Students of regional security architecture will now have another acronym to add to their lexicon. Last Friday the 20 member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), at its annual meeting held in Perth, changed the name of the group to the more pronounceable Indian Ocean Rim Association, (IORA). Ministers even agreed that there’ll be a new logo by year’s end.
Australia has taken over the chair of IORA for the next two years, with Indonesia as vice-chair. It’s the only body of its kind with a broad-based agenda and a membership that spans the Indian Ocean region.
There’s been some policy debate in recent years over the need to reinvigorate the IOR-ARC. It’s got six thematic 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 the Association’s charter is somewhat vague and there’s been a weak commitment from member states, with their focus mainly on domestic issues. There’s been no real background in regional cooperation.
That said, the group’s modest achievements have encouraged to some extent a trend towards 1.5 track dialogues in the Indian Ocean region.
For one, a trilateral dialogue on the Indian Ocean took place in New Delhi in September 2013. This was hosted by the Indian Council of World Affairs with representatives from Australia, (ASPI’s Executive Director attended), India and Indonesia. It was mainly concerned with issues in the east Indian Ocean. (An east Indian Ocean dialogue was an initiative that Sam Bateman and I had recommended in an earlier ASPI study.)
There’s also an Indian Ocean Dialogue, sponsored by the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, in association with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, to be held in Kerala later this month. It’s concerned primarily with maritime security in the Indian Ocean.
The mainly academic body, the Indian Ocean Research Group, has morphed into a 1.5 track west Indian Ocean dialogue. A major conference will be held in Nairobi in March next year dealing with Africa’s linkages to the Indian Ocean rim.
Apart from the name change, last week’s Perth meeting saw Ministers agree to IORA organisational reform, especially more efficient meeting structures (including associated academic and business forums).
The IORA communiqué is forward looking in areas such as the empowerment of women and girls in the region, developing stronger port state control measures in IORA member states and measures to strengthen oceanic research. The communiqué highlighted that IORA’s work on maritime security and safety and disaster management align with and complement possible Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) initiatives in these areas. Australia will host IONS next year.
There have been other developments. For the first time in the Association’s history it produced a declaration, known as the ‘Perth Principles Declaration’ which affirms a shared commitment to peaceful, productive and sustainable use of the Indian Ocean and its resources.
Also for the first time, IORA Ministers held a ministerial retreat so they and senior officials were able to have a free-flowing discussion about priority areas. They made useful steps to involve IORA Dialogue Partners like Japan, China, US, UK and France in the Association’s work.
Australia announced it’ll provide around $1.2 million in 2014 for IORA initiatives to address the risk of disasters, water safety, seasonal climate forecasting, the sustainability of fisheries, and to monitor oil spills.
But a bigger strategic hit in terms of capacity building would be achieved by Australia seconding an officer to IORA’s Secretariat in Mauritius for the period we’re chairing the group.
IORA remains an essential part of Indian Ocean region-wide cooperation. Such a measure would help it evolve to become more effective, particularly on Indian Ocean soft security issues.
Despite these positive developments, last Friday’s Perth meeting could’ve done with more publicity. If the person seconded to the IORA Secretariat had a communications background this might also assist in creating greater awareness of the organisation and shed some light on Australia’s important role in regional architecture.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of DFAT.