Half the world’s container ships and two-thirds of its oil shipments make their way across the Indian Ocean – a vital link in global trade. It is also a rich source of natural resources, while along its rim live up to a third of the world’s population. Given the volume and value of the trade across its waters, it is also home to a large proportion of the world’s pirates.
All told, it’s an important piece of the global financial and security puzzle – and sitting right in the middle is India, which has been spearheading moves to increase cooperation between Indian Ocean states in an effort to boost security and trade.
In 2008 it organised the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which brings together the navies of the Indian Ocean to collaborate on keeping the region safe. But it is an obscure – some say moribund – international organisation that offers an excellent chance for regional engagement and development, according to one Indian politician.
The Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation is as lacklustre as its bureaucratic acronym (IOR-ARC) sounds – it is largely ignored internationally and its meetings amount to little more than talks about talks.
However, India’s former minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, sees immense potential in an organisation that brings together 18 nations across Asia, Africa and Oceania – and Europe, since both France and the UK are “dialogue partners”.
According to Tharoor, the world’s “clashing civilisations” all find a voice in the IOR-ARC, a small club where they can – were it given a proper voice – be heard. It’s the very intimacy of the group that helps give it its strength, says the Indian parliamentarian.
Given its anaemic state, however, can the organisation really step up and offer a constructive common ground to nations as disparate as Iran, Australia, Thailand and Mozambique?
What is needed, says Tharoor, is the “political will, leading to more effective engagement by the members in the work of the organisation” for the IOR-ARC to become an effective forum to promoting trade and cultural ties.
That leadership, says the former United Nations under-secretary-general, needs to come from one country.
“Only one country [should be] taking the lead, creating a nucleus of support and energising the rest. I believe India, as the incoming chair in 2011, can take this on, but I wouldn’t pretend the commitment exists at present,” he says.
With world leaders beating a path to India’s door in 2010, and the South Asian nation’s desire to play a bigger role in global affairs, it may need to find the commitment in 2011 to help get one of the most strategically important bodies of water into order.