Looking west: PM Turnbull attends the first IORA Leaders’ Summit
7 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.

In 2013 followers of regional security architecture added another acronym to their already hearty alphabet soup of acronyms.

The Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) at its annual meeting held that year in Perth changed the name of the group to the slicker Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Kevin Rudd once noted that when he was with then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, talking about IOR-ARC for the first three minutes she believed he was talking about Baghdad! But while the Indian Ocean littoral region’s resources and economic growth are attracting greater political attention, there still isn’t much public awareness of IORA.

Malcolm Turnbull will today attend the organisation’s first Leaders’ Summit in Jakarta. The summit will bring together many leaders of the 21 IORA member states and its 7 dialogue partners. India’s Prime Minister Modi unfortunately won’t be there as state elections are on, but the Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari will attend in his place.

The meeting marks the organisation’s 20th anniversary, and is set to deliver an aspirational IORA Concord, an action plan and a statement on countering extremism. The grouping is the only body of its kind with a broad-based agenda and a membership that spans the Indian Ocean region, covering the more than 2 billion people who live around the Indian Ocean rim.

IORA has six themes: maritime safety and security, trade and investment, fisheries management, disaster relief management, academic and scientific and research exchanges, and tourism and cultural exchanges. But its charter is somewhat vague and there’s been a weak commitment from member states, which have mainly focused on domestic issues.

It’s been difficult to get region-wide cooperation given an all-embracing concept of an Indian Ocean region (IOR) which comprises up to 51 very different states—the IOR countries range from two of the most developed countries (Australia and Singapore) through to some of the least developed (such as Malawi, Zambia, Burundi, Ethiopia and Mozambique). As such, there’s been no real background in regional cooperation.

The group has, however, been forward looking in areas such as the blue economy, the empowerment of women and girls, and strengthening research on the Indian Ocean, which remains one of the least studied and understood of the world’s oceans.

There have been some useful steps taken over recent years to involve IORA’s dialogue partners like Japan, China, US, UK, Germany and France in the Association’s work, especially around dialogue on blue economy issues.

While IORA remains an essential part of Indian Ocean region-wide cooperation, it’s still evolving to become more effective on soft security issues and beefing up trade and investment flows in the region. But partly due to a small contingent staffing IORA’s secretariat in Mauritius—the headcount was 9 in 2014, compared to its peer APEC, which had a staff of 49—the Association’s had fairly narrow project-focused agendas. And that looks set to continue thanks to the lack of shared interests relative to some other regions, including limited economic and strategic integration, great socio-economic disparities and modest people-to-people links.

But having leaders more involved in IORA’s work, as will happen for the first time in Jakarta today, is a great way for IORA to get regional buy-in and facilitate strategic discussion in areas such as maritime cooperation.

The Indian Ocean is the great connector between Asia and Europe and countries around the rim. China, in particular, is becoming a major player in the Indian Ocean and developing capabilities to protect its sea lines of communication in the region. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative involves major investments in road, rail and power infrastructure in several Indian Ocean countries. India, for one, is very concerned by the strategic fallout of Beijing’s economic initiatives such as the China–Pakistan economic corridor, not to mention increasing pressure from China’s projection of naval power into the Indian Ocean, such as its submarines popping up in Sri Lanka in recent years.

On the occasion of IORA’s 20th anniversary, Malcolm Turnbull’s key message to Indian Ocean rim leaders should be that IORA’s core priority should be to keep the Indian Ocean as a peaceful maritime highway.

We should, however, be careful of territorial overstretch in our Indian Ocean efforts. While IORA is important to our regional engagement, the most useful vehicle to pursue Australia’s Indian Ocean aims will be our bilateral relationships with leading Indian Ocean states, like India and Indonesia.

As Sam Bateman and I suggested some years ago in an ASPI report on Australia’s Indian Ocean interests, we should be focused on the area closest to us, the east Indian Ocean (EIO), to build active and functional cooperation between the countries of that sub‐region: they share a range of clear and pressing common interests such as natural hazard mitigation, people smuggling and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The countries within the EIO are India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Australia.

The western Indian Ocean is also better organised for cooperative marine science research than the EIO and thus there’s considerable scope to enhance marine science and ocean management initiatives in the eastern portion of the ocean. It’s a primary operating environment for the Australian Defence Force.

In the margins of the IORA Leaders’ Summit Malcolm Turnbull should talk with his host President Joko Widodo and India’s Vice President Ansari on the possible creation of a forum for the east Indian Ocean.