IORA summit: Can the meet turn a low-profile group into dynamic regional organisation?

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is holding its first summit meeting in Jakarta on 5-7 March on the 20th anniversary of its formation. The regional organisation, which is a grouping of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, has the unusual format of an annual conference in three sections with representatives of government, business and academia. Indonesia, the current chair of IORA, in an effort to energise the regional body has elevated the annual conference to summit level by inviting presidents and prime ministers.

Representational image of Indonesia. AFP

Representational image of Indonesia. AFP

Can Indonesia energise the slow moving, low profile grouping and set it on track to evolve into a dynamic regional organisation? The theme of the leaders' meeting is 'Strengthening Maritime Cooperation for a Peaceful, Stable, and Prosperous Indian Ocean'. There is a general view that IORA has tremendous potential as an economic organisation in a region where economic cooperation is still expanding. But IORA is yet to develop into an effective body. Unlike other high-profile regional organisations across the world, IORA has continued to function at the ministerial level. Indonesia’s move to upgrade to summit level has come just at a time when the Indian Ocean has gained greater strategic importance.

India has made an increased effort to engage with island countries of the Indian Ocean and with countries in Africa in recent years. India is strategically placed in the centre of the Indian Ocean and about 90 percent of its maritime trade travels across the Indian Ocean. About 16 leaders are expected to attend the annual meet in Jakarta, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not be attending it. The prolonged election process for five states has held up the prime minister. India will be represented by Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who has been taking forward the government’s foreign policy agenda during his travels. But Modi’s presence will be missed when a revitalised organisation is in the making.

An Indian Ocean grouping was first suggested by South Africa in the 1990s when it was transiting to multi-racial democracy. The clumsily named Indian Ocean Rim Arch of Cooperation (IOR-ARC), stretching from South Africa to Australia was founded in 1997 with India as one of its main backers. It was accepted as a good concept and there was a rush of countries seeking membership in the grouping. Its membership went up to 18 before a moratorium on new members was declared. However, further consolidation was slow as political issues bogged down the body, the tides of globalisation and economic reforms were slow to reach many parts of the region.

IORA membership has grown to 21 with seven dialogue partners but it remained a low-key, low-profile body, seeking to promote economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. The IORA membership includes India, Indonesia, Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malyasia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Its seven dialogue partners are the US, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan and the UK. The political rivalries have receded as the need for greater economic cooperation has increased.

The Indian Ocean region has seen many changes in the past 20 years since the IORA was set up. The African economies are being transformed; some of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. Indonesia has shown greater interest in developing its maritime potential under President Joko Widodo’s vision of making Indonesia a maritime power. Trade, investment, and tourism are major items on the IORA agenda, but maritime security and disaster risk management are areas of primary concern to Indian Ocean Rim states as are management and conservation of fish and marine resources.

IORA still eschews politics, but the meeting of the Council of Ministers on 6 March, 2017 in Jakarta is expected to finalise a set of documents that aim to set out the future direction for the Indian Ocean Association. These documents comprise a draft accord, an action plan and a declaration. The summit of leaders of the region is expected to approve the documents and place the IORA in a faster track.

Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 20:11 PM

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