The Indian Ocean littoral region’s resources and economic growth are attracting greater political attention. So it’s surprising there wasn’t more press coverage of last week’s meeting in Perth of the 20 member-states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. IORA aims to spearhead future regional integration as the Indian Ocean grows in economic importance.
Australia is chairing the Association—until next year, when we hand over the role to the current vice chair, Indonesia. IORA’s the only pan-regional forum in the Indian Ocean that tries to address challenges faced by the more than 2 billion people who live around the Indian Ocean rim. Its priority issues include maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk-management, and academic, science and technology, tourism and cultural exchanges.
Membership of IORA is in demand. Somalia’s in the queue to join the association, although there are still a few formalities before that’s finalised. Myanmar and Maldives are also applying to join. But Somalia’s application signifies a new and constructive development: IORA members recognise that the international community has made significant investments in the area adjacent to its 1700-kilometre coastline, and Somalia needs to be constructively engaged (presumably IORA would do that once Somalia’s membership begins.)
A key outcome from the Perth meeting was a greater focus on business: for the first time there was an IORA Business Week that looked at increasing trade and investment flows in the region.
The grouping issued an IORA Economic Declaration (PDF) issued that centred on the so-called ‘blue economy’: creating oceans industries such as port development, fisheries, aquaculture, renewable energy, mineral exploration, and marine-based tourism. The Declaration picks up on the key message of last year’s IORA declaration on the principles for peaceful, productive and sustainable use of the Indian Ocean and its resources.
In Perth we supported IORA’s economic declaration by establishing a fund of a $1m dollars to support economic diplomacy initiatives and activities in the Indian Ocean region.
No doubt some of that money could support Australia’s commitment at the Perth meeting to host an Indian Ocean Dialogue next year. That would build on a similar exercise held in India recently. It would be useful in promoting thinking on different aspects of regional cooperation and complement IORA’s discussions.
The MH370 tragedy highlighted gaps in search and rescue in the Indian Ocean and the need for regular SAR exercises in the region. At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Defence Minister David Johnston proposed Australia facilitate a regular multilateral search-and-rescue exercise in the future, that’s ‘practically focused, designed to strengthen interoperability, and to build fraternal connections’.
Streamlining SAR efforts was therefore a key objective of the Perth meeting. And last week five countries (Singapore, Australia, Seychelles, Comoros and South Africa) signed an MOU on search-and-rescue cooperation developed by IORA. Hopefully more states will sign on in the near future. To support the MOU Australia usefully committed $2.6 million to working with Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Maldives (the three countries bordering our SAR region) on responding to maritime and aviation distress situations.
The Perth meeting also saw increasing involvement by IORA’s dialogue partners. I’ve argued before that we should be encouraging this process. So it was positive that there was very high-level representation in Perth from the United States and China (both dialogue partners).
There were other positive developments, IORA’s sub groups—the Indian Ocean Rim Business Forum and Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group—were given stronger mandates to provide more focus and expert advice to IORA. There was an agreement to better resource IORA’s Secretariat to service the needs of the organisation.
But it’s a pity that little attention appeared to be given to closer connections between the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and IORA in addressing maritime confidence-building measures in the region. Potential for cooperation there was highlighted at the recent Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean. The issue could be explored at the second Indian Ocean Dialogue that we’ll be hosting in 2015.
Regional cooperation is critical for the creation of a stable and prosperous Indian Ocean. At the half-way point of Australia’s chairmanship of IORA, good progress was made in Perth on the Association’s development towards a regional institution that’s able to respond effectively to a range of economic and security challenges.