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IORA Summit: The challenge of building a region

Next week Malcolm Turnbull will attend the first ever IORA Leaders Summit in Jakarta, marking the 20th anniversary of that regional grouping.

Zanzibar, Tanzania (Photo: Flickr/Samir Luther)
Zanzibar, Tanzania (Photo: Flickr/Samir Luther)
Published 3 Mar 2017 

Next week Malcolm Turnbull will attend the first ever IORA Leaders Summit in Jakarta, marking the 20th anniversary of that regional grouping. It will be an important statement of Australia’s strategic intent to be an active player in the Indian Ocean region.

So what is this IORA thing?

For many observers, next week’s press reports will be the first time they have heard of IORA, which stands for the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the regional grouping of some 21 Indian Ocean states. To say that IORA has been low key for the last 20 or so years of its existence is something of an understatement. But IORA pops into Australian consciousness from time to time, whenever we decide we should be getting more serious about our role in the Indian Ocean region.

Although Australia’s strategic perspective is usually fixed northwards, our interest in the Indian Ocean has waxed over the last 5 years, helped by a number of factors. Australia’s greater focus on the India relationship – within the strategic framework of the Indo-Pacific – has given us much more reason to think about that part of the world. Moreover, coming changes in the Indian Ocean balance of power, with greater roles for India and China and a relative decline in US influence, mean Australia will be able to rely less on US military dominance of the Indian Ocean. We've also had a succession of senior Australian ministers hailing from Perth, including current Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, all with an understandable interest in paying much more attention to our western flank.

Trying to build a region

So where does IORA fit in the regional picture? It was founded in the 1990s during a post-Cold War burst of enthusiasm for regionalism. Australia, one of the original sponsors, even dreamed of creating an APEC of the Indian Ocean that would facilitate trade liberalisation across the region. The unfeasability of this objective became evident pretty quickly, and the group of developing countries quickly lapsed into slumber.   

The effectiveness of IORA is hampered by many weaknesses, of which there is only space to list a few. One is the basic difficulty of creating a sense that the Indian Ocean constitutes a region rather than just an ocean. That task is not impossible (think of Australia’s amazing success in the 1980s in promoting the idea that the 'Asia Pacific' is a region, and one that includes us), but it requires some major economic and strategic drivers among relevant states for it to succeed.

Second, IORA members are economically and institutionally weak – of 21 members, only Australia and Singapore are developed. This severely hampers the implementation of decisions, and sometimes even the ability of members to attend meetings.

A third problem is that the group is less than representative of the region. IORA includes 21 littoral states, but not large states such as Pakistan, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia, or smaller eastern Indian Ocean states such as Timor Leste and Maldives. The exclusion of Pakistan, in particular, undermines efforts for regional consensus on security issues.

Despite its weaknesses, some members, including Australia, have sought to waken IORA from its slumber in recent years. Attempts to revive the group have included a focus on the opportunities presented by the 'blue economy', the empowerment of women and maritime security. The current IONA chair is Indonesia, which has set itself the goal of hosting the group’s first leaders summit.
It may not be the APEC summit, but…

So what should we expect from the Summit? The biggest deliverable will be an Indian Ocean Concord, a largely aspirational statement that draws from the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. There will also be an IORA Action Plan and an IORA Declaration on Countering Violent Extremism leading to Terrorism. Much of this may be rhetorical and symbolic, but it’s a necessary step towards real regional cooperation.

Turnbull may have agreed to attend the summit largely as a way of cementing his rapprochement with Jakarta and President Jokowi. According to recent reports, the Summit will also be attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, President Sirisena from Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Hasina from Bangladesh, and perhaps leaders of some other smaller states. Prime Minister Modi from India looks unlikely to attend. This will be a lost opportunity. India’s massive size and geographic centrality make it an essential player in IONA. Despite its claims to a leadership role in the Indian Ocean, Modi’s absence would be seen by many as India again not walking the talk.

Despite its failings, IORA remains important to Australia’s institutional engagement in the Indian Ocean region. As the only pan-regional political grouping, IORA remains an important tool for Australia’s regional engagement for both positive and defensive reasons. It is, among other things, a key forum for engagement with developing countries in our neighbourhood.

However, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved. Australia may need to prioritise greater organisational investment in IORA over short-term substantive outcomes, which in reality are more likely to be achieved on a bilateral or minilateral basis. Australia can also encourage IORA Dialogue Partners, especially countries such as Japan, whose interests are largely aligned with Australia, to take a more active role in IORA as part of a higher profile in the Indian Ocean. Active participation in regional groupings such as IORA is an important signal to our neighbours of Australia’s role as a player in the Indian Ocean.

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