Indian Ocean states seek common ground

The 19-member Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) hopes to see countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan join in the near future now that the association has the weight of countries including the United States behind it.

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid (center) answers questions in New Delhi flanked by Sudhir Vyas (left), Secretary (Economic Relations), and External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin (Right)

“We greatly value Myanmar and other members and if there is an interest expressed by these countries to join, we would surely consider,” Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said in response to an Asia Focus question about why two of the important countries in the region had yet to join the group.

The two countries are among a handful that are still not members of the grouping that embraces nearly all the countries around the Indian Ocean —  from Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and others from the Middle East to Africa. Formed in 1997, the group does not extend formal invitations to join.

“The first interest in joining the group has to come from the countries,” said Mr Khurshid, who took up his post in the cabinet reshuffle last month.

The latest member to join as a dialogue partner is the United States, which was approved unanimously by the 19 members who attended the meeting. Union of Comoros became the 20th member during the meeting in New Delhi earlier this month.

The inclusion of the United States, Mr Khurshid hopes, will help give the group a much needed boost and weight.

“The council agreed and we welcome this as their participation will add value and would make the decisions far-reaching, to the world and not just confined to the [Indian Ocean] rim,” he said.

He stressed that despite the inclusion of the United States, the concerns and the issues would all be related to the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, the world’s third largest body of water.

Thailand agrees that the group needs more meaningful interaction to promote and enhance regional capacity building.

“Dialogue partners could support our projects through the provision of external sources of funding and expertise,” said Navin Boonseat, the secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.

He along with other members stressed the need for greater connectivity of the region as this would play a vital role in economic and social development. Thailand, Mr Navin said supported the development of infrastructure such as ports and harbours to facilitate better flow of goods and services across the region.

Among the key concerns for the countries in the region is maritime security as piracy has been on the rise. All countries want the IOR-ARC to play a greater role in pursuing ways to combat piracy as nearly 80% of the world’s ships carrying goods pass through the Indian Ocean.

All these issues will be taken up further by Australia, which will be the next chairman of the group in 2013 followed by Indonesia in 2014.

Apart from this, the group is looking into social issues and there is a proposal to set up an IOR-ARC related university to help member countries, although it is not yet clear where the funding will come from.

Mr Khurshid said he was willing to offer India’s help in setting up the university but the long-term funding needed to be worked out by the group first.

“There is a great thirst for knowledge and this idea was discussed,” he said. “India is always ready and willing to set it up.”

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Writer: Umesh Pandey