THE ASSOCIATION OF AFRO-ASIAN STATES SHARING INDIAN OCEAN (AASSIO)
By DR. ADITYANJEE
In a surprise move, the recently held Bengaluru meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean RIM – Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) unanimously agreed to select a new name for the association by next year by mutual consultations and dialogue. The 11TH meeting was chaired by India, one of the founding countries during which Seychelles rejoined the grouping as its 19th member state after having left the organization in 2003. The 10th meeting held in Yemen had appointed India as the next IOR ARC Chair and Australia as the Vice Chair for a period of two years from 2011.This regional grouping was set up initially in March 1995, launched formally on 6-7th March 1997 in Mauritius to promote economic and cultural relations. It currently comprises 19 countries from three continents (Asia, Africa and Oceana), namely India, Yemen, Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the UAE and Seychelles. The trans-continental block has also five dialogue partners – Egypt, Japan, China, Britain and France and two observers – Indian Ocean Tourism Organization (IOTO) and Indian Ocean Research Group (IORG). Turkey has applied for dialogue partner status but the application is pending over lack of formal criteria.
India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna inaugurated the meeting after taking the chair for the next two years from Yemen, the previous chairman. While releasing the Bengaluru communique, he aptly cited India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had envisioned a grouping of countries bordering the Indian Ocean that could help one another in tackling common challenges. In his concluding remarks, Krishna stated that the 19 countries from three continents have decided to work together to realize the full potential of Indian Ocean Rim-related institutions that have been established over the years. Bengaluru declaration, however, focused seriously on the issue of maritime security keeping in view the challenges posed to international shipping and commerce by the ruthless pirates from Somalia. The group discussed ways and means to consolidate cooperation in areas such as maritime security, combating piracy, natural disaster management, education, fisheries and marine resources management, trade and investment promotion, capacity building and tourism.
Tourism, Travel & Hospitality Industry:
As the regional countries are getting more prosperous economically, and the middle classes are expanding with more disposable incomes and extra cash to spare, travel and tourism in these countries are increasing tremendously. The Bengaluru declaration explores the intra-regional tourism potential and suggests that the relevant authorities of member countries should specifically target this sector for growth to realize the enormous potential of multilateral cooperation to the fuller extent. In this respect, this group must emulate the examples set by the ASEAN with provisions of analogous facilities for visa on arrival, ASEAN tourism association, and ASEAN specific passport scheme. The Indian Ocean Tourism Organization has observer status with the IOR-ARC; therefore, it should be natural for the block to promote intra-regional tourism on a priority basis. Member countries need to promote conventions and conferences intra-regionally to tap the potential of high-end western travelers.
Sustainable Developmental Agenda:
The Indian Ocean Rim is rich in strategic and precious minerals, metals and other natural resources, marine resources and energy, all of which can be sourced from Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), continental shelves and the deep seabed. The group focuses on sustainable development while harvesting the natural resources provided by the Indian Ocean. Conservation and sustainable harvesting are vital for the security of the marine food resources. Though technology and rising cost of natural resources makes harvest of new resources from the sea beds economically viable, sustainability of economic development in the ecologically challenged world requires efficient and harmonious management of the shared seas. The member-nations underscored the importance of cooperation among them, including in the management and sustainable harvesting of fish stocks and combating illegal fishing and damaging fishing techniques.
Economic & Trade issues:
The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest Ocean. It carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the bulk cargo traffic, two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments. It is a lifeline of international trade and economy. The region is linked by trade routes and controls some of the world’s busiest sea-lanes. The key east-west arteries of international trade, especially in commodities and energy sources sail through the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Rim constitutes between a quarter and a third of the world’s population (more than two billion people). The objectives of IOR-ARC are threefold; mainly to promote sustainable growth and balanced development of the region and Member States; to focus on those areas of economic cooperation which provide maximum opportunities for development, shared interest and mutual benefits and to promote liberalization, remove impediments and lower barriers towards a freer and enhanced flow of goods, services, investment, and technology within the Indian Ocean rim. The group disseminates information on trade & investment regimes, with a view to helping the region’s business community better understand and tackle the intra-regional impediments to trade & investment. The information exchanges have been intended to serve as a base to expand intra-regional trade and economic growth.
Expressing concern over the limited growth of intra-regional trade due to poor connectivity, market complexities and inadequate trade facilitation, the Bengaluru communique’ called for rectifying the situation by increasing intra-regional investment flows. Though the intra-regional investment flows are currently modest, many of the member economies do attract substantial foreign direct investment from outside the region. Mr. Krishna called for improving and modernizing the maritime trade infrastructure including the ports and customs authorities. Besides governments, the merchant shipping firms have to modernize the transport & hospitality services infrastructure and connectivity in order to promote intra-regional trade.
The Bengaluru Declaration shared concern over the prevailing situation regarding maritime security in the Indian Ocean, particularly at the increasing level of piracy off the Horn of Africa, which posed a threat to international and regional navigation, maritime commerce and the safety of sea farers. The declaration fully supported the international efforts at the UN and the several initiatives at the regional level as well as the Contact Group on piracy of the coast off Somalia, which is coordinating anti-piracy efforts. It pledged to jointly combat the menace through sharing of information and technical assistance. Maritime security impacts strategic security of the nations in the region.Noting that Indian Ocean Rim maritime domain is at the crossroads of commerce and its busy energy trade routes pass through vulnerable points, the Bengaluru Communique said the menace of piracy has assumed alarming proportions in recent years.
The menace of piracy is increasing the cost of trade directly and higher insurance premia and human cost indirectly to the shipping industry. The group needs to build upon existing national, regional and multilateral measures to enhance coordination to combat piracy. To enhance the security in the Indian ocean, India advocated building functional relationships between navies and coast guards.
Diplomatic & Security Challenges:
Security and diplomacy go hand in hand. Diplomacy is the ultimate weapon in the search for security. The group noted that stabilization of Somalia will contribute to dealing with piracy in the region. As members take practical steps consistent with international law to combat piracy, IOR-RIM could serve as an effective vehicle for sharing information, experience and best practices. However, in order to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean region, this grouping should seriously deal with the Somalia piracy issue by immediate diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Somaliland and promote the democratically elected government of Somaliland. Strengthening the democratic government of the Republic of Somaliland will promote regional peace in the horn of Africa. It will bring enormous trade, economic and developmental benefits to the country and will discourage other tribes in the south and central Somalia from fratricidal ware-fare. To follow peaceful developmental agenda instead of allying with the Al Shabab and al Qaeda may ultimately become goal for Somalia.
It is an important co-incidence that the same day this regional meeting was held in Bengaluru, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an international conference to deal with piracy in Indian Ocean as the UK considers it a core issue for that former super-power. The piracy problem in Indian Ocean should not be hijacked by super-powers and former super-powers to fulfill their geo-political agenda. We suggest that IOR-ARC should take a regional piracy containment multi-lateral initiative in which the Republic of Somaliland is an equal partner along with the law-less Somalia. While a dysfunctional Somalia is part of the problem, international recognition of the Republic of Somaliland is part of the solution of the piracy problem. If Southern Sudan could be recognized internationally as a new nation to prevent genocide in Africa, so should be the Republic of Somaliland. It would be strategically naïve, and indeed, myopic to continue to insist on territorial sovereignty of the failed state of Somalia that has already imploded more than twenty years ago.
Need for a New Name:
The current name (IOR-ARC) of this regional grouping is very un-wieldy, mouthful, impractical and without a mellifluous & pronounce-able acronym. Member nations in this trans-continental grouping are essentially Afro-Asian nations. Since the essence of this regional group is the spirit of sharing the Indian Ocean, the name should reflect the reality. We take the challenge thrown by the Bengaluru meeting and suggest a catchy new name for this regional grouping with a lot of future economic and trade potential. We suggest a “sexy” new name: The Association of Afro-Asian States Sharing Indian Ocean (AASSIO). The newly suggested name reflects the solidarity among the African and Asian countries that are willing to share the economic and natural resources of the Indian Ocean in a peaceful and harmonious manner without raising contentious hegemonic issues of total or absolute sovereignty or suzerainty unlike the regional and multi-lateral disputes in the South China Sea.
Future Challenges and Opportunities:
We hope that with the newly proposed name and with a new spirit of economic dynamism, AASIO will give run for money to other regional trade groups including the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Conference), ASEAN plus 3, EAC (East Asian community) and the US led TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership). The AASSIO has potential to develop into a free trade area (FTA) or even into an economic community if the member states have determination to promote regional cooperation without bringing hegemonic ambitions to this grouping. Since neither the US, nor China, and indeed not even Russia or Japan are members of the AASIO, the focus would not be on zero sum geo-political games with economic exploitation as the hidden agenda.
Perhaps, AASIO will also work with the UN and the African Union (AU) countries to recognize the Republic of Somaliland, stabilize the remaining tribal war-torn portions of the southern and Central Somalia while containing and ultimately eliminating the terrorist groups like Al Shabab and al Qaeda in the horn of Africa. Such an approach will tackle the piracy in the Indian Ocean region eventually. Negotiating an extradition treaty among member nations to check piracy would be an important step for future. Similarly, there is a need for establishing a criminal court for expeditiously trying the pirates caught on high seas. The group also must evolve common criteria for arming the civilian crew of merchant shipping firms. International Legal protections will have to be given to the civilian crews if their defensive actions lead to loss of life of suspected pirates. We also hope that the AASSIO would invite the Republic of Somaliland to join the grouping as its 20th member state in its 12th meeting when the name change goes into effect de jure.
Dr. Adityanjee is the President, The Council for Strategic Affairs, New Delhi, India