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A chance to make waves on Indian Ocean rim

By Anthony Bergin

The Indian Ocean is a region of increasing strategic importance, and talks starting next week are designed to tie Australia's future more strategically to the countries of the Indian Ocean rim.

These states, with a population of about 2.5 billion, make it an attractive market. It's also a huge energy and trade maritime highway, particularly for the booming economies of Asia. It carries half of the world's container ships, one-third of the bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the world's oil shipments. The share of the Indian Ocean rim in global trade has increased from 8.6 per cent in 2001 to 11.6 per cent in 2010.

Next week, the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Richard Marles, will attend the 12th Council of Ministers Meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation in Gurgaon, a satellite township near Delhi. The meeting marks the 15th anniversary of the IOR-ARC.

India and Australia have taken over as the chair and vice-chair of IOR-ARC. We assume the chair role next November. Indonesia will follow after us. The ministerial meeting will attempt to map out pathways of economic and security co-operation among the Indian Ocean littoral states.

The Association brings together countries of three continents - Africa, Asia and Australia. It has 19 members whose shores are washed by the Indian Ocean, ranging from Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, and Yemen.

Last November, six priority areas were identified as areas of increased future cooperation under the IOR-ARC banner: maritime safety and security; trade and investment facilitation; fisheries management; disaster risk reduction; academic and science and technology co-operation; tourism promotion and cultural exchanges.

Next week's meeting is expected to consider new initiatives on enhancing anti-piracy co-operation.

Pirates off Somalia are still holding 11 vessels for ransom with 167 crew members as hostages on board. Twenty-one crew members are being held on land. But the good news is that Somali piracy has fallen to a three-year low: 70 attacks were reported by ships in the first nine months of this year compared with 199 incidents in the first nine months of 2011.

International navies have stepped up action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast. There's been better co-operation between naval forces. Maritime counter-piracy operations are now more intelligence-led. Merchant ships have bolstered their defences with armed guards and safe rooms. India is likely to promote the idea of a maritime security forum at the meeting, building on the outcomes of the Australian government's counter-piracy conference held in Perth in July.

Among other important issues on the IOR-ARC's agenda next week will be a probable request by the United States to be considered a dialogue partner of the Association.

The IOR-ARC has five dialogue partners; China, Japan, Egypt, France and Britain. Washington's interest in the Indian Ocean is due to growing economic and military importance of China and India in the region. The US request to be a dialogue partner will be taken by consensus among member states. Iran is unlikely to support the US.

As a state with growing Indian Ocean economic and security interests, and as vice chair of the IOR-ARC, Australia would be well advised to try and breathe new life into IOR- ARC's efforts at regional co-operation. We're likely to offer some modest new funding for projects that don't overwhelm member states capacities.

IOR-ARC's certainly got a lot of potential, with India, Australia and Indonesia in the Association's chair over the next four years.

There are global gains to be had in the Indian Ocean rim states finding common ground around issues of co-operation.

But we should focus our efforts on practical co-operation first on the geographically closer eastern Indian Ocean. This is part of the primary operating environment for the Australian Defence Force.

The key states in this context are India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste. Common interests here include disaster management, marine scientific research, sea lanes security and safety, illegal movement of people, illegal fishing and the safety and security of oil and gas platforms.

We might consider discussing with India and Indonesia the possible creation of a forum for the eastern Indian Ocean.

We should work with India to revive the IOR-ARC. But realistically the range of interests and the wide differences in national capabilities of the Association's members will make co-operation difficult.

Anthony Bergin is Deputy Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and co-author of Our western front: Australia and the Indian Ocean


Originally published by: The Australian on 27 Oct 2012