It is an area where much of the economic and strategic dynamics of the 21st century will be played out.

The Indian Ocean is a region of growing strategic significance.

The nations of this region are home to 2.6 billion people, almost 40 per cent of the world's population, accounting for 10 per cent of global GDP — and rising rapidly. Its sea lines of communication are among the world's most important — 40 per cent of global trade passes through the Indian Ocean, including 70 per cent of the total traffic of petroleum products.

South Asia is witnessing extraordinary growth, led by the rising great power that is India. As energy security becomes a preoccupation for an ever increasing number of countries, the influence of Gulf States is growing. East Africa's economic significance is also expanding. And the nations of South East Asia, led by Indonesia, are on a strong growth path.

Australia understands all this implicitly. Our engagement with countries to our west is firmly on the upswing. We are as much an Indian Ocean nation as we are a Pacific Ocean nation. Australia has the largest maritime jurisdiction of any Indian Ocean country and the longest Indian Ocean coastline.

As a measure of the importance we attach to the vast and diverse region to our west, Australia recently convened the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, our national gateway to the Indian Ocean, and to the opportunities — and challenges — that it contains.

Building on this, Australia is now determined to work with other Indian Ocean countries to harness a sense of community in this region by intensifying practical engagement aimed at enhancing our prosperity and security.

IOR-ARC meeting today

It is with this objective in mind that I am participating in the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Countries (IOR-ARC) in Bengaluru on November 15.

IOR-ARC is the only Indian Ocean organisation meeting at ministerial level with membership ranging across the entire Indian Ocean region. It has a wide mandate to promote cooperation within this highly diverse region. And has the potential to make a difference.

Thus far, however, IOR-ARC has not lived up to this potential. Some critics argue that the countries around the Indian Ocean are too distant from each other, too diverse in their economic and social make-up and too disparate in their stages of economic development to work effectively together. I do not agree. I see no cause for resignation or defeatism — quite the opposite.

Australia wants to work with other members to make a difference in IOR-ARC. We think we can best do that by suggesting practical, specific ways in which members can work more closely together. We want to build and nurture the habit of joint work in the service of common purpose.

The challenge for us in Bengaluru will be to identify concrete steps towards more effective practical cooperation in areas such as: sustainable fisheries management; science cooperation on climate change, food security and ocean science; disaster management; maritime safety and security; trade facilitation; and resources and energy security. We will also need to be alert to challenges that pose risks for our economic development — most pressingly, piracy.

We are not seeking a big bang in Bangalore, but we do need to commit to revitalise IOR-ARC, to give it a fresh sense of purpose. Over the next two years, Australia will serve as Vice Chair, supporting the leadership of India as Chair. In the two years after that, we will be in the Chair, and will ourselves be relying on Indian advice and guidance through the IOR-ARC troika of immediately past, present and future chairs.

The Indian Ocean is a region where much of the economic and strategic dynamics of the twenty-first century will be played out. To keep the region peaceful and to make it more prosperous, we need an organisation that is focused, practical and alive to the possibilities of our diverse region.

We need IOR-ARC to step up to this challenge. Australia is ready to help it do this, and we will be looking for partners from every corner of this region to meet this challenge.

(Kevin Rudd is the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.)

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