This week’s gathering of the Indian Ocean leaders in Jakarta has drawn a mixed reaction. Optimists see the Jakarta summit of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as a “game changer”. For the pessimists, the IORA is a talking shop that is unlikely to turn the diverse littoral into a coherent region.
Realists will concede that IORA is not yet a credible regional institution. Yet, they would also acknowledge that its existence is a reminder of the untapped potential of Indian Ocean regionalism. Nearly five decades ago, in the aftermath of decolonisation, the attempt to bring together the Indian Ocean states faltered amidst deep divisions within the littoral and due to the negative impact of the Cold War. Today, the IORA underlines the region’s agency in shaping its own future.
Pragmatists will insist that the IORA’s success would depend, to a large extent, upon what the middle powers of the Indian Ocean littoral, like Indonesia, Australia and India, can do. Together the three countries have already breathed new life into an organisation that few had heard of. Those who did had taken IORA for dead.
It was India that took the diplomatic initiative at the beginning of this decade to revive the moribund idea of Indian Ocean regionalism. That move suggested that Delhi’s sea-blindness was finally giving way to a belated recognition of the nation’s maritime imperative. India’s growing sea-borne trade and a historic power shift in the Indian Ocean compelled Delhi to pay greater attention to securing a sustainable regional order in the vast littoral.
As it began to reinvest in Indian Ocean regionalism, the Indian Ocean forum identified some priority areas, including maritime safety and security, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, disaster risk management, and promotion of tourism. If the new found interest in Delhi put the IORA back on the regional agenda, Australia that took the baton from India in 2013 as the chair of the forum gave it a new name and fresh energy. It helped rechristen the forum that was known until then as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and brought some urgency and intensity to the IORA’s activities.
Jakarta, which took over from Canberra in 2015, deserves credit for hosting the first ever summit of the forum. One of the main outcomes is expected to be a “Jakarta Accord” that will define a broad framework to promote peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean. The leaders are also likely to identify an action plan of specific steps that could be implemented in the near term. The summit is also likely to approve an agreement to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation in the littoral.
As the “ugly ducking” of regional institutions, IORA has a challenging task ahead. The ideas of regional and global integration that held sway since the turn of the 1990s has taken some beating amidst the resurgence of the dark forces of de-globalisation in the West. America, that had guaranteed the regional security order after the withdrawal of the British from the littoral in the late 1960s looks terribly distracted. Internal turbulence in the littoral, especially in the Middle East, has unleashed forces of violent extremism that bring anarchy and instability. Pessimists would say the revival of IORA may have come a little too late and brings too little to drive the littoral’s future. While Indonesia, Australia and other middle powers are important players in the Indian Ocean, their regionalist priorities are elsewhere. As the largest economy and biggest military power, it is largely up to India to shape the future of Indian Ocean regionalism.
But India’s handicaps are real. At the time of Independence, India was at the heart of trade and capital flows across the Indian Ocean, deeply connected to the rest of the littoral through multiple corridors, and the very centre of regional security management. Thanks to the deliberately inward oriented policies after Independence, Delhi marginalised itself from the region’s economic and security dynamics. By the time it came back to into the play in the new millennium, it finds huge obstacles for reclaiming the regional leadership of the littoral.
The rise of China has meant that Beijing has become a powerful economic force in the Indian Ocean. It has the resources and the will to develop regional infrastructure and connectivity. Purposeful military diplomacy has helped Beijing carve out an expanding security profile in the littoral.
In contrast, India’s economic liberalism is too weak to let it drive regional integration. Delhi cannot match the resources, financial or institutional, that Beijing brings to bear on Indian Ocean connectivity. Its political class remains hesitant about building coalitions with other powers to improve India’s regional position. Delhi’s defence establishment appears utterly unprepared to build real military partnerships in the littoral.
Two years ago, during his travels across the Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to overcome all these limitations on India’s maritime aspirations. If he does not quickly match his articulation of a vigorous Indian Ocean regionalism with a significant restructuring of India’s regional commercial and defence policies, Delhi’s handicaps can only get a lot worse.