It is time to revitalise a long-dormant association of countries in an important maritime region.

Recently, a report by non-governmental experts suggested that in order to counter China, India should be in a position “to dominate the Indian Ocean region.” A little later, the Foreign Ministers of China and India agreed to establish and institutionalise maritime dialogue, aiming to promote cooperation and coordination between naval establishments of the two Asian majors. In a separate development, two Indian fishermen fell to firing opened by Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie, sailing through or near our territorial waters. Much of India views it as murder, whereas Italy portrays it as “death.”

These developments highlight that a myriad challenges facing the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) are becoming more complex. As the largest resident power with immense stakes, India has a special responsibility to address them resolutely.

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The fact that much of the world's extremism, terrorism, and piracy too are embedded here underscores the gravity of the challenge. The picture gets completed — and darker — as we consider non-traditional security threats including natural disasters, pervading poverty and environmental degradation.

Issue of piracy

Among the challenges, piracy deserves priority, being a live issue with widespread repercussions. A consensus exists on how to tackle piracy — navies can counter and neutralise pirates; however, piracy can be lynched “not on the sea but on land” i.e. by attacking all the vested interests and a long web of players involved in this mercenary industry as well as by rebuilding the state of Somalia. The navies, of necessity, have left it to political leaders who, in turn, have passed the buck to diplomats at the U.N. There, they continue to plod and persevere even as the number of pirate attacks increases. A greater sense of urgency and genuine collaboration among the affected countries is needed.

Security architecture

A major question is how to craft an acceptable security architecture that helps in enhancing stability in the current geo-strategic turbulence. The inevitability of rivalry between China and India in the IOR in the coming decades is cited as a given. Are they potential partners or adversaries? Partnership justifies a continuing conversation, accommodation, and sitting inside “the same tent.” The other scenario should impel India to deepen the triangular cooperation involving the U.S., Japan and itself as well as accept the notion of “Indo-Pacific” as an integrated region. But, where does one stop short of an anti-China alliance, a 21st century version SEATO?

While the northeastern section of the Indian Ocean has several security-related institutions, the north-western theatre has virtually none. Thanks to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), institutions such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and East Asian Summit (EAS) are purposefully engaged in addressing regional issues relating to geo-strategy, maritime security and non-traditional threats. Although lacking “institutional neatness,” the sub-region has the means to tackle challenges and create solutions. Its success last year in pressing China to stay within the four walls of international law and respect other nations' interests was notable.

Which institution can perform this task in the north-western section of the Indian Ocean, stretching from the eastern seaboard of Africa to the western coast of India? One option is to create a new institution, but that would be a daunting task. Besides, it will raise the dilemma whether to include or exclude China. An alternative, even though many old-timers laugh off the idea, is to revitalise the long-dormant Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), created to foster regional economic and technical cooperation.

An option worth serious consideration is to amend the charter of IOR-ARC, enabling it to include defence and maritime security within its purview. Defence ministers of member-states can then be mandated to work in a manner similar to ADMM operating in Southeast Asia. At the recent annual conference of National Maritime Foundation, a premier think tank, foreign and Indian experts considered new ideas. One was to “leverage” IOR-ARC, developing its full potential. Another idea was that the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which began as an Indian initiative and has now acquired regional dimensions, should be placed under IOR-ARC.

Other elements

My years in Pretoria as India's envoy to the heads of mission committee of the IOR-ARC lead me to conclude that the association is capable of achieving more if member-states so desire. It should hold its first-ever summit at the head of government level and come up with a package of substantial cooperation to justify it. It should bring in friendly countries as “observers” to strengthen it. And, yes, it should certainly find a more user-friendly name.

A vital element in India's Indian Ocean strategy is a sustained cultivation of relations with island-nations. They are now getting the attention and assistance they need. During a recent dialogue with Jean-Paul Adam, Foreign Minister of Seychelles, I noticed him addressing the sensitive issue of a possible Chinese military base in his country, with sincerity and candour. He did this persuasively, while pinpointing a basic fact: Seychelles' relations with India have been far older and richer in comparison to China. India should be willing to trust but verify. Generous but vigilant diplomacy will help in consolidating past gains.

The maritime dimensions of IBSA — a group that began to lose shine as South Africa's interest in BRICS grew — reflected in impressive exercises conducted by the three Navies, should be continued as a building block of our IO strategy.

Finally, India needs to deploy the full range of weapons in its soft power armoury in order to heighten the awareness of IOR identity. After all, “...more than just a geographic feature,” as Robert Kaplan aptly argues, “the Indian Ocean is also an idea.” A strong regional consciousness is a pre-requisite to greater investment in this zone of increasing challenges.

(Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador to several capitals in the IOR, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.)

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