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Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS): Where from…Whither-Bound?

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 22, 2008

    The 2-day Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in New Delhi (February 14-15, 2008) may well turn out to be a historic event for the countries of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). As an arrangement for multilateral naval and maritime security cooperation among regional countries, IONS not only offered a forum for exchange of views but also showcased its importance and reach. Conceived within the ambit of Article 52 of UN Charter, inspired by the initial successes of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and modelled on the lines of the West Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), IONS has the potential to successfully coalesce the imagination of regional states, and serve as a valuable platform to synergise their resources and energies towards maintaining ‘good order’ in the Indian Ocean.

    This is not the first time the idea of a multilateral security arrangement has been mooted for the IOR. The initial idea of IOR-ARC was conceived to encompass a security agenda, but could never fructify due to the extreme diversities among regional countries, and their equally divergent security perceptions. The IOR-ARC that eventually came into existence in March 1997 among 18 countries sidelined security issues to a more economic grouping.

    Many existing and new sub-regional groupings have since attempted to fill the void as ‘localised’, but more ‘manageable’ cooperative security arrangements. These include the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the East African Community, and the South African Development Community (SADC). Although some of these have been less successful in the domain of maritime security, the efforts to make these more relevant in this direction have persevered. Considering the existence of such sub-regional security arrangements, a region-wide security arrangement like IONS probably does not make sense, or does it? One view clearly expresses the need for a wider geographical overarching mechanism for collective security. Such a setup on a regional-level can comprehensively respond to the security threats that span all sub-regions contained within the IOR. Furthermore, such an expanded cooperative arrangement would need to be contextualised in terms of the larger Asian, and even global construct, through coordination with similar security groupings elsewhere in the world. The imperative to include extra-regional powers as observers in IONS stems from this rationale, besides the need to obviate suspicions and geo-political schisms.

    Another important question that arises is: considering that such initiatives have often failed in the past, what is the probability that the IONS would succeed? The course that the IOR navies have charted on India’s initiative may not be ‘fair-weather’. But it could be sustained if due cognisance is given to the potential ‘hazards’. First and foremost, the more powerful littoral states including India would need to resist the temptation of attempting to dominate centre-stage. Secondly, many security issues conceived in the IONS agenda pertain to ‘hard’ security responses with military connotations. These are likely to generate an element of fear and distrust in some states, particularly the smaller ones. So, “don’t run before you learn to walk” may be an apt dictum to sustain the initiative. The IONS must, therefore, initially focus on capacity building of the smaller littoral states, not only in respect of hardware, but also in terms of information-sharing towards maritime domain awareness (MDA), training of maritime forces and law-enforcement agencies, and cross-fertilisation of standard operating procedures (SoP) and best practices. A cue could be taken from the ongoing multilateral efforts towards security/safety in the Malacca Straits. Rather than focussing on ‘security’ in the waterway, the user-states have begun to direct their resources to improve navigational safety. The rationale is that this would reduce the vulnerability of shipping and other maritime activity in the waterway, and thereby itself contribute to security. There may be fundamental differences in the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean, notably the fact that much of the Straits are territorial waters of the three countries bordering the waterway. Notwithstanding, there is a common factor: the sensitivities of the Straits-littorals over sovereignty issues are likely to be similar to those of many IOR-littorals. IONS could also begin with security issues involving benign role of maritime forces, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and marine pollution response. Furthermore, notwithstanding the fact that IONS is a naval initiative, the inclusion of non-naval, but pressing maritime issues would enhance its relevance and worth. These issues include development of future technologies for harnessing marine resources, sharing of hydrographic expertise towards compiling data for Legal Continental Shelf (LCS) claims (the cut-off date for countries to submit their claims to the UN is fast approaching), and formulating a regional action plan to mitigate the effects of climate change.

    And finally the most crucial question - how would IONS succeed in the light of the prevailing diversity among regional countries and varied threat perceptions? Regional diversity may not be as deep-rooted as it is projected. In this context, Admiral Arun Prakash, former Indian naval chief, aptly indicated during the IONS Seminar that the genesis of the diversity lies in the effects of the colonial era, viz. in the relatively recent past. With the increasing multi-faceted intra-regional interactions bought about by globalisation, the impediment is bound to attenuate over the years - slowly but surely. Furthermore, IONS could in its own small way, complement the IOR-ARC’s economic agenda and even contribute towards mitigating the diversity of IOR countries.
    (The views expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Indian Navy)