For the first time since its formal establishment in 1997, the leaders of the 21-member Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) will hold their summit in Jakarta today. The leaders are expected to come up with concrete action plans to develop the world’s third-largest ocean, after the Pacific and the Atlantic, to follow the much earlier achievements of other seaways.
IORA, which is headquartered in Mauritius, provides vast opportunities to its members from Asia, Africa and Australia to pursue mutually beneficial cooperation despite the group’s loose status. The leaders need to avoid rapid membership expansion unless they are sure such a policy would bring about much more positive results. The experience of other regional organizations shows that once leaders become trapped in an ambitious goal, they simply produce statements and documents.
The Indian Ocean is relatively little known and the least explored, compared to the two larger oceans. It is also regarded as distant, even for the people of Indonesia, whose archipelagic state lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans. Indonesia is more Pacific-oriented in terms of economy, security and diplomacy, as evident in its participation in international groupings, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
Geographically, the United States and China do not belong to this region. And it is likely one of the key reasons why this area does not get major attention in global politics. However, China is very keen to get access to the Indian Ocean region and has made several efforts to realize its goal through Myanmar and Pakistan, which are not members of the IORA.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and South African President Jacob Zuma are among leaders who will share their vision with their colleagues at today’s summit. Unfortunately, India as the largest member of the non-binding organization is only represented by a senior Indian official, and not Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
This summit will also be an ideal opportunity for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to expand his global maritime fulcrum doctrine, including through the acceleration of his flagship maritime highway interconnection program. So far his ambitious plan has been unable to change the game in the movement of goods by sea that would otherwise significantly reduce transportation costs.
The Indian Ocean is strategically remarkable. International media organizations and think tanks have estimated that 40 percent of the world’s offshore oil is produced in the region. It also serves as a crossroads for international shipping traffic, connecting the Northern Atlantic and Asia-Pacific regions.
IORA leaders are set to issue the Jakarta Concord. But such a joint statement is just the beginning of a much more complicated and bumpy road to reach the group’s common goals. The IORA will only be useful for its stakeholders when it is capable of accelerating their peoples’ development.
There will be no shortcut to realizing the leaders’ ambitions. Jakarta will at least produce a basic foundation to enhance cooperation among IORA members.