India’s Multilateral Balancing Act

By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 11 2021
Columns India’s Multilateral Balancing Act

By Dr Srimal Fernando

Binding Asia, Africa and Australasia, the Indian Ocean which has been of strategic geopolitical relevance is gaining the attention of foreign policy makers. The Indian Ocean is the third largest Ocean of the global oceanic divisions preceded by the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean.

 Host to the world’s most significant Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC), the Indian Ocean plays a vital role in the global economy while also constituting as a key concern for energy security. The rising security concerns in this ocean, calls for greater prominence to be laid on the Indian Ocean region’s maritime security agenda. The littorals in the Indian Ocean located near vital transit routes provide access and influence over essential choke points. 

The Indian Ocean Rim states are politically, economically and diplomatically linked through the Indian Ocean. The founding of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) played a key role in exemplifying and catalysing the principles of sovereignty among the Indian Ocean rim states. Despite being culturally diverse, the member states of IORA comprising around 2.7 billion people (IORA, 2017) are linked well through the Indian Ocean. The IORA region consists of many developing and least-developed economies. 

Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) 

It was in 1995 during a visit by the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa to India that the vision for an Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) originated. These initiatives by South Africa and India aided in shaping and developing the role of IORA and its mandate after its formation. As such, the IORA consisting of Asian and African coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean was formed in March 1997 with a mandate to promote sustainable growth and balanced development in the region. Beginning with only 14 member states, the IORA is currently a dynamic organisation of 23 Member States and 9 Dialogue Partners. It is the sole multilateral forum that links the littoral states of the Indian Ocean region. 

IORA has been mainly focusing on six priority areas: promoting maritime safety and security in the region; enhancing trade and investment; and promoting sustainable and responsible fisheries management and development; Promoting Tourism and Cultural Cooperation in Indian Ocean; Improving Physical Regional Connectivity; Strengthening academic, science and technology cooperation. The member Nations of this association, in recent times have had the opportunity to be sustainable and there are many more prospects of open competition among these nations. 

Despite many differences and diversities between member states, the Indian Ocean closely integrates them through economic cooperation and maritime links in the Ocean. With an ever increasing importance in the Indian Ocean, the IORA has been a very active multi-regional organization. The IORA has been dedicated to expanding the understanding and collaboration among its member nations through the policy of non-intrusion in the rapid dynamic setting of the region. With its magnitude and economy, India exercises the greatest influence in this organization. 

The aim of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) is to accomplish economic collaboration rather than security cooperation. The Council of Foreign Ministers (COM) is the apex body of IORA which meets annually. The region has several vital economies such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The Indian Ocean alliance also saw France becoming its 23rd member on the basis of the Reunion Islands.

 In many ways, the European Union and its members play a role in relation to maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Another vital area is the development of modalities for cooperation between IORA and its dialogue partners: the United States, China, Japan, Egypt, France, Germany and the UK. Accordingly the IORA should be perceived as a unique vision of the future representing the six regions in Asia, Africa and Australia. 

India in IORA 

The evolving dynamics of international diplomacy has meant that India has lately initiated to take note of managing the oceans, especially the Indian Ocean. From a maritime security view point, India depends on the security of the Indian Ocean together with its necessity to monitor and if needed to check the naval activity of other regional powers. 

Additionally, India is dependent on the Indian Ocean for its crude oil imports. India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) policy will aid in leveraging the blue economy. The IORA provides India with the perfect platform to further build its agenda on security policies. The IORA is seen by India as playing a vital role in the Indo-Pacific. 

Therefore, the IORA acts as a vital platform for India to reinforce its security policy goals. The maritime governance of the IOR can be influenced by Foreign policy tools such as the SAGAR doctrine. With a population exceeding 1.3 billion, India is the largest nation out of the twenty three IORA states. It was evident from the inception that India’s standpoint was instrumental in terms of clarifying why IORA was vital for the Indian Ocean Rim States. 

The cultural affinities among the populace of member nations continue to provide the bedrock for bilateral relations. Made up of eight contiguous nations, the South Asian region accounts for almost one-fourth of the world’s population. Through its neighbourhood first policy, India is developing close ties with its SAARC neighbours. By fostering bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the Indian Ocean rim states, India has secured its military presence in the Indian Ocean. 

Closer IORA - Sri Lanka Relations 

Small states such as Sri Lanka specifically stand to gain from a rulesbased order in the Indian Ocean. Through its role as lead coordinator for IORA’s Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security, Sri Lanka has taken an important step in demonstrating its leadership in this sphere. 

As a strategically-located IORA member state with the ambition of becoming a hub in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has a clear interest in promoting a stronger rules-based IORA from which it should not shy away. Sri Lanka is to assume the Vice Chair of the IORA in the latter part of 2021. The transformation of the Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its collaboration with these nations will influence the Indian Ocean region. 

Indian Ocean Rim States Consensus 

A new reality among the Indian Ocean rim states should emerge in order to restore the Asian power balance by rethinking their Indian Ocean Policy. The foreign policy mix of the Indian Ocean rim states will lead to a prolonged stretch of sustained socio-economic growth of the six regions surrounding the Indian Ocean.

 The Indian Ocean has a vital role to play in facilitating international trade and the transportation of goods and services that form a significant element in ensuring interdependence of the nations surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Through the mandate of IORA and the other sub regional organisations, the opportunities for political action may be created in a series of ways. 

About the Author: Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Adviser/ Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union. 

By Dr Srimal Fernando | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 11 2021

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