near region-wide bodies in the Indian Ocean. The IORA is the single ‘permanent’ inter-governmental organisation with 21-Members and 7 Dialogue partners. It was first established in March 1995 in Mauritius as the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative and formally launched two years later as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC); this was renamed IORA in November 2013. It aims to strengthen regional cooperation and sustainable development. Its Council of Ministers meet regularly and elect a Chair every two years; it has a Secretariat and a Secretary General in Mauritius. South Africa is the current Chair.

Meanwhile, the IONS was inaugurated in February 2008 at the initiative of the Indian Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sureesh Mehta. It is a ‘voluntary’ initiative that seeks to bring together navies and navy chiefs to increase maritime co-operation. This focuses on a Leadership meeting of navy chiefs and warships hosted by different countries every two years. But, as it has no formal Secretariat it remains greatly influenced by the role of the Chair and suffers from ad hocism. At its inauguration it had 35 Members; but, with the departure of 11 countries (including Qatar and Egypt) along with Madagascar and Malaysia opting for Observer-ship, it now consists of23 Members and 9 Observers (the latter including China, Germany, Japan and Russia). Iran is the current Chair of IONS; the next Leadership meeting will be hosted by France in 2020.

Although the navies of 23 IORA Members and Observer countries participate in the IONS, their organisational composition differs in substantive ways. Countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Iran, Oman and the UAE are Members of both IORA and IONS. But, key Members of the IONS such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Maldives and Myanmar are not Members of the IORA; and Members of the IORA such as the Comoros and Somalia are not Members of the IONS. Significantly, the UK and France are Members of the IONS and dialogue partners of the IORA; China and Japan are observer countries in the IONS and dialogue partners in the IORA. The US is a dialogue partner of the IORA only.

Maritime Safety and Security
The large and diverse Indian Ocean region, through which two-thirds of global oil trade and one-third of global cargo trade pass, faces multiple trans-border security challenges. These include piracy; armed robberies at sea; terrorism; trafficking in narcotics, arms and people; illegal fishing; and the dangers posed by natural disasters and climate-change.

The top priority therefore is to enhance maritime safety and security in order to ensure peace, stability and sustainable economic growth and development in the Indian Ocean region. This includes building a common inclusive narrative towards overcoming security challenges, including on maritime terrorism; seeking a complementary approach towards maritime domain awareness; ensuring a regional legal framework for maritime governance; and building capacity on all these areas.

Maritime safety and security is one of six priority areas of the IORA, added at India’s behest at the 11th IORA Council of Ministers Meeting in Bangalore in November 2011. The inaugural IORA Leaders’ Summit held in March 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia, was titled “Strengthening Maritime Cooperation for a Peaceful, Stable and Prosperous Indian Ocean”. It sought to enhance cooperation in preventing and managing accidents and incidents at sea and promoting effective coordination between IORA member states’ aeronautical and maritime search and rescue services.

At the Second IORA Meeting of Experts on Maritime Safety and Security on 7-8 November 2017 in New Delhi, India, various proposals were discussed on governance, surveillance, and preventive as well as protective measures to deal with maritime safety and security. These have been amalgamated in the “Blueprint for Maritime Safety and Security in IORA”. The first Workshop of the recently-established Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security is scheduled to take place on 4-5 September 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

IORA’s future plans include implementation of training and capacity building programmes; encouraging Members to sign and implement the IORA MoU on Search and Rescue; explore proposals for establishing IORA Centres of Excellence for Maritime Safety and Security; and explore a regional surveillance network, including sharing of data and exchange of information on maritime transportation systems.

The primary aim of IONS is to attain “mutually beneficial maritime security outcomes within the Indian Ocean” through the promotion of a shared understanding of maritime issues and the formulation of a common set of strategies designed to enhance regional maritime security; to strengthen capacity building; to promote trans-national maritime cooperative-mechanisms; and to develop interoperability in terms of doctrines and procedures for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).

Not surprisingly, the IONS has a maritime security working group with South Africa and Tanzania as co-Chairs, and India, Pakistan and France, among others, as Members. At the most recent IONS leadership meeting in Tehran, Iran, on 22-25 April 2018, two of its sessions – “Security Vision of Indian Ocean” and “Legal Insufficiencies in the Way of Maritime Security Implementation” – focused on maritime security.

Improving Coordination to Strengthen Cooperation
Unfortunately, the IORA and the IONS have so far played relatively underwhelming roles towards strengthening maritime safety and security. This is due to the astounding lack of coordination and cooperation between the two on this priority issue. Significantly, there was no mention of IONS in the IORA’s 2017 Jakarta Accord or in its 2017 or 2016 Council of Ministers communiques. This was despite the 2013 IORA Ministerial communique in Perth noting that its work on maritime security and safety and disaster management should “align with and complement possible IONS initiatives in these areas, including in information-sharing and other activities with both civilian and non-civilian dimensions”. Although the IORA had formally recognised the IONS in 2013, there appears to be no public mention of the IORA by the IONS. Perhaps, there could also be greater coordination and complementarities between the IORA and IONS with the MILAN biennial series of multilateral naval exercises hosted by the Indian navy near the Andaman islands – with overlapping Membership?

There is also no effective cooperation or coordination between IORA and IONS and sub-regional groupings such as the IOC and BIMSTEC, both of which are now developing strong interests in maritime security. The IOC is increasingly concerned over the risk of maritime terrorism in the Indian Ocean; BIMSTEC’s first expert group meeting on maritime security cooperation as well as a workshop on coastal security is to take place in India this year. All IOC and five of the seven BIMSTEC Members are also Members of either IORA or/and IONS, with one of IOC’s two Observers, China, an Observer in both IORA and IONS.

Strengthening a Rules-Based Framework
Moreover, it is imperative to develop a rules-based framework on which all Members and Observers of IORA and IONS can mobilise their collaboration. This includes respect for international rules and an international rule-based system, including the law of the sea and freedom of navigation and overflight.

At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Modi strongly highlighted the importance of partnerships on the basis of shared values and interests. For the first time, he used the term ‘rules-based international order’ for the region, which he stressed “must equally apply to all individually as well as to the global commons”. These rules and norms were to be based on “the consent of all, not on the power of the few”. He also emphasised freedom of navigation and overflights, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. Once all Members and Observers agree to these rules and laws, there will emerge a far more coherent and significant effort towards a common narrative on countering regional security challenges in the Indian Ocean.

In this respect, maritime domain awareness is a key important aspect for both the IORA and IONS. This could be enhanced through coordination and cooperation with the IOC. Since 2015, Madagascar hosts a regional fusion centre for open source information on behalf of the IOC. The Seychelles will also shortly open a Regional Operation Coordination Centre feeding information to the Madagascar unit. The Seychelles also hosts a regional information fusion centre. Maritime terrorism cooperation and coordination needs to be further highlighted.

Today, both the two region-wide Indian Ocean groupings, the IORA and the IONS, are far less than the sum of their parts. This needs to urgently change through pragmatic and focused coordination and cooperation between themselves as well as with other sub-regional groupings, thereby strengthening regional cooperation. This could take place in areas such as maritime security and safety, maritime terrorism, maritime domain awareness and the development of a rules-based framework.


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