The Indian Ocean region (IOR) comprises the forty-seven countries in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australasia that share the coastal waters of the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is the third largest world ocean, covering about 20 percent of the earth’s water surface.
The region has the oldest heritage of international exchange in the world. The earliest urban civilizations—in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf littoral, and South Asia—were linked by seaborne commerce. In fact, early civilizations in Mesopotamia (Sumer), ancient Egypt, and the Indus Valley have developed around the Indian Ocean. For some four thousand years, the IOR was the scene of a thriving network of trade and people-to-people links. However, with the arrival of the European powers in the late fifteenth century—first Portuguese and later Dutch, French, and British—this largely self-sustained and tightly interwoven economic, political, and cultural region was disrupted. Indian Ocean native economies were reshuffled to meet extra regional imperatives, often as suppliers of raw materials for the industrialized areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The Portuguese established a chain of fortified coastal settlements backed by regular naval patrols, which allowed them to gradually eliminate many rivals and enforce a semi monopoly in the spice trade in the region. Quickly, the Dutch, through the Dutch East India Company (1602–1798), and then the English, through the English East India Company (1600–1874), attempted to replace the monopoly of the Portuguese with a monopoly of their own.
Later, during World War I (1914–1918),World War II (1939– 1945), and the cold war, the IOR was again an arena where great powers competed over resources and interests. This, coupled with South Africa’s isolation during apartheid, India’s inward-looking policies, and Australia’s prioritization of links with East Asia and across the Pacific, created conditions that made trade investment and economic cooperation links in the region remain thin and sporadic.
Since the mid-1990s, countries belonging to the IOR have been mustering the confidence to invert their fragmented past. The attainment of this objective has been facilitated by the end of the cold war, the national economic reforms of some leading countries such as India, and the reengagement of South Africa as an important democratic state and a key regional player. This has led some countries belonging to the IOR to create trade linkages through the establishment of regional trade agreements. Besides establishing memberships in more local regional arrangements such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the Southern African Development Community, IOR countries have attempted to establish trade arrangements that partially cross the Indian Ocean, including the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
IOR-ARC was launched in Mauritius in 1997. The association comprises eighteen member states: Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Egypt, Japan, China, France, and the United Kingdom are dialogue partners. Seychelles withdrew its IOR-ARC membership on July 1, 2003. The association aims to broaden cooperation among member countries in investment, tourism, construction, trade, training, environment protection, renewable energy, and agriculture. In 2009, member countries decided to establish the International Renewable Energy Agency in the United Arab Emirates. The association also includes bodies known as the Indian Ocean Rim Business Forum and the Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group. Although the charter of the organization does not provide it with an explicit mandate to engage with security issues, over the years member states have aimed to achieve regional security and greater welfare through bilateral and multilateral relations and by strengthening the regional alliances within the framework of South-South cooperation, that is, between the developing countries of the global South.
The idea of the BIMSTEC regional cooperation project was first brought up by Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand at a meeting in Bangkok in June 1997.The aims of BIMSTEC are to create an enabling environment for rapid economic development, accelerate social progress in the subregion, and promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest. In January 2004, member countries agreed on a framework to implement a free trade agreement in trade in goods. Currently, the members of the organization are Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan, and Nepal. The regional group attempts to serve as a bridge between the five South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Nepal) and two Association of Southeast Asian Nations states (Myanmar and Thailand), bringing institutional cohesion to one of the most diverse regions of the world.
The IOR is a region of vast political, cultural, and economic diversity, which has historically been united by processes of cultural interchange. It is the only major portion of the globe where all of the world’s great religions are represented. But in modern times the region has been marked by great disparities in economic development and is the location of some of the world’s most intractable conflicts and political disputes. However, the growth of regional cooperation and integration, embodied in IOR-ARC and BIMSTEC, might serve as an alternative mode of governance to ensure regional peace and economic development.
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- Chaudhuri, K. N. Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Copley, Gregory. “New Strategic Equation in the Indian Ocean.” Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy 25 (April 1997): 20–21.