Indian Ocean Commission

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Context: India was recently accepted as an observer in the Indian Ocean Commission, getting a seat at the table of the organization that handles maritime governance in the western Indian Ocean.

Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.
Mains: GS II-

  • Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.
  • Important International institutions, agencies, and fora- their structure, mandate.

Indian Ocean Commission

  • The Indian Ocean Commission is an intergovernmental organization that was created in 1982 at Port Louis, Mauritius and institutionalized in 1984 by the Victoria Agreement in Seychelles.
  • The COI is composed of five African Indian Ocean nations: Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion (an overseas region of France), and Seychelles.

  • These five islands share geographic proximity, historical and demographic relationships, natural resources and common development issues.
  • Aims and Objectives: The COI works on four pillars which have been adopted in 2005 by the Summit of Heads of States:
    1. Political and diplomatic cooperation,
    2. Economic and commercial cooperation
    3. Sustainable development in a globalization context, improving the living conditions of the populations, cooperation in the field of agriculture, maritime fishing, and the conservation of resources and ecosystems
    4. Strengthening of the regional cultural identity, cooperation in cultural, scientific, technical, educational and judicial fields.
  • Being an organization regrouping only island states, the IOC has usually championed the cause of small island states in regional and international fora.
    • The original ideas were to encourage trade and tourism.
    • Recently, cooperation has focused on marine conservation and fisheries management.
    • The IOC has funded a number of regional and national conservation and alternative livelihood projects through ReCoMAP, Regional Programme for the Sustainable Management of the Coastal Zones of the Countries of the Indian Ocean (PROGECO in French).
    • This project ended in 2011.
      An example of these projects is projected to catalyze the development of sea cucumber and seaweed aquaculture in South West Madagascar with the NGOs, Transmad, Blue Ventures, and Madagascar Holothuria.
  • Administration:
    • The Commission has a Secretariat which is located in Mauritius and headed by a Secretary-General.
    • Political and strategic orientations of the organization are under the responsibility of the Council of Ministers which meets annually.
    • The organization also has a system of rotating the presidency of each Member State.
    • The highest level of the organization's structure is the Summit of Heads of States.

How did India achieve its observer status in IOC?

  • On March 6, 2020, India joined the Indian Ocean Commission as the fifth observer.
  • The decision, as per sources, was made at a meeting of the IOC council of ministers in Seychelles.
  • India had apparently made the application to join as an observer of the organization last month.
  • With the decision, India will join China, which was made an observer in 2016, as well as the “International Organisation of the Francophonie” or the 54-nation French-speaking collective, the European Union (EU) and Malta, which were all admitted in 2017. 
  • Not surprisingly, due to their common history, the group has largely been dominated by France, as all the island states are predominately Francophone with a common colonial history.
  • In fact, the 2018 joint strategic vision for India-France cooperation in the Indian Ocean region– released during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron– specifically mentions that France would support India’s entry in the IOC as an observer.
  • In return, India had supported a “greater role” for France in the bigger Indian Ocean Rim Association.
    • However, while France is already an IORA dialogue partner, obtaining membership via its overseas Indian territories has proved to be a bridge too far, with opposition from its former colonial states.
  • As per officials, India’s observer status in IOC is significant as it institutionalizes a larger engagement in the south-western Indian ocean which has increased in the last couple of years.
  • In 2018, Ram Nath Kovind visited Madagascar became the first Indian President to visit Madagascar.
  • Later, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited Comoros in October 2019.
  • In December last year, the ministry of external affairs rejigged its internal divisions to have a more cohesive engagement with institutions and countries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
    • The IOR division previously had the responsibility to coordinate bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
    • This division was further expanded westwards to include Madagascar and Comoros through a notification on December 16.
  • Earlier in 2019, the MEA got a brand-new Indo-Pacific division to reflect the priority given to the region and bring about a sense of coherence within its various regions.
    • The division also looked after the multilateral linkages in the region and would likely look after the enhanced IOC portfolio.

Significance for India

  • The decision to join the IOC marks a part of the government’s push for greater salience in the whole Indian Ocean Region (IOR), including what is called the Western or African Indian Ocean.
  • India will get an official foothold in a premier regional institution in the western Indian Ocean, boosting engagement with islands in this part of the Indian Ocean.
  • These island nations are increasingly important for India’s strategic outreach as part of its Indo-Pacific policy.
  • This move would enhance ties with France which is the strong global power in the western Indian Ocean.
  • It lends depth to India’s SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) policy unveiled by PM Modi in 2015.
  • The move, India hopes, would lead to greater security cooperation with countries in East Africa.
  •  The IOC is also significant for its geographical location, as the islands sit around a “key choke point” in the Indian Ocean- the Mozambique Channel. 
  • This channel is being watched more closely as the U.S.­Iran tensions threaten the Strait of Hormuz. 
  • Given China’s growing presence in the region, India hopes to increase its naval presence and gain support for its maritime projects across the Indo Pacific, beginning at East African shores.  
  • It can also be seen as a deepening strategic partnership with France as well as its expanding ties with the Vanilla Islands.

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