Does Indian Ocean Require Another Security Forum

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2016
Page No.: 
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Friday, February 19, 2016

The annual Galle Dialogue 2015 themed “Secure Seas through Greater Maritime Cooperation: Challenges and the Way Forward” was held in November at Galle, a prominent coastal town in south Sri Lanka. In his keynote address, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, flagged a number of maritime security challenges faced by the international community including rise in criminal activity at sea and spread of terrorism. He also noted that Asian naval powers i.e. Japan, China, India and South Korea are slowly filling the security vacuum in the post-colonial Asia, but ‘the new status quo has created fresh issues – those of sea power projection, littoral operation threats to the right of innocent passage and sea denial operations’. In the 21st century, the economic and strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has gained greater currency and therefore it is important to ‘adopt an inclusive approach that invites all stakeholders to discussions concerning the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean’.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also recalled the vision of the Father of the Nation, D.S Senanayake for promoting the idea of Indian Ocean Zone of Peace (IOZOP). Given  the  changed strategic and security environment in the Indian Ocean, he suggested four initiatives for a mutually benefiting multilateral security architecture for the Indian Ocean i.e. (a) setting up ‘a small naval force to undertake responsibilities jointly with other nations towards ensuring the freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean; (b) enhancing naval capacity by adding air surveillance; (c) creation of a separate Peace Keeping Corps with Armed Forces contingents and Police units to embark on international peace keeping assignments; and (d) re-organising and training the Police Special Task Force to counter international terrorism’. He also indicated Colombo’s willingness to lead and set up an inclusive multilateral forum involving both the regional countries and other stakeholders with the help of the UN to address maritime security issues including the control of choke points and develop a robust security blue print based on open and comprehensive dialogue on a range of maritime issues  for the Indian Ocean in particular and the Indo-Pacific region in general.

Exiting Multilateral Arrangements in the Indian Ocean

There have been attempts to develop Indian Ocean regionalism and a number of bilateral and multilateral economic and security arrangements have emerged in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), set up in 1997, rechristened as the Indian Ocean Region Association (IORA) in 2013, is the only pan Indian Ocean economic grouping, which brings together countries from the three continents- Africa, Asia and Australia. Till very recently, the IORA’s focus was on economic cooperation based on the principle of open and inclusive regionalism; however, the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, led the IORA to expand its agenda to include security issues. Consequently, at the 11th Council of Ministers meeting held at Bengaluru, maritime security was added. At the 12th meeting of the Council of Ministers, the Gurgaon Communiqué titled ‘IOR-ARC at 15 – The Next Decade’ noted  “We welcome the emphasis that our Association has placed on cooperation in maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean and reaffirm the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and safety and security of Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean”. Likewise, the  Perth Communiqué of December 2013 articulated “...We wish to broaden and deepen efforts through IORA to bolster maritime security and safety, particularly in light of continued threats to maritime commerce, and freedom of the high seas, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS); as well as on the safety of sea farers.” 

The other pan-Indian Ocean security apparatus is built around the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) which was started in 2008 and can be attributed to the Indian Navy’s desire to play an important role in the Indian Ocean. The IONS aims to “generate a flow of information between naval professionals that would lead to common understanding and possibly agreements on the way ahead”and address maritime security issues confronted by the region. The IONS draws liberally from another maritime security construct i.e. Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) for the Asia-Pacific region.

The IORA and IONS are useful models of regional cooperation and, over the years,  experienced varying degrees of successes and failures. However, there was a lack of communication between these multilateral institutions given that economics was the significant feature of transaction among the Indian Ocean littorals. Notwithstanding that, common maritime security concerns have now gained priority among the regional countries. Interestingly, the Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden offered a unique opportunity to the IORA to engage in  security issues in the Indian Ocean.

At another level, several dialogues such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Indian Ocean Dialogue, Manama Dialogue, and the Galle Dialogue contribute to the maritime security discourse. Besides, there are also some other stakeholders such as the defence industry who have begun to play role in maritime security issues that go beyond military sales such as the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) in Malaysia; International Defence Exhibition and Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, UAE; (c) International Maritime and Defence Exhibition (IMDEX), Singapore, etc. where the participants debate maritime security issues.

Does Indian Ocean require another Security Dialogue Forum

It is fair to argue that the existing structures and arrangements at the diplomatic, functional and operational level in the Indian Ocean are performing well. In fact, they are overburdened on account of diplomatic and human capital to participate and be present at all the meeting of these structures. In this context, it has been observed “Do you know how many meetings ASEAN has in one year from the working group up to the summit? It’s about 1,500 meetings. Which is why the Philippines is set to propose that the biannual summit of leaders of the 10-country ASEAN be held only once a year”. Also, the regional navies and coast guards suffer from operational overload and most navies do not posses the requisite capacity to undertake the surveillance of their own sea areas.

Although the Indian Ocean has  few multilateral institutions, these closely follow the developments in the region through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) , East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM +) and thus prevent ‘crowing of conversations’ and turning the ‘thick soup’ into a ‘thin gruel’. Further, it will be useful to keep in mind that primacy of  challenges differ from ‘issue to issue’ as also their geographic location. 

Concluding Remarks

It is acknowledged that Indian Ocean countries suffer from a number of maritime asymmetric threats and challenges which can potentially undermine the peace and stability of the region. The existing multilateral maritime cooperative initiatives in the Indian Ocean are noteworthy and contribute significantly to the economic potential and security of the region. These have played an important role and are successful examples for cooperation which can serve as a model for any sub-regional cooperative engagements to address maritime security challenges among the Indian Ocean littorals.

Finally, it is without doubt that there is a strong realization, relevance and importance of multinational cooperation among Indian Ocean littorals which is visible in their economic, foreign and security policies. Although Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal merits attention but common security concerns in the Indian Ocean are already being addressed through the prism of ‘maritime multilateralism’ such as the IORA and IONS.