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Wave of Awareness over Indian Ocean





by Bala Menon

The tide of economic awareness is finally rising in the Indian Ocean region. The third largest watermass in the world, the Indian Ocean is flanked by Africa, Asia and Australia and the new, but still sluggish movement towards trade co-operation and integration portends good for the future.

The importance of the Indian Ocean to world economics and politics is evident in that this remains the only ocean where the influence of the littoral states - almost all of them developing countries - has been overshadowed by the power and presence of the non-littoral states who have been able to project power through their naval forces or remote island bases.

Indian Navy ships on an exercise in the Indian Ocean

It is estimated that more than 30,000 ships and 150,000 oil tankers pass through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait around the Cape of Good Hope and the Malacca Straits. For China, the Gulf region, other Middle Eastern countries, Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean remains the major 'highway' for minerals and other natural resources. Fishing fleets from Russia, Japan, Taiwan, China and Korea - trawl in immense quantities of shrimp and tuna from the Indian Ocean waters every year. An estimated 40 per cent of the world's offshore oil comes from the Indian Ocean area and the beach sands of the littoral countries are rich in heavy minerals and offshore placer deposits, with India, South Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand as the main exploiters.

The first concrete step at evolving some consensus on issues concerning the region took place in March 1995 - when Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa, Oman, India, Singapore and Australia met in Port Louis, under the chairmanship of then Acting Prime Minister of Mauritius Paul Berenger. An agenda for the future took shape and seven new members joined in the next -inter-governmental meeting - Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Yemen. On May 16, 1996, a the charter was finalised for the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation.

Indian Navy Sea Harrier refuelling aboard a naval vessel

Geo-economic linkages between the littoral states have so far been marginal and political relationships very weak with each country looking at regional blocs to further their goals. One impediment to close economic ties is the unwieldy size of the area involved. There are some 40 countries either littoral to or are island states in the Indian Ocean, including those with coastlines on water bodies like the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Additionally, there are about a dozen countries which have their main ocean access through the Indian Ocean.

Maritime Rivalry between India, China

As Indian Finance Minister Chidambaram said in December last year, the concept of an Indian Ocean economic community is difficult to define because of the diversities and complexities of the region make it difficult from other blocs in the world. Unlike the North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Union - where there is a shared history or all are affluent countries, or the Association of South Asian Nations, the Indian Ocean Rim was not confined to any geographical area, it was not bound by any common history and nor did the countries share common policies or an economic agenda.

Indian Navy jets aboard the aircraft carrier INS Virat

"It is estimated that more than 30,000 ships and 150,000 oil tankers pass through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait around the Cape of Good Hope and the Malacca Straits."

"The physical size of the proposed members differed vastly; the size of the populations differed as did the income levels." In addition, many of the countries were also involved in seemingly intractable disputes among themselves, leaving important trade issues in the background. Pakistan, for instance, often insisted that the name Indian Ocean ought to be changed to Afro-Asian Ocean, because it couldn't identify itself as an "Indian" Ocean country.

Progress, however was rapid after the Mauritius meetings. In September last year, Government, business and academia participated and agreed on a full range of co-operation in trade and economic issues, technical and other cooperation, research and identification of interests in the region, all to be overseen by a Council of Ministers. Action-oriented programmes already under way include the Rim Business Centre, Trade and INvestment Database and co-operation in standards accreditation and trade promotion among the member-countries.

US vessels on exercise in the Indian Ocean

An Indian Ocean Centre has been set up at Curtin University of Technology in Perth Australia, and research is now under way on the possibilities of economic co-operation in the Indian-Australia-South Africa triangle, maritime and natural disasters in the region, study of mining, mineral processing and related support industries in the region, study on emerging labour markets and all-round, sustainable development. Other issues of interest include maritime safety, resource conservation, coastal zone management and combating unlawful activities like drugs smuggling, illegal immigration, piracy.

Officials of the member-countries are already hailing the IOR-ARC as a unique form of regional co-operation, beaed on tripartite involvment; developing a nebulous idea on the basis of and creating a loose but powerful economic entity. The integration process is being planned on an inter-governmental or first track process based in Mauritius - and now known as the INdian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) with the original 14 countries as full members ; and an informal process - the second-track process - based on business 0organisation and research and general with a total of 23 countries involved.

The UAE is a participant in the second track and, with its emphasis on diversification of its economy and its established reputation as a trading hub, the Rim initiative has taken on great significance. Director-General of the Dubai Economic Department Mohammed Alabbar who headed a UAE delegation to and presented a paper at the th efirst International Forum on the Indian Ocean region in Perth in June last year - which attracted 23 countries said then the association could ensure that all emerge winners.

"Many countries need to develop in certain areas, some have the investment abilities, others have the human resources and some have the knowhow, so what is needed to joint effort and co-operation in order to boost the economy of each country."

For India, of course, any Ocean community would be a great bonus. The Law of the Sea Convention which came into force in November 1995 gives India more than two million sq km of the Indian Ocean as its Exclusive Economic Zone. And the Indian Navy is one of the largest in the region an dincreasinlgy taking on a blue water role - the ability to project its might much beyond its land-based stations.

((copyright © 1997 Al Nisr Publishing LLC, Dubai- This article was first published in Gulf News, Dubai - in 1997.).


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