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Maritime activities, engagements and operations have certain distinctive features that set them apart from land operations. Barring a few exceptions, the former take place in the commons or neutral territory. e.g. Maritime interventions against Somali pirates require neither invitation nor a host. Secondly, maritime interests are derived not only from the geographical location of a nation but also from that nation’s stake in a location. India, for instance, has an interest in the Indian Ocean where she is geographically located and also in the South China Sea through which her vital commercial interests flow. Likewise, China would have an interest in the Western Pacific where she is located and also in Indian Ocean through which her trade and critical energy lines flow. Thirdly, a region in the maritime context alludes to a much larger area than does a smaller construct like South Asia, which really would be a sub region. Fourthly, co-operation is most effective when the locale for interaction is far removed from domestic self-interests unless there is a massive shared stake which creates a mutual interdependence. For instance, Indian and Pakistani troops co-operated excellently in the UN Peacekeeping Operations in Somalia. But for the same to be equally true say in Afghanistan there would need to be a shared perception of the common threat of the Taliban. The Iran – Pakistan – India gas pipeline project, which surfaces from time to time in different avatars, could indeed create the interdependence that would drive co-operation. And fifthly, in an environment of trust insufficiency, all co-operative endeavors should be welcome because these inherently contribute in confidence building. But co-operation can often be superficial and the appearances misleading. We need to be vigilant about this when we are discussing serious, and not symbolic, stuff.

During strategic discourses references are often made to the geo- strategic landscape shaping up to become a ‘multi-polar world order’. It is for consideration that the world has, in fact, never seen a multi-polar global order. The ‘multi-power world order’, as it had existed till the beginning of the twentieth century, became ‘bipolar’ after World War II. After the end of the Cold War, there was a ‘unipolar moment’ which lasted less than two decades. What we see today is that interests, and not ideologies, are bringing the nations together. Even though national positions are invariably articulated through an ideological veil, it is not difficult to see their real drivers which lie just below the surface. Basically, it is these interests that bring the nations together in groups. So, the constituents of different groups are determined largely by the issues at hand. From group to group, and even within a group, different nations assume the nodal positions from issue to issue as they all hedge their bets in an uncertain environment. This evolving configuration is probably best described as a ‘flexi-nodal world order’. It is characterized by multiple groups, albeit with many common members and common nodes, wherein identities of both often change.

Against the above backdrop, let us take a look at the situation as it obtains in our maritime neighbourhood. The strategic space called Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is unique on account of its wide disparities, extreme heterogeneity, historical chasms aggravated by divisive colonialism, inherent denominational and sub denominational conflicts despite shared cultural values. Some of the factors that bear influence upon this region are: a. Great power rivalry. The region has long experienced it even though the identity of the powers kept changing over the period of time. This continues to be so except that in today’s interconnected and interdependent world, competition is often accompanied by collaboration also and vice versa.

b. The asymmetric threats. These primarily emanate from extremist factions based on religious, ideological and political disenchantment. Each one of these has its own rationale and following. But the factor common to them all is that in pursuance of their objectives, a minority holds the majority to ransom through the threat, or delivery, of violence. This transportation of many twenty first century states into medieval times negates all developmental activity in those very regions which need it most. It also hampers uplifting even of those societies which are engaged in vibrant economic and industrial activity. And, it adds heat and chafe to the already fragile societal balances.

c. The scourge of piracy. The origins of Somali piracy, its manifestation, modus operandi, its human & economic costs etc. are all well known. It impacts not only trade and human security but also, in an extrapolated scenario, can be complemented by terror. To counter these, there are co-operative frameworks at the sub regional as well as local levels and there is no dearth of agencies pitching in to help; in fact there is probably a somewhat disabling surfeit of them. Despite the painstaking exertions of the UN Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia and its Working Groups, net achievement of the massive deployments by the NATO, EU, CTF 151, China, India and many other independents has at best been suboptimal. What is lacking is a holistic approach, clear mandate, a sense of direction, unambiguous role definition and co-ordination between the participating agencies.

d. Climate change. This threatens to aggravate the political, societal and security challenges of those states which are already fragile and conflict prone. Compulsions of the particularly vulnerable IOR countries need to be understood and co-related with the effects on fisheries, coral mining, marine pollution, beach erosion and on population migration. It is clear that the national level policies of individual countries are insufficient to deal with the environmental challenges which are regional in nature. There is this great dilemma of global–regional–local cause and effects in relation to the environment.

On account of the factors brought out above, regional maritime co-operation can really evolve along two different trajectories viz. a constabulary arrangement that can be established to maintain surveillance through co-ordinated presence over the area and a response mechanism that can be mobilized to meet a developing situation. Ideally, both should originate from the same understanding. But, in view of the legacy brought out earlier, it may be better to make a beginning with separate, small steps and put it all together when higher maturity levels are achieved and mutual confidence is built up in an adequate measure. The following proposal may be considered:

a. The Forum: Conventional wisdom, and the experience of NATO, would suggest that a custom built structure with a clear constitution, mandate, responsibility and participation can be very effective. But, given the fault lines in our region, it would be perhaps better to utilize one of the existing platforms than to add to the already existing alphabet soup of forums for multilateral dialogue. Specifically, SAARC would perhaps span a somewhat restricted sea space but Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC) may have the necessary bandwidth even if not the mandate to start with. But, a parallel already exists in that ASEAN started out as an economic forum but ARF grew out of it to cover the security dimension. In our own case, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) initiative does provide a platform but that is limited to the navies of the region. If a handshake protocol can be evolved to connect IONS with IOR-ARC, we may be looking at a regional arrangement which can perhaps be tweaked to meet our requirement in the first instance. Admittedly, IONS is new but with the third edition already played out in Cape Town last week, it may be maturing towards establishing its own identity and credibility. If, on the other hand, a platform is desired to address the larger security issues in the IOR, IONS can be rechristened Indian Ocean Security Symposium. The suggestion at this stage is not to attempt any structural changes but merely to enhance the scope through preliminary small steps.

b. The Mandate: Rather than look for consensus to hammer out a comprehensive mandate in the first instance, it may be preferable to start with sub groups to address smaller specific issues such as piracy, maritime environmental challenges, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief etc. More contentious issues such as terrorism, gun running, human trafficking, population migration etc may, for the time being, be left for bilateral resolution. c. The Protocol: The co-operating nations will need to draw up a working protocol at any one of the suitable platforms wherein the broad terms of reference for the above arrangement would be spelt out. Having done that, it would be more important to let the details evolve as they go along. For this reason it is important that, to start with, only benign and relatively simple common causes be taken up for co-operation. As already mentioned, no complex regional structure, maritime or otherwise, should be attempted because its failure to take off could set the clock back prematurely without giving it an opportunity to succeed.

d. The Participation: The regional security co-operation arrangement needs to be an inclusive gathering and not an exclusive one. Undoubtedly, the tone and the tenor of the mechanism would have regional notes but even an extra regional stake holder should be able to participate in it, as a member or as an observer, as long as it resonates with the theme. In fact, such participation should be welcome because it would also bring forth the much needed and resources. The accent on capacity building should be more on the aggregate and not on the individual contributors because most littorals in the IOR are faced with a severe resource crunch. They acquire, in the first instance, only those assets which meet their own requirement. Further, they contribute to a common cause only those assets that can be spared without diluting their own capability. So, maximizing the effectiveness of the collective capacity is likely to yield better results than chasing individuals to do so.

e. The Infrastructure: It would be consistent with the above theme to make a start with the utilization of those existing facilities which can be plugged into directly. For example, the United Service Institution of India has a full fledged Centre for United Nations Peacekeeping (CUNPK). It organizes workshops, seminars and training capsules for officers of the Indian Armed Forces, and of the friendly foreign countries, selected for deployment in UN Peacekeeping missions. It also oversees the practical training of Indian contingents. Likewise, similar facilities existing in the regional maritime neighborhood can be identified and networked for utilization of their surplus capacity, training modules drawn up and personnel exchanges programmed to obtain best leverage. Dedicated facilities, infrastructure and manpower can be considered in due course after the necessary experience has been gained and a degree of mutual confidence developed among the participants. Likewise, there would be facilities with other regional partners which can be gainfully utilised for the common cause.

In conclusion, the United Nations is the most appropriate global forum to tackle the common concerns. However, where it is not possible to do so for one reason or another, there is a need for the directly affected members to be able to sit together and address the community issues. To this extent, regional maritime co-operation in the Indian Ocean Region is an idea whose time has come. There are multilateral dialogue forums already existing which can facilitate making a beginning in this. ASEAN and ARF model, or a suitably drawn up variant, can be replicated by the IOR-ARC and IONS constructs. A beginning needs to be made in small steps so that the danger of a premature scuttling, which is innate to any new large construct in an extremely heterogeneous grouping, is minimized. Success of initial co-operation will foster confidence- building and can progressively lead to more advanced activities. Utilization of infrastructure and facilities already existing is a logical first step. However, for a meaningful start to be made there would be two preconditions. Firstly, the regional participants must feel the need for such co-operation. Secondly, there must be the political will and resolve to take it all forward. As would be readily appreciated, these two are sine qua non conditions. With this, it is over to the regional participants.

(As adapted from a presentation made by the author at an Experts' Workshop on " The New Geopolitics of Peace Operations: A Dialogue with South Asia" held at Kathmandu on 16-17 April.)
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