New Delhi — THE admission of the Union of Comoros as its 20th member and the United States as the sixth dialogue partner of the Indian Ocean Rim - Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) at the organisation's recent conference held in Gurgaon, India, is ample proof of its growing influence and relevance among countries bordering the world's third largest ocean.
France, Egypt, Japan and Britain are the other observers along with the US now. The inclusion of the United States has been viewed as one such effort to energize the body at this time when maritime security remained a major concern with frequent piracy attacks in Indian Ocean waters. IOR-ARC was launched in Mauritius in March 1997, the main focus being regional cooperation. The Rim defines a distinctive area in international politics consisting of coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean, including Tanzania, which joined the body in 1997.
It is a large geographical region with huge diversity. At the Gurgaon meeting, the organization's Council of Ministers agreed that time has come now for IORARC to take the necessary steps, through an inclusive approach and in conformity with its Charter, to strengthen its institutions and enhance their capabilities. The ministers also felt that IOR-ARC should also play its due role as the apex organization in the Indian Ocean region that can effectively deliver on issues of contemporary relevance to its members.
At its last meeting held in Bengaluru (Bangalore), India, in November last year, the council of ministers identified six priority areas for the cooperation agenda, namely maritime security and piracy, disaster risk reduction, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, academic and science and technology cooperation; and tourism and cultural exchanges. Contrary to the opinion of the association's skeptics, that the organization is a mere talk shop with no concrete implementation mechanism, the Gurgaon meeting expressed pleasure at the emergence of a number of useful cooperation initiatives that have since been and are being taken in each of these priority areas.
At the Gurgaon meeting, the ministers noted that the geo-strategic importance of the Indian Ocean cannot be underestimated and that its stability and well-being are critical for global economic prosperity, and even more so for the countries on its Rim. In a communiqué issued at the end of the council of ministers' meeting on November 2, delegates said they were convinced that IOR-ARC member states could augment their capacities to deal with common challenges in a more effective manner by forging enduring partnerships amongst themselves.
They expressed support closer interaction between the association and regional organisations in the Indian Ocean, such as the African Union. The Gurgaon meeting followed the 14th meeting of the Committee of Senior Officials, the 18th meeting of the IOR Academic Group, the 12th meeting of the Working Group on Trade and Investment and the 18th meeting of the IOR Business Forum. IOR-ARC clocked 15 this year.
Set up with the primary objective of promoting "sustained growth and balanced development of the region and of its member states, and create common ground for regional economic co-operation", IORARC is the apex pan-Indian Ocean multilateral forum with its membership open to all sovereign States of the Indian Ocean rim that adhere to the principles and objectives of its Charter. Over the years, IOR-ARC has helped build and expand understanding and mutually beneficial cooperation, and facilitated the creation of a regional climate conducive to peace and prosperity.
The Rim's ministers also felt that time has come for IOR-ARC to take the necessary steps, through an inclusive approach and in conformity with its Charter, to strengthen its institutions and enhance their capabilities, to play its due role as the apex organization in the Indian Ocean region that can effectively deliver on issues of contemporary relevance to its members. The meeting further noted the ongoing piracy activity along the ocean, which they considered an increasingly serious concern, posing a threat to maritime commerce and the safety of sea farers, making insurance costlier and adding to the costs incurred by the shipping industry in the Indian Ocean Region.
They noted that the problem has been exacerbated by weak governance and instability in parts of the region, saying this situation has contributed to its degeneration into transnational organized crime. The meeting thus welcomed the emphasis that the association has placed on cooperation in maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean. The ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and safety and security of Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean.
They noted that several useful regional and multilateral initiatives to deliberate on various relevant aspects of the fight against piracy have been taken in the Indian Ocean region, and that IORARC should consider ways of engaging with these where feasible and complementing each other's efforts. They called on the IORARC seminar on maritime security scheduled for 2013 to consider concrete proposals of cooperation in this broad area, including institutionalisation of a regional mechanism for continuing exchange of views and monitoring of the situation.
On white shipping, IORARC offers a useful platform for exchanging information on the issue in addition to developing legislative frameworks and sharing best practices in coastal security and regulation of fishing activities in coastal waters. In Gurgaon, the Rim states underscored the importance of better preparedness to fight natural and other disasters in the maritime domain. They called for cooperation in search and rescue and training in oil spill response are relevant areas for IOR-ARC, further acknowledging the need to develop cooperation among our agencies concerned to evolve regional disaster management strategies and operational processes.
It was noted at the meeting that some member states have experienced rapid economic growth. Therefore, IORARC saw the opportunity to utilise the economic potential, including that offered by blue economy, for increased intra and inter-regional trade for the benefit of all member states. The meeting reiterated IOR-ARC's commitment to free trade and saw trade facilitation measures as an important dimension in the context of regional trade and investment expansion.
It welcomed the regional workshops on Customs Harmonization and Trade Policy held this year as potentially contributing to ease of business, and direct the Working Group on Trade and Investment to take these initiatives forward. "The connectivity provided by the Indian Ocean has played an important part in our shared history and will continue to shape our collective destiny. Enhanced connectivity can have a catalytic effect on economic integration by drastically reducing the costs of doing business, and we must find ways of enhancing regional connectivity to realize the full potential of economic cooperation in our region," a communique issued at the end of the meeting noted.
In such context, the ministers described development of port and harbour infrastructure in the region as a matter of critical importance. The meeting thus directed the Working Group on Trade and Investment to explore the potential of cooperation in the sector, including investment in and up-gradation of shipping infrastructure and logistic chains in the region. They decided that this move would act as an economic multiplier, facilitating growth in individual rim economies. Last but not least, efforts are underway to find a new name for the association that would be "easier on the tongue".
Admitting that the grouping's name, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), was cumbersome, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said a change of name was on the cards and that the legal position in this respect was being examined. The next IOR-ARC meeting will be held in Australia.