IORA: Is cooperation possible without peaceView(s):
The IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) formed in 1997 by India and South Africa meets next week under the chairmanship of Sri Lanka at a time when the seas are simmering with geopolitical undercurrents. Every ship at a Sri Lankan port of call is viewed with suspicion; sometimes for good reason, sometimes for no reason.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of yesteryear recognised that world powers of the time would contest for supremacy in the sea lanes that connect the West with the East in the post-World War II Cold War era.
As far back as 1964, the Cairo conference of NAM wanted to exclude big power rivalries from the land territories, air space and territorial waters of its member-states and called for the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic to be nuclear-free zones. It was a period of nuclear disarmament talks. This was taken further at the Lusaka summit in 1970 calling for the Indian Ocean to be a zone of peace.
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took the matter further to the Commonwealth summit in 1971 and then the UN General Assembly later that year moving a formal proposal saying; “This proposal should not be regarded merely as part of a scheme of collective security confined to the Indian Ocean. On the contrary, it is intended as a direct, tangible contribution to the strengthening of disarmament and the creation of conditions for world peace”. The UN then adopted Resolution No. 2832 declaring the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace.
Sixty-one UN member-states voted in favour of the resolution, 55 abstained, and none voted against it. What is significant is that the big powers of the time, the US, the UK, the USSR and France abstained – and China voted in favour.
The resolution called for warships and military aircraft not to use the Indian Ocean to threaten the sovereignty of other countries. It called for military bases to be dismantled and what is today touted by the West as a ‘rules-based maritime order’.
In 1972, the NAM summit in Guyana endorsed the UN resolution and when it came up again later that year at the UN, those in favour had risen to 95 (from 61), abstentions dropped to 35 (from 55), and none remained against it. Many other UN resolutions were passed in-between demonstrating that the existence of military bases in the Indian Ocean was incompatible with the UN Charter.
Much water has washed the shores of the Indian Ocean’s littoral states since those halcyon days of NAM. Power politics has taken many twists and turns. India, then a vehement opponent of the US today is in a ‘Quad’ (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) with the US, Japan and Australia. China, which voted for the original UN resolution, stands accused of upping the ante in the Indian Ocean, building artificial islands in the South China Sea and vastly expanding its blue water ambitions.
IORA, however, is not about national or territorial security. Its interpretation of marine security is more about security cooperation like in human trafficking at sea, piracy and IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated) fishing. It is not a strategic forum, but a confidence-building forum on matters of mutual interest.
If it was wind and sail that first brought the old colonial powers to the Indian Ocean in search of spices, riches in raw materials including gold, gems, jewellery and artifacts, a reservoir of labour to their colonies and territory for settlements, today’s interests are critical access to this vast stretch of water for global trade, the jostle for influence and geopolitical power dynamics.
The stability of the Indian Ocean is crucial to world peace and its economy. There cannot be cooperation among member-states when there is total suspicion of the other’s motives. Many have asked the question whether any discussion on the Indian Ocean is possible without a healthy debate on the happenings on the land areas of the member-states. For example, Pakistan is not a member of IORA, despite having sea ports in the Indian Ocean, one at Gwadar being built by the Chinese.
There have been cross-border clashes regularly throughout the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. Violations of sovereignty by land and air as was the case in 1987 during the infamous ‘lentils drop’ over Sri Lanka have soured bilateral relations between states and have a bearing on multilateral cooperation.
How far IORA is going down that road – or sea lane, to discuss these contentious issues surrounding the present geopolitical climate is the question, or is it going to be just another meeting, until the next one in India?
Even taking what’s on the agenda, for example, like the IUU fishing issue, the promotion of a ‘blue economy’ (the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth) and a ‘green economy’ (a blue economy that doesn’t damage the environment), will IORA take up matters like the rape of marine resources by Indian fishermen in the waters of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait for discussion? Very unlikely. The argument will be; “no bilateral issues, please”. Smaller member-states, particularly when they are economically vulnerable, have no parity when dealing with bigger states. Later this month, India hosts its own Global Maritime India Summit directing its agenda on connectivity in the Indian Ocean on a macro scale surely ignoring issues like poaching.
Sri Lanka may not own IORA because it holds the chair, but it would be useful if the subject of poaching in the territorial waters of other sovereign countries as much as rising sea levels due to climate change and ocean pollution that impacts mainly island nations is taken up and mention is made of this in the Colombo Declaration that is expected at the conclusion of the ministerial meeting. Otherwise, these meetings are mere rhetoric about cooperation, signifying nothing.
Having taken a leading role decades ago in steering the UN’s Law of the Sea Conference that produced the Convention by that name, Sri Lanka must steer IORA too to complement that pioneering work that established an international legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. Unfortunately, that is not how the world works. The bigger nations bully the smaller states into submission and IORA’s agenda on marine cooperation gets submerged by prevailing geopolitical tensions in the Indian Ocean and beyond.