While the holding of annual summits of multilateral groupings, such as G-20, BRICS, and the East Asia Summit (EAS), is a norm, the forthcoming one of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) is a novelty. To be hosted by Indonesia March 5-7 in Jakarta, it will be the first ever commemorative summit of leaders of the 21 member states, stretching from South Africa to Australia, and their dialogue partners that include the United States and China. Marking two decades of the Association’s existence, the Jakarta Summit is expected to deliberate on how to expand economic cooperation among members of the Indian Ocean community and produce a substantial outcome by way of “a revitalized and sustainable architecture in multi-dimensional engagement.”
Twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, a freshly-minted democracy, was looking to be anchored in the larger Asian comity of nations. India and a few other countries played a crucial role in forging an association of countries whose shores were washed by the waters of the Indian Ocean. It was given an almost unpronounceable acronym, IOR-ARC, for the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. It developed as a low-profile grouping that met periodically at the level of foreign ministers to expand cooperation among members in sectors like fisheries, trade and investment, and cultural cooperation.
Five years ago, with India as its chair, the Association began a process of re-invigoration. This happened in the larger backdrop of the Indian Ocean becoming a central focus of sharper strategic competition, accelerating threats to security, and a growing consciousness that economic cooperation needs be stepped up for collective benefit. Maritime security assumed greater salience for the member states. The process of strengthening the institution advanced under the next chair, Australia. In October 2014, it was rechristened, more simply, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The current chair, Indonesia, took the initiative last year to plan the historic summit on the unspoken assumption that direct and personal participation of the top leaders of the member states will help impart strong momentum to the institution.
Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, and his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, deserve appreciation for coming up with the idea of hosting the first ever summit and selling it to their fellow members successfully. Ambassador K.V. Bhagirath, the Mauritius-based secretary general of IORA a former Indian diplomat, and his small team have supervised the preparations diligently. The summit will be preceded by the meetings of senior officials on March 5 and the foreign ministers and “Business Summit” the day after.
Preparatory discussions in recent months have generated optimism. Three documents, namely, an Accord, an Action Plan, and a Declaration on countering violent extremism leading to terrorism, may be agreed upon in Jakarta. Taken together, they reflect the collective concerns, priorities and future plans of the Association.
IORA has been essentially focusing on six “priority areas”. At the ministerial meeting in Bali in October 2016, it was agreed to reiterate commitment to promote maritime safety and security in the region, enhance trade (which is already on a trajectory of growth) and investment, and promote sustainable and responsible fisheries management and development. Other objectives are to enhance disaster risk management; strengthen academic, science and technology cooperation; and foster tourism and cultural exchanges.
Expanding practical cooperation in the emerging area of the Blue Economy has been brought into the IORA narrative. Whether the Blue Economy is accepted as an additional – the seventh – sector for dialogue and cooperation, bears watching.
Another important area is the development of modalities for cooperation between IORA and dialogue partners, the United States, China, Japan, Egypt, France, Germany and the U.K. An endeavour is under way to secure agreement on specific projects for which assistance may be made available.
IORA governments have been keen on engaging their business communities in the task to increase the efficiency of the Association’s mechanisms. This should be helped by the Business Summit that will deliberate on the theme of “Building Partnerships for Sustainable and Equitable Economic Growth”. Indications are that business leaders may press for correct policy responses from the governments to achieve stronger and more equitable growth in the region.
They may also stress the private sector’s economic dynamism to drive growth and sustainable development. The current thinking favours the imperative need to enhance deeper collaboration between governments and private sectors in multiple forms, such as investment, capacity building, knowledge sharing and innovation. The IORA ministers stated at the same meeting in Bali, “We welcome the initiatives to promote economic cooperation and continue to explore all the possibilities and avenues to establish a work programme for enhanced cooperation.”
When top leaders of the Indian Ocean nations assemble in Jakarta, they will also reflect on the larger issues of geopolitics, especially a new phase in U.S.-China contestation, following the predictably unpredictable start of the Trump presidency. But these discussions will be taken up informally outside the main venue for they fall beyond the mandate of IORA.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be missing from the proceedings as the state elections are under way. Instead, Vice President M. Hamid Ansari will represent India at the Jakarta Summit. Both because of the august position he holds and his immense diplomatic expertise, the vice president is expected to not only project India’s perspectives with acumen, but also play an astute role in strengthening the IORA.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador to three Indian Ocean countries.
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 “Leaders’ Summit in Commemoration of the20th Anniversary of Indian Ocean Rim Association”, Indian Ocean Rim Association, 2 March 2017, <http://iora.net/leaders-summit-5-7-march-2017.aspx>
 They are: i) Maritime Safety & Security, (ii) Trade & Investment Facilitation, (iii) Fisheries Management, (iv) Disaster Risk Management, (v) Academic, Science & Technology, (vi) Tourism & Cultural Exchanges