Last week ASPI, the Indian Council of World Affairs, and Indonesian participants, met in Canberra at the Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean (TDIO) to build upon the work initiated at the first round held in New Delhi last year. The TDIO came hard on the heels of the Indian Ocean Dialogue, held in Kochi, and organised by the Observer Research Foundation and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. It considered maritime security policy issues in the Indian Ocean.
Australia puts a high priority on strengthening bilateral relations with Indonesia and India, as reflected in recent prime ministerial and ministerial visits. What the TDIO countries found last week was that there’s also lots of opportunities to enhance trilateral cooperation, in the broader context of developments in the Indian Ocean region.
In a way that’s hardly surprising: TDIO countries have common interests in the eastern Indian Ocean that provide a potential building block for addressing concerns of the wider Indian Ocean region, without the diversions of the strategic troubles of East Asia and the northwest Indian Ocean.
TDIO countries are powerful democracies, heavily dependent on shipping and the security of sea lines of communication, with extensive EEZs in the eastern Indian Ocean. We’ve each got a vested interest in the management of the wider Indian Ocean. (A pillar of Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo’s campaign was an emphasis on strengthening the country’s identity as a ‘maritime nation’ and becoming what he called a ‘global maritime nexus’.)
The TDIO exchanged views on strategic stability in the Indian Ocean, shipping safety and security, disaster risk management and humanitarian assistance, maritime confidence-building measures, search and rescue, marine scientific research and fisheries management.
Our discussions underlined the importance of the Indian Ocean Rim Association as the premier institution in the Indian Ocean region. India was the immediate past chair of IORA, Australia’s now the chair and Indonesia will take over in 2015.
The TDIO countries considered there to be value in further work around developing a ‘best practice’ approach to providing security in ports and anchorages against the threats of armed robbery and petty theft. Participants saw utility in crafting guidelines for maintenance of armed security guards on board merchant vessels and investing more effort in the security of offshore infrastructure (major safety incidents or attacks on the security of offshore facilities would have significant security, economic and environmental implications).
There was scope to strengthen arrangements for port state control for safer shipping, and developing capacity, both at the national and regional levels, for disaster risk management. (Marine natural hazards, in particular, are a major threat in the Indian Ocean region.)
There was potential to initiate a dialogue among the national disaster agencies of TDIO countries, as well as the development of cooperative protocols for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). MDA provides an effective understanding of any activity associated with the maritime environment that could impact on security, safety, the economy or environment. There are also opportunities for cooperative defence research projects of interest to TDIO countries, perhaps related to MDA and information-sharing.
Search and rescue (SAR) can be particularly demanding when the search area is mid-ocean and search vehicles must transit a long distance from base to the search area. Australia has accepted responsibility for a large SAR region in the Indian Ocean. Indonesia’s SAR region extends out from the Indonesian archipelago, and India’s covers an area in the Bay of Bengal.
In the light of the lessons of MH370, there’s an urgent need for regular SAR exercises in the Indian Ocean region, especially among TDIO countries. There’s a need for IORA to press forward with the early conclusion of a MoU on search and rescue. There are possible synergies between IORA and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium around maritime confidence-building measures.
The TDIO highlighted the importance of marine research, especially through the Indian Ocean Expedition 50th Anniversary Initiative. Between 2015 and 2020, the IIOE-2 will undertake an integrated marine scientific (with coupled climate science) program in the Indian Ocean, which will lead to an improved understanding of current systems and linkages between the ocean and weather. There are prospects for developing cooperative marine research initiatives among TDIO countries.
The TDIO canvassed the need to establish a fisheries-management regime for the Indian Ocean: current regional fishing bodies are fairly weak in the region, with illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing widespread.
It’s clear from last week’s TDIO that there’s plenty of scope for cooperation in the Indian Ocean. That applies especially in the eastern Indian Ocean, under the leadership of the TDIO countries.