The Way Forward towards a Well-integrated Indian Ocean Community


The Indian Ocean can arguably be called the cradle of civilization. Connections established through its medium predate even the Viking forays by over 4000 years. The Indian Ocean region, from 5000 BC till the dawn of the 16th century, presented a scene of great trading activity, both coastal and trans-oceanic. Though the land powers were constantly at war with each other, they left the coastal traders and merchants alone as they were a rich source of revenue. Piracy always remained a major irritant though. The large Chinese incursions in the early part of the fifteenth century had more to do with countering piracy and exploration rather than conquest. So the way forward is to go back in time when tranquility reigned on the Indian Ocean. But in the world of today, it has more to do with forging a common front by all the littoral countries to confront the common threats and problems that plague us. Each state should put its political differences aside to seek convergences for better confronting the challenges threatening the safety of the community as a whole. In order to achieve this common aim, all the littoral states need to exorcise the demons of the past. It cannot be denied that European domination of over five centuries has scarred our individual psyches to the point that, on gaining independence, most of the regional states laid greater stress on relations with the so-called developed world outside rather than with their fellow third world states. Apart from regional acrimonies generated by our colonial past, the states also got caught up in the dynamics of the cold war.

Regional Security

Regionalism thus became synonymous with region-based military- oriented security and that too under the umbrella of the big players of the cold war league. The two major regional agreements inked in the aftermath of World War II were the Manila Pact and the Baghdad Pact, both of which were primarily concerned with the concept of collective anti-communist defence. These led to the formation of SEATO and CENTO, which never really managed to come up to the expectations the US had of them and aided by other external factors, ultimately fizzled out some twenty odd years later.

Regional Economic Unions

ASEAN Next came regional economic groupings. Seeing such unions crop up in Europe, Central America and South America, five countries of South East Asia formed the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. The idea was not only to collaborate in commercial ventures but also to expand intra-regional trade through the prime instrument of preferential trading arrangements. Though progress made on these fronts cannot be said to be substantial, the sectors of transportation, communication, banking, financial and professional fields have registered increased collaboration. An off-shoot of this association is that trans-boundary issues like piracy get easier to deal with in an integrated manner. Having recognized this fact in the 9th ASEAN summit in Bali on 07 Oct 2003, three of the regional states, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, established a tri-lateral coordinated patrol scheme less than an year later, which resulted in cutting the crime rate by about 70% by 2009.

SAARC The South Asian countries also felt that an exclusive organization for regional cooperation would be in their collective interest, with this dream being converted to reality during a summit meeting of the Heads of States at Dhaka in Dec 1985. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation seeks to promote active collaboration through mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields. Given the amount of divergence in the political perceptions of the individual SAARC countries, the very fact that the member countries have recognized that they can work together towards mutual advantage is in itself a big achievement. Though progress till now has understandably been slow, it provides a solid platform to build up upon.

GCC The Gulf Cooperation Council, which is a political and economic union of the Arab States bordering the Gulf, came about in May 1981 as a result of their common threat perception of post-revolution Iran. Again, on 06 March 2012, in view of the hard line the Iranian Govt is taking with regard to the nuclear stand off and possibly the unrest generated by democratic movements in the region, a Saudi-backed proposal for the GCC to evolve into a confederation has been tabled. On the economic side, the first day of 2008 saw the launch of a GCC common market.

Southern African Development Community Nine founding member states of South Africa formed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) on 01 April 1980 to serve as a bulwark against South African dominance. After the relaxation of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa and the granting of independence to Namibia ten years later, the political economy of the region has witnessed a drastic upturn. The name change to Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a 1992 development.

Cooperative Programmes

IOMAC One of the finest and most comprehensive of programmes to emerge in the region is IOMAC (Indian Ocean Marine Affairs Cooperation). This programme was formulated through a preparatory meeting in June 1985 followed by final deliberations in January 1987. The reason why this programme is a world apart from all other initiatives is that it is being managed in a rational and gradual manner. After first identifying national priorities, it went on to draw up salient items of common interest, based on which a focused plan of action was prepared for implementation on an immediate, medium and long term basis. Remarkable progress was achieved within the next ten years. Reluctance of the three major Indian Ocean powers, namely Australia, India and South Africa, to join as members is the only hurdle which is forestalling practical progress. The only possible reason could be their bruised ego at being upstaged by a smaller country like Sri Lanka.

IOR – ARC These three countries, with Mauritius in tow, came up with the idea of forming the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Countries, possibly as a counterweight. Set up in Mauritius in 1997, this regional bloc currently enjoys a much larger membership base than IOMAC. Despite its early promise, points of diversity amongst its individual members has so far prevented it from realizing its full potential, though the focus of this association is primarily on economic cooperation. There is a lot which it can pick up from and build up upon from the numerous painstaking studies already conducted by IOMAC. With India and Australia having assumed the chair and vice chair respectively this year, the organization can well expect a revival in its fortunes.

IONS An Indian Ocean Naval Symposium was organized by India in 2008 with the theme of ‘Contemporary Trans – national Challenges – International Maritime Connectivities’. This symposium has now become a regular annual feature with Sri Lanka and Dubai hosting it in subsequent years. Around 26 naval chiefs and maritime security heads are involved in brainstorming vital issues related to pan- Indian Ocean Maritime Security.

Regional Initiatives

Two major regional initiatives meant to make the Indian Ocean region a safer place are also worth mentioning:

Zone of Peace A specific proposal for declaring the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace free from great power rivalries and competition’ was mooted at the Lusaka conference of non-aligned states in 1970. This initiative was further pursued by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the Singapore conference of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in January 1971 in a bid to reverse the trend towards militarization with one of greater solidarity and integration. A draft resolution to that effect was subsequently tabled before the UN General Assembly, which passed it on 06 Dec 1971, with 61 countries for and 55 abstaining. An ad hoc committee of 15 members was established to study the implications of the proposal and practical measures which can be undertaken. Though it kept studying and presenting periodical reports on various associated proposals, its efforts were stalled by the negative attitude of the US and its allies. The US was so peeved by the persistent endeavours of the committee that in 1997, it publicly called for its disbandment on grounds of ‘financial wastefulness’.

Nuclear Weapon Free Zone One of the implications of the zone of peace proposal was that the region should also be kept free of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, during the adhoc committee deliberations, the issue of creating a nuclear weapon free zone was formally taken up by Pakistan and China as early as 1974. Two opposing drafts were tabled by Pakistan and India before the UN General Assembly in which the former carried the day by getting 96 ‘yes’ votes versus two against i.e. that of India and Bhutan. Both the US and USSR distanced themselves publicly from the proposal as they had entered into bilateral Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. India, after its so-called peaceful nuclear tests of 1974, kept pursuing its nuclear weaponization agenda, leaving Pakistan with no option but to follow suit. The end result is that today, nuclear weapons of the big powers in the Indian Ocean have unfortunately been replaced by that of regional powers. Another major change is shortly in the offing as nuclear weapons make their way from the Indian Ocean rim to the heart of the ocean itself.


The bare facts as I have presented them give ample grounds for despondency. But despair not, for within the various proposals, initiatives and cooperative programmes mooted lie the seeds for future bonding. The ingredients for hope are all there, but they have to be carefully selected for the preparation of a peace offering. So what exactly is the way forward? First and foremost, regional cooperative unions like ASEAN, SAARC, GCC and SDCC need to be strengthened and made more effective. As they mature, the range of activities that they endorse can be continually enhanced. There exists a greater need however for the development of vertical and horizontal linkages, which should focus on, though not be restricted to, inter-regional connectivity. What this means is that states should move beyond their regional concerns into the arms of a broader community. IOR initiatives like IOMAC, IOR-ARC and IONS should be unreservedly embraced and supported. The tragedy is that while IOMAC is much more wide-ranging in nature, has done more work and has a better track record than the 10R-ARC, the latter enjoys a much larger membership base. This is a major inhibitive factor preventing the IOMAC from translating its impressive spadework into practicality. Logically and ideally, both these associations should be merged so that a more robust and united front incorporating the strong suits of each, is presented. It cannot be denied that the most pressing of problems confronting the Indian Ocean community, like terrorism, piracy, drug and human smuggling, poaching etc are increasingly transboundary in nature. The only way they can be effectively tackled is through cooperation and collective action. The IONS is positioned to become an effective instrument in the cause of pan – Indian Ocean maritime security. The theme of its third conference held in Dubai in 2010 was most appropriate: ‘Together for the Reinforcement of Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean’. Its rotating chair is also a good idea for the smaller littorals to have their voice heard. Though the IONS is indeed a suitable forum for discussions at the strategic level, the implementation part is the aspect that will truly matter in bringing about a positive change on the ground. The amalgamated IOMAC-IOR-ARC, which has been proposed, can be one such option which can monitor the implementation of collective action. And lastly, the improvement of relations between states of the Indian Ocean littoral on a bilateral basis should also be encouraged provided such relations are not directed against any third regional state. Common friendships can after all help bridge differences between those not enjoying the most cordial of relations.


Note: This formed the gist of a talk delivered at the 5th International Maritime Conference in February 2013 at the Bahria University Karachi Campus auditorium.


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