The first quarter of the 21st century has been characterized as a “maritime era,” reminiscent of Europe’s Age of Discovery when explorers ventured into new territories. History seems to be repeating itself as the world increasingly focuses on the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and its connection to the Indo-Pacific region (IPR), which has become a geopolitical reality. Regional cooperation is becoming increasingly vital in addressing shared challenges and fostering economic growth in today’s interconnected world. Two prominent regional organizations, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), have been at the forefront of regional collaboration.
IORA: Advancing Maritime and Economic Cooperation
The significance of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) cannot be underestimated. Recently, IORA collaborated with the Australian government to host academics and students from six member states in Mauritius. The goal was to raise awareness of IORA’s role and facilitate the exchange of perspectives on the organization. Mauritius, as the host of IORA’s headquarters, provided an ideal setting for an in-person workshop. It is often underestimated that some of the world’s fastest-growing economies are located in the IORA region. For instance, India and Bangladesh are growth centers in South Asia, and Indonesia has witnessed remarkable economic growth in Southeast Asia.
What makes IORA unique is its interregional cooperation that spans three continents. Australia, positioned at the heart of the Pacific Ocean, touches the easternmost corner of the Indian Ocean, creating a connected body of water between the two oceans. IORA encompasses several sub-regions that traverse East Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. IORA’s strength lies in its member states’ growth potential. Bangladesh and India, for instance, has the potential to become the IT hub of the region, while Indonesia can share its development experiences, particularly in natural resource management, with other IORA members. Collaboration among member states can lead to a transformative and collaborative approach, fostering a sense of regional identity with IORA at its core.
Bangladesh, with its development-oriented leadership, aims to establish effective cooperation within IORA. It proposed laying the development-oriented foundation of the organization, initially known as the Dhaka Development Initiative and later reframed as the IORA Development Initiative. The troika-based governance structure of IORA means that implementing this initiative may require collaboration with upcoming chairs, such as Sri Lanka, to refine and implement the concepts set by the initiative.
Moreover, IORA’s network includes five G20 members, with nine G20 members as dialogue partners. This provides significant access for IORA member states to the G20 forum. In an era of global strategic competition, the ability to engage in economic negotiations is crucial for a nation’s development. The 21st century has shown that countries have multiple options and trading partners, and traditional categorizations of power based solely on defense capabilities have evolved.
Several countries have emerged as “middle powers,” and their role in cooperative and collaborative growth is vital. Growth should be inclusive and shared among nations.
IORA has prioritized enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, fostering cooperation among member states to combat piracy, illegal fishing, and other maritime threats. These initiatives aim to create a safer maritime environment for trade and navigation. Also, IORA is actively promoting the blue economy, recognizing the vast potential of ocean resources. Member states are working together to harness sustainable ocean-related industries such as fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism, with the goal of stimulating economic growth and job creation. Moreover, recent developments indicate a growing commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment within IORA. Initiatives focusing on women’s participation in maritime and economic activities aim to create more inclusive and equitable societies.
BIMSTEC: Strengthening Economic Integration and Connectivity
BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, places the sector previously known as “Transport and Communication” at the forefront of its seven key sectors of cooperation since its establishment in 1997. Transport connectivity has consistently been recognized as a pivotal element by member states, highlighting its critical role in regional cooperation and integration to stimulate economic growth and social development. A well-developed and interconnected transport network is seen as essential for fully harnessing the benefits of a free trade area. This encompasses fostering trade and investment, as well as promoting collaboration in areas like tourism, people-to-people engagement, and cultural exchange.
The execution of activities within the Connectivity sector is overseen by the BIMSTEC Transport Connectivity Working Group (BTCWG). Furthermore, two other BIMSTEC Working Groups have been established with the primary objectives of negotiating the draft text of the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the draft text of the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement. These agreements are instrumental in regulating the movement of passengers, personal vehicles, and cargo among BIMSTEC Member States.
The BIMSTEC Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, spanning from 2018 to 2028 and supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), presents a comprehensive 10-year strategy and action plan. This plan places a strong emphasis on enhancing transport linkages within the sub-region and encompasses various facets of connectivity, including roads, railways, ports, inland waterways, civil aviation, multimodal and intermodal transport, trade facilitation, and human resource development in the connectivity sector.
In addition to improving physical connectivity, BIMSTEC is actively working towards deepening economic integration among its member states. Ongoing efforts focus on reducing trade barriers, streamlining customs procedures, and promoting intra-regional trade. These initiatives are gaining momentum and are expected to drive economic growth and alleviate poverty within the region.
Connectivity remains central to BIMSTEC’s agenda, encompassing both physical infrastructure and digital dimensions. Recent initiatives aim to enhance transport infrastructure, improve energy connectivity, and promote digital connectivity, all of which contribute to facilitating smoother trade and fostering greater people-to-people interactions.
Recognizing the evolving security challenges in the region, BIMSTEC has intensified its collaboration in counterterrorism and security domains. Member states actively exchange intelligence and best practices to address common threats, thereby ensuring regional stability and security.
Firstly, the area has seen the emergence of many member nations in both IORA and BIMSTEC, including as India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, who have shown significant economic growth within their respective regions. The prevailing economic dynamism is serving as a catalyst for the advancement of regional cooperation endeavours.
Besides, the distinctive advantage of IORA is its interregional collaboration, including three continents, namely East Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The presence of diverse perspectives and backgrounds offers valuable prospects for cooperation and collective growth.
Also, the suggestion put out by Bangladesh to create the IORA Development Initiative underscores a prevailing inclination towards development-oriented strategies within the organisation. These projects aim to provide a robust framework for achieving long-term and environmentally responsible economic development.
Thirdly, the network of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) encompasses five member nations of the G20, hence giving member government’s substantial access to the G20 conference. This facilitates their capacity to participate in crucial economic debates and discussions.
Fourthly, the redefinition of power dynamics is occurring in the context of developing global power dynamics, where conventional classifications primarily based on defence capabilities are being revaluated. Middle powers within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) assume crucial responsibilities in promoting collaborative and all-encompassing development.
Fifthly, the focus on marine security within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) has seen a growing emphasis, as member governments engage in collaborative efforts to address issues such as piracy, illicit fishing, and other forms of maritime threats. The primary objective of this initiative is to provide a more secure marine setting conducive to the facilitation of commerce and navigation.
Sixthly, the promotion of the blue economy is being vigorously pursued by member governments of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), who acknowledge the considerable potential of oceanic resources. Efforts in the domains of fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism aim to foster economic expansion and facilitate the generation of employment opportunities.
Lastly, recent developments within the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) demonstrate an increasing dedication to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Efforts are being directed at enhancing the involvement of women in marine and economic endeavours with the aim of fostering greater inclusivity throughout communities. The emphasis placed by BIMSTEC on transport connectivity and economic integration remains important. Efforts aimed at enhancing physical and digital connections, mitigating trade obstacles, and optimising customs processes are gaining traction and have the potential to stimulate economic development within the area.
To summarize, both IORA and BIMSTEC hold pivotal roles in bolstering regional cooperation within the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal regions. Recent developments underscore a growing commitment to addressing common challenges, notably in maritime security and economic integration, while placing a strong emphasis on inclusivity and gender equality. These regional organizations are poised to make significant contributions to enhanced stability, prosperity, and connectivity in their respective regions. Importantly, the evolving dynamics of regional collaboration in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal regions emphasize the critical importance of economic advancement, improved connectivity, and heightened security in shaping the future of these institutions and the nations they represent.
[Image (cropped) by Uwe Dedering, via Wikimedia Commons]
S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Associate at the Centre for Bangladesh and global affairs (CBGA). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.