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Growing Salience of the Indian Ocean Commission: What has Changed for India as an Observer?
22 April 2020
The Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) is a regional forum in the Southwest Indian Ocean, comprising five nations – Comoros, France (Reunion), Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. It is the only African organisation that comprises island States. China and the European Union (EU) have been Observers in the IOC since 2016 and 2017, respectively. India acceded to the forum as an Observer in March 2020, along with Japan and the United Nations (UN).
Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, this region was a transhipment hub for the mercantile trade between Asia and Europe. However, soon thereafter, it was transformed into a veritable backwater that was considered geopolitically insignificant, if not irrelevant. Even the Cold War could not restore its global profile. Lately though, Russia, China, India, Japan and the EU, have started to engage the region on an unprecedented scale. This has undoubtedly raised its strategic significance and has propped-up some States as arbitrators of the balance of power. This article examines some of factors that have spurred the IOC’s global profile. It analyses the disjuncture between the security issues that actually confront the States vis-à-vis their current priorities. Lastly, it explores India’s options after acceding to ‘Observer’ status. To delve into these issues, this article has been arranged into three sections – rising profile of the IOC; security challenges vis-à-vis priorities; and, implications for India as an ‘Observer’.
Rising profile of the IOC
Michael N Pearson had observed in his seminal book, The Indian Ocean, that the Indian Ocean is the oldest ocean traversed by humans for over 5,000 years. It is also the only ocean that has been dominated by the people of its own coast, albeit with a minor aberration of about 150 years that constituted the colonial period. The Indian Ocean has long been central to global history and is rising into geopolitical prominence once again. This long history of interaction has created a sense of unity amongst its people. Sugata Bose has supported this line of analysis in his classic book A Hundred Horizons and has argued that overemphasis on trade tends to obscure the flow of culture and ideas across the Indian Ocean. Hence, there exists unity in the Indian Ocean, amidst diversity. This unity is found primarily in three layers: racial, influenced by migration; cultural, emanating out of India; and religious, mainly shaped by the spread of Islam. However, Darshana Baruah makes a strong case, while disagreeing with both these eminent scholars. She argues that island nations of the Indian Ocean are choosing to identify themselves as maritime nations, so as to break out of their traditional sub-regional identity. They are ostensibly aware of the risks involved in Great Power politics, but are also allured by the opportunities offered by their adoption of an ocean identity. It links their geography with security, economic growth and a role in the world. Thus, historical ties and the weight of Diaspora will no longer offer the leverage that it traditionally did. She further urges that engagement with these nations will now have to focus on their interests, and partnerships will have to be equitable. These two lines of strong but opposing argument tend to confuse, if not confound, policy-formulation. Hence, an empirical study of the IOC becomes essential to discern the emerging pattern of its ocean identity, particularly since the last Strategic Development Plan (SDP) was adopted.
During the 33rd meeting of the Council of Ministers, held in Mauritius in September of 2018, the IOC provided a fresh impetus to its regional profile with the release of its 2nd Strategic Development Plan (SDP) 2018-2021. This plan stands on four strategic axes — Axis I) peace and stability; (Axis II) economic integration; (Axis III) preservation and attractiveness of the environment; and (Axis IV) human development and shared priorities. The SDP has been further grouped into five ‘Domaines d’intervention’ (DIs), comprising 17 ‘fields-of-action’. Each DI is steered by a member State. DI-2 is dedicated to the development of the maritime sector, which includes maritime security, safety, trade, connectivity, infrastructure, and the promotion of each island’s interests. This notwithstanding, maritime elements can be found in other DIs as well. For example, DI-1 deals with illegal migration and tourism; DI-3 delves into democracy, political stability, terrorism, law and transnational crime; DI-4 covers climate diplomacy, sustainable management of maritime resources, natural disasters, satellite and weather development; and, DI-5 includes fishing, aquaculture and research. So, it can be seen that some 14 of the 17 fields of action encompass maritime elements.
Subsequent to the release of the SDP in 2018, the IOC adopted the Balaclava Declaration on Maritime Security in the Western Indian Ocean, in June 2019, which has explicitly made maritime security a prerequisite for the region’s long-term development. The scope of this maritime security includes, inter alia, contraventions of the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the illicit trafficking of drugs; transnational organised crime; contraventions of the Suppression of Unlawful Activities (SUA) Act and its conventions; the prevention of pollution from ships; safety of life at sea; the protection, management and development of the marine and coastal environment; preparedness against oil-pollution and response thereto; countering piracy; and, charcoal trafficking. The declaration has openly invited the technical- and financial assistance of external players to support the maritime security architecture of the Western Indian Ocean. IOC States are obviously cognisant of the ongoing competition between major players for a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean. Kesnia Efromova explains why small States adopt such ambitious security policies. She observes that small States are not pawns anymore. Rather, they choose to be the pivots of great power competition. They adapt to the emerging situation, and prefer to juggle their strategies between ‘balancing’, ‘bandwagoning’, and ‘hedging’, for ensuring their survival. From its expansive maritime security agenda, it can be seen that the IOC has, indeed, upped the ante, and is seeking to carve a niche in the ongoing geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. Its enhanced salience is vindicated by the composition of its Observers.
Security Challenges vis-à-vis Priorities
The IOC is home to over 30 million people, of whom about 20 million live below the extreme poverty line, mostly in Madagascar and Comoros. Two-thirds of this population live in abject poverty, with sparse electricity and in poor health. Under such conditions, the IOC’s aspirations of becoming a geopolitical fulcrum in the Indian Ocean, appears to be somewhat unrealistic. Against this backdrop, there seems to be a disjuncture between the security issues that actually confront these states vis-à-vis their current priorities.
There are numerous methodologies for evaluating the security-risks that confront a country. The World Bank uses a ‘Fragile and Conflict Situation’ matrix to classify States. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measures the fragility of 58 ‘Fragile States’, to prioritise allocation of official development assistance (ODA). However, these indices do not rate all countries of the region. Hence, this paper has used the ‘Fragile State Index’ (FSI), designed by The Fund for Peace, to compare states of the IOC. Barry Buzan has argued that weak States provide a fertile ground for crime, internal conflicts, and external interference. Sonja Grimm has explained why the term ‘fragile states’ and ‘weak states’ can be used interchangeably. Using the FSI, this paper has attempted to establish the relative ranking of State fragility. ‘Military power’, as calculated by Global Fire Power, has been tabulated alongside the FSI score.
|Cohesion||Economic||Political||Social||Military Power Ranking|
|FSI Ranking 2019||Factionalised Elites||Group
|Economic Inequality||External Intervention||State Legitimacy||Human Rights||Demographic
Table 1: Fragile State Index (Source: The Fund for Peace and GFP)
An analysis of the above tabulation, seen in conjunction with the SDP 2018-2021 and corresponding international resolutions, reveals that the IOC lacks the requisite strategy to deal with the security issues that confront its member-states. Successful implementation of the SDP and the Balaclava declaration on maritime security is entirely contingent upon the involvement of external players in every aspect of security. To be sure, major powers will invest only where they see their national interest. Given the limited scope of this paper, only three illustrative issues would be discussed to explicate the above findings — (a) authoritarian rule in Comoros, (b) the decolonisation of Mauritius, and, (c) the Regional Coordination and Operations Centre (RCOC) in Seychelles.
The constitutional provision for Presidential rotation between the three islands of Comoros was scrapped in 2018. While this has certainly alienated the islands of Moheli and Anjouan even further, power is, nevertheless, likely to remain with Grande Comore. The current President, Mr Azali Assoumani, came to power in March 2019. Shortly after assuming office, he brought in a constitutional amendment that enables him to remain in power until 2029. These political developments clearly defy the IOC’s ‘DI-3’, with regard to democracy and political stability. Ironically, there were no discussion on these issue during the Ministerial Meetings in 2018 and 2019, which seems to suggest that the IOC neither has the political will to discuss nor the capacity to enforce compliance of its member states. A poor record of State cohesion, legitimacy and human rights, (Table 1) on the part of some States of the IOC provide a volatile atmosphere for internecine conflict. There appears to be no mechanism in place for preventive diplomacy, which is at variance with United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution A/RES/70/262 and S/RES/2282. It is also not clear if the IOC would seek the intervention of major powers on such issues, as has been the case with other aspects of non-traditional security.
On 14 December 1960, the UNGA adopted a landmark resolution — Resolution 1514 (XV) — calling for the grant of independence to all colonial countries and peoples. It declared that any attempt at partial or total disruption of national unity and territorial integrity was incompatible with the UN Charter. After repeated representations by Mauritius, the UNGA adopted Resolution 71/297, on 22 June 2017, requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for advice on the matter of the Chagos Archipelago which, it contended, was being illegally retained by the UK. The court found that the decolonisation of Mauritius was not complete and advised that the UK was obligated to end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago. Based upon the response of ICJ, the UNGA adopted a resolution in May of 2019, which declared the Chagos archipelago to be an integral part of Mauritius, and demanded that the UK withdraw from the archipelago within six months. However, the UK, has not honoured the UN’s resolution till date. Understandably, the IOC does not have the military power to coerce the UK into submission (Table 1). However, its inability to raise such an issue even in its own forum is inexplicable. The Secretary General, Hamada Madi Bolero’s overarching message on the IOC website makes no mention of decolonisation. Incidentally, territorial integrity and sovereignty, both of which form the core of any security discourse, are conspicuously absent from the SDP and the DIs. As brought out earlier, in its security formulations, the IOC exhibits aspirations of dynamically balancing Great Powers and is already demonstrating the formative signs of an ASEAN-like structure. Yet, its policy backbone, the SDP, suffers from very significant policy-voids, when compared with ASEAN’s Blue Print on Political and Security Community. In other words, the chasm between IOC’s capacity, policy and aspirations is far too wide.
In 2017, the total economic cost of piracy in the western Indian Ocean was US$ 1.4 billion (bn) and 1102 seafarers were exposed to piratical depredations. The ocean economy, in that same year, was worth US$ 20.8 bn. The Indian Ocean accounted for 20 per cent of the world’s tuna catch, was a transit route for 40 tonnes of heroin, and, had been exploited for a sizable portion of global IUU fishing worth some US$ 23 bn. To deal with these challenges, a policy-brief was released by the IOC in October, 2019, entitled Strengthening Maritime Security in the Western Indian Ocean – Introducing a state-of-the-art Maritime Security Architecture in service of the Blue Economy. This publication has identified the challenges at hand and the role for the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (RCOC), Seychelles, as also for the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), Madagascar. Figure 1 delineates the areas of responsibility of the RCOC and the RMIFC. The map also shows half of the Indian Ocean having been assigned to the Information Fusion Centre (IFC), Singapore. Not envisaging a role for India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), even though the IFC-IOR was commissioned in December 2018, can hardly be an oversight, and it belittles the fact that India, too, is able to bring considerable capabilities to bear in terms of regional responses to maritime challenges.
Figure 1: Area of Responsibility of RCOC and RMIFC (Source: IOC)
The primary role of the RCOC is to respond to maritime threats and challenges, based on the domain awareness provided by the RMIFC. These responses could, inter alia, be in the domains of marine pollution, disaster relief, search-and-rescue, drug trafficking, transnational organised crime and other unlawful activities at sea, the management of the marine and coastal environment, piracy and countermeasures against it, and, charcoal trafficking. However, the IOC has neither the resources nor a strategy to collaborate with India. Hence, quite expectedly, without the maritime forces required, the RCOC is turning out to be yet another IFC. The last workshop held at the RCOC, in December of 2019, focused on creating and maintaining a Maritime Awareness System (MAS), not on creating and strengthening response-mechanisms.
From the foregoing explication, it may be observed that the IOC has failed to prioritise core issues such as territorial integrity and sovereignty. It has also skirted the topics of confidence-building measures, preventive diplomacy, and conflict management. Even more startling is its inability to deliver on what it has promised in the SDP or the Balaclava Declaration. There is a therefore, wide disjuncture between its aspirations, policies and capabilities.
Implications for India as an Observer
Security challenges confronting the region are both traditional and non-traditional in nature. There appears to be unanimity amongst IOC members on issues related to non-traditional challenges. In sharp contrast, many a traditional threat is conspicuous by its omission in the SDP. The gap between the IOC’s capabilities and aspirations are so wide that successful implementation of its SDP and the Balaclava Declaration on Maritime Security, is entirely contingent upon the involvement of external players in almost every aspect of security. China, Japan, the USA, and the EU, are all non-IOR resident-powers and will invest in the areas of security, stability and prosperity only after due cost-benefit analyses. As a resident power, India will inevitably be the most-prompt security provider in the area covered by the IOC. Incidentally, the Indian Navy was the first responder during the Cyclone Diane that hit Madagascar in January 2020. This is, of course, also in keeping with its doctrine of Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR).
As an Observer, India will have a say in setting the agenda of the IOC and its outcomes. A number of incidents in the recent past have demonstrated that India is almost invariably the first-responder in the western Indian Ocean. Yet, at the regional level, other Observers may well be reluctant to cede to India quite so central a role. Against this geopolitical backdrop, India could explore the following options:
- Enhance the capacity of regional institutions for climate studies, sustainable fishing, plastic pollution, waste management, ecosystem management of marine resources, resilience of coastal zones, and, surveillance of health and the prevention and control of epidemics. The Ministry of External Affairs could coordinate with other ministries and departments of the Government of India and draw-up a proposal for the 35th Ministerial Meeting, scheduled for March 2021.
- Empower local civil society through ongoing IOC projects. It could collaborate with external agencies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — for social causes of piracy, the East African Community (EAC) — for strengthening law and enforcement, and the Common Market for Southern and East Africa (COMESA) — for capacity-building towards enhanced port-security.
- Moderate the geopolitical rhetoric in the IOC.
- Build capacities — in terms of maritime surveillance, communications, imagery, port and airport infrastructure, etc. — in respect of Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Seychelles, to enable them to better deal with their respective national security concerns.
- Sign Memorandums of Understanding with the states for the Operational Turn Around (OTR) of Indian naval ships and aircraft, so as to enable quicker and more effective security and safety operations for the host countries.
- Build capabilities for disaster-response, and create Critical Disaster Relief Infrastructure.
- Assist in food aid and technical support for food security.
- Set-up strong media networks and sponsor think tanks.
- Place naval and coast guard liaison officers in the RCOC and the RMIFC, to facilitate the sharing of maritime domain awareness with the IFC-IOR, as also to coordinate local assistance operations.
- Universalise the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and assist in energy security.
- Open Buddhist and Yoga centres, and commence ‘Indian Idol’ shows wherever possible, in order to resurrect cultural identity amongst the Indian diaspora and deepen the bonds alluded-to by Sugata Bose and Michael Pearson.
The IOC has much to gain from leveraging the capacities and capabilities that India can bring to bear upon almost all aspects of maritime security. With India having attained ‘Observer’ status within the IOC, both entities need to strive for a maximisation of mutually-beneficial cooperation.
About the Author
Commodore Somen Banerjee is a serving Indian Naval Officer, and a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are the authors and do not reflect the policies or position of the Indian Navy or Government of India.
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