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Dhaka Tribune

Building ‘blue resilience’ through the IORA

The importance of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) cannot be overstated. As its current chair, the development-oriented leadership of Bangladesh is keen on creating a solid and effective cooperation within it

Update : 01 Mar 2023, 02:12 PM

The first quarter of the 21st century, so far, can safely be termed as a “maritime quarter” of the century, the likening of which can be found during the Age of Discovery for Europe that ventured out to different corners of the world. 

As history repeats itself, the world seems to be coming to the region of the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and tying between the two massive water bodies -- toward the Indo-Pacific region (IPR) as well, which is now firmly grounded as a geopolitical reality. 

It is in this context, the importance of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) cannot be overstated. Despite being one of the few multilateral organizations in the IOR, knowledge on IORA is quite limited. As an academic co-coordinator from Bangladesh, and a student participant from Australia, we had the opportunity to participate in an IORA-organized initiative. 

In collaboration with the Australian government, IORA hosted a number of academics and students from six member-states in Mauritius. This aimed to raise awareness of IORA's role, and to exchange perspectives on the organization. 

As the host nation of IORA's headquarters, Mauritius was ideal for the conduction of an in-person workshop. Further, it presented the invaluable opportunity to connect directly with Secretary-General Salman Al Farisi, during which he commended Bangladesh on its fruitful chairship of IORA from 2021-2023. 

He pointed out that it is often underrated or even unrecognized that some of the fastest growing economies are located in the IORA region. In South Asia, for example, India and Bangladesh are the growth centres. In the region of Southeast Asia, Indonesia's level of economic growth is phenomenal. 

The uniqueness of IORA lies in the nature of its interregional cooperation. The depth of interregional breadth and diversity is often overlooked, which includes countries of three continents. Australia, being located at the centre of the Pacific Ocean, touches the eastern-most corner of the Indian Ocean, making this space as a connected body of water between the two oceans. 

Similarly, IORA hosts a number of sub-regions traversing through two other continents -- East Africa, Southern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. 

IORA has a natural strength to grow from within, thanks to the growth spurt of its member states. 

India, for example, has the potential to emerge as the IT hub of the region. Indonesia can share and disseminate its development experiences, especially in the areas of management of natural resources, which can be of interest for the others in IORA. 

It must be appreciated that members of IORA have something to offer to each other in a transformative and collaborative manner. This additionally may assist in the creation of regional identity, with IORA at its core.

The development-oriented leadership of Bangladesh is keen on creating a solid and effective cooperation within IORA. Bangladesh proposed laying of the development-oriented foundation of the organization, initially known as the Dhaka Development Initiative and later reframed as IORA Development Initiative. 

The nature of IORA's troika-based governance mechanisms means that Bangladesh may not have the time liberties necessary to implement this initiative. However, the upcoming chairing by Sri Lanka shall have the opportunity to further refine and implement the concepts set by the initiative. 

In this, Bangladesh shall continue to play a key role. Bangladesh's other unique contribution to IORA is to bring the climate agenda on the table. As IORA is run on identifying its priority and focus areas, where so far six issues are identified, the introduction of climate change issues provides Bangladesh with a leadership edge.

IORA is now reviewing its achievements in the past 25 years of its existence. Tied with this is the strategic review of the organization for the next 25 years and laying out the foundation for the future, where Bangladesh has played a key role.

States are often compromised by their own perceptions about themselves. The IORA is home to a number of rising and established middle powers. Reflecting on his own country, Indonesia, the secretary general considered the following: “We are too shy to say that we are a big power and that is an Asean way of thinking, although in reality we are seen as a big power by others.” 

The concept of “power” is an elusive one when it comes to international politics. Size is not always a measure of being considered as a big or a small power. Rather, the Secretary General pointed out that “power” can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation with the others and this type of power can be termed as “cooperative power.” 

Member states of IORA must promote themselves as being part of a strong IORA network, which would provide an edge to assert their economic power. 

The IORA network involves five members of the G20, and nine G20 members are dialogue partners. This provides enormous accessibility for the member states of IORA to the G20 forum. 

In today's age of global strategic contestations, one must not forget that the skill to make economic negotiation is key to one's own development. The 21st century shows that countries have multiple options and trading partners and cannot be taken for granted like the way they were in the previous century. 

Countries are emerging as agenda-setters, where they recognize themselves as a “big” or a “small” power. The concept of power has moved beyond being categorized on the basis of strengths in defense areas only. 

A number of countries have now emerged as “middle powers” but it is always up to them on how they manage this role in a more cooperative and collaborative manner. Growth has to be “together.”

The knowledge of IORA must be widely shared and disseminated. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) in Bangladesh works as the focal point of IORA, for a wider recognition, the news of IORA must travel from the centre to the periphery. 

The secretary general cited an example of how Indonesia held 42 lectures on IORA in different universities in different parts of the country to make IORA known. In the maritime age of today, IORA is increasingly being seen as a focal point to facilitate cooperation and collaboration. IORA's visibility must travel across the country through increased participation of students, who are the future of humanity.

Lailufar Yasmin is Professor and Chairperson of the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at [email protected]. Xavier Lachlan So is an undergraduate student of the Department of Humanities and Department of Business and Law, from Curtin University, Australia. He is the current president of the Curtin International Relations Society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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