Indian Ocean: “Open Regionalism” or Naked Militarism?

There were more defence and security analysts from think tank organisations than trade and business representatives. The Australian High Commissioner to India who inaugurated the conference did not try to hide behind any faade when she stated the Indian Ocean regional was strategically important to Australia as it carried over 90 percent of the countrys trade cargo and that Australia would like the US to be involved in the regional organisation, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC), for strategic defence reasons. The IOR-ARC then, becomes yet another regional organisation based on a strange geography.

Conjunction in grammar created a new geographical rationale. The geographical rationale gave APEC the appearance of a natural alliance of states that were otherwise as far apart as the ends of the earth in the minds of people. It enabled the Queens family of nations or the imperial alliance of settler states, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to rationalise their presence and their aspirations in the Asian region that did not otherwise have any natural affinity, other than an extended colonial history.

In the politics of oceans and the ocean states the nexus between the flag and the trade had been much more explicit and straightforward. Thus, the impetus behind the idea of an economic alliance of the states on the rim of the Pacific Ocean was driven as much by strategic military interests following the US debacle in Vietnam and the war in Cambodia, as by markets and regional trade alliances. Trade continues to be the faade behind which strategic defence alliances are thrashed out.

Even as APEC remains trapped in its own internal contradictions and resisted by people of the region as evidenced by the persistence of peoples forums on APEC, yet another geography is under construction, this time around the Indian Ocean Rim. Since 1994 efforts are on to build yet another regional organization: the IOR-ARC.

The UK and France have legal claims in the region by virtue of the small islands they control on the Indian Ocean for strategic military reasons. The most important of these is the military base in Diego Gracia that forms part of the British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT). It was leased to the US after evicting the native inhabitants of the islands.

The dictum, flag follows trade, has always been explicit in the states around the Indian Ocean, where naval presence in the ocean became strategically important in the colonial venture. British naval control of the Indian Ocean, ostensibly to safeguard her merchant vessels, has played a historical role in the colonisation of the worlds peoples because of the strategic position of the Indian Ocean between Africa, Asia and the Middle East and the lines of communication is provided with the settler states of Australia and New Zealand in the Southern hemisphere. The New World Order under the UN umbrella at the end of World War II saw formal decolonisation.

However, as the extended imperial histories of the region shows, military and trade interests must go hand in hand. What differentiates the IOR-ARC from other earlier regional organizations is that trade and business appears less interested in the region. Perhaps that explains in part why the regional organization has not taken off in the same way as some others.

The Indian Ocean is important to the US, Europe and Japan who, according to Prof. V.S. Sheth of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Mumbai, import 25%, 76% and 70% respectively of their crude oil from the region and depend on it for 50 different strategic materials like manganese, cobalt, titanium, chromium, platinum, tin, nickel, iron, lead and copper. However the perceived threats to their interests in the region come from the poor of the region that manifests as political instability in the states. The IOR-ARC was thus an idea that could not take off because businesses were not interested in the poor and the strategic military interests could not find a faade to hide behind. September 11 has changed all this.

The IOR-ARC was conceptualised as a tripartite organization that was to include governments, academics and business along the lines of APEC. However as participants in the Chandigarh conference pointed out, IOR-ARC lacked second track participation which was attributed to lack of vision, i.e. lack of the ideological premises for the grouping of nations: conceptual tools that could conceal and fetishise the trade-military interests and re-envision it in a form that becomes acceptable to the wider society, within and outside the region.

The baton of democracy, human rights and rule of law is difficult to wield in a region where the states are not averse to the big Western powers entirely and where colonisation has modelled the institutions within the states along the lines of British and French models. Unlike the Asian Tigers in APEC, the economies of the region do not form part of the new post-war divisions of labour that tie them to globally integrated commodity production chains.

September 11 is manna from the heavens for the IOR-ARC in search of a vision. The fight against terrorism provides IOR-ARC the vision, a rationale for open militarism in the region. Of course, this directly contradicts the 1971 UN resolution declaring the Indian Ocean a zone of peace.

For these very reasons, the IOR-ARC poses some real challenges to the so-called civil society organizations and NGOs everywhere. APEC, NAFTA, EU, SAARC, SADC were easy. The groupings were couched in economic language of trade and economics and the challenge to the regionalism were equally couched in economic conceptions of poverty and economic deprivation. It was articulated in the language of the dollar.

Poverty and economic handouts is one thing, imperialism quite another. The openly militarist overtones of IOR-ARC makes it difficult for civil society groups to brush aside the trade-flag nexus and the historical memories that it rekindles. It will be interesting, therefore, to watch the extent to which the IOR-ARC excites the imaginations of NGOs and civil society organizations, especially in the West.

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