Post Second World War, the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region led to hegemonic states competing for ownership, power and influence in the region. The establishment of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation in 1995 was significant because there was a need for countries of the Indian Ocean to unite and not allow states from other regions to take over. In 1997, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation was transformed to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).Currently, with the latest additions to IORA, the association has 21 member states and 7 dialogue partners under its wing. The Indian Ocean, which has historically been a space of cultural and economic exchange, is the third largest ocean and serves for transportation and international trade with two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, a third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and half of the world’s container ships travelling through the region.
IORA consists of six priority areas which are maritime safety and security, disaster risk management, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, academic, science and technology cooperation and tourism and cultural exchanges. IORA holds frequent meetings concerning maritime issues with the latest meeting occurring in Indonesia where the dialogue was centered on reinforcing cooperation for security and prosperity. These meetings are necessary because they give IORA members a platform to address concerning issues such as piracy, drug and human trafficking and migration.
South Africa, a member of IORA attended the 15th Indian Ocean Rim Association of Ministers on the 23rd of October 2015 in Indonesia. Representing South Africa were the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Nomaindiya Mfeketho, and a South African delegation. Australia has Chaired IORA from the period of 2013 to 2015 after which Indonesia will Chair IORA from 2015 to 2017. Of significance for South Africa, is its expected tenure as Chair from 2017 to 2019. For South Africa, Chairing the meetings will help in strengthening relations between South Africa and IORA member states and IORA dialogue partners.
According to South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), the itinerary for the Ministerial meeting was anticipated to cover: the welcoming of Somalia as IORA’s 21st Member and Germany as the association’s 7th dialogue partner; to discuss the latest developments of IORA’s six priority areas; women economic empowerment and gender equality; the strengthening of engagements between member states and dialogue partners; the position of IORA and a discussion centered around IORA’s 20th anniversary in 2017. The progress made by IORA shows that the association is beginning to realize its full potential but there remains a substantial load of work to be done because drastic effects emanating from climate change, piracy and human trafficking will need to be conquered on the Indian Ocean.
IORA has 7 dialogue partners which are China, Egypt, France, Japan, UK, USA and the newly welcomed Germany. One of the most significant objectives of the 15th Ministerial meeting was the introduction of Germany as the 7th dialogue partner. Most of IORA’s dialogue partners are hegemonic states and that has certain implications on the objectives that IORA seeks to achieve. The increase of dialogue partners might bring conflict to the association because when it comes to decision making, countries are likely to advocate for decisions that will favor them. The question is; what do dialogue partners bring to the table, especially when taking into account that leading IORA member states are emerging powers seeking development and security?
It can be argued that the inclusion of hegemonic states as dialogue partners shifts the association’s position from a purely geographic position to a geopolitical position as the Indian Ocean’s economic importance has attracted political attention. The recent South China Sea dispute between China and the USA will bring about tension and further amplify the association’s position as geopolitical. Dialogue partners come with factors such as influence, self interest and tension which will ultimately slow down IORA’s progress. When engaging with IORA dialogue partners, IORA should stick to its mandate and not pick a side because that will create tension. All dialogue partners should have the same amount of power and be treated equally so that IORA can progress and not serve any country’s political interest.