India’s attempts to consolidate engagements in the Western Indian Ocean received boost after the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) or Commission de l'Océan Indien (COI) in French, an exclusive island states’ grouping,accepted its application to be an Observer. This intergovernmental organisation comprises Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion (French territory) and Seychelles as the permanent members. The five Observers are China (2016), European Union (2017), International organization of Francophonie (2017), and Malta (2017); Japan and the United Nations have joined the IOC as Observers along with India in March 2020.
New Delhi’s recent politico-diplomatic engagementswith the IOC countries are marked by visit of Vice President Venkaiah Naidu to Comoros in October 2019 and in March 2018President Ram Nath Kovind visitedMauritius and Madagascar. Earlier, President Danny Faure of Seychelles visited New Delhi in June 2018 and the Press Release noted that both countries has a ‘shared responsibility’ to ‘ensure collective maritime security of our EEZ’.
Likewise, the state visit to India by French president Emmanuel Macron in March 2018had set in motion enhanced engagementbetween the two countries. The ‘Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region’lays emphasis on maritime safety and security, maritime domain awareness,maritime capacity building and enhanced coordination in regional/international fora in the region’. Similarly, the ‘Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the Republic of France for the provision of reciprocal logistics support between their Armed Forces’enable reciprocal access and use of facilities by Indian and French armed forces.
The IOC is a young intergovernmental organization. It was setup in 1982 and institutionalised in 1984 by the Victoria Agreement. The member countries are quite disparate in their economic potentialbut share similar geography, historical developments and demographic relationships. They face a number of common challenges that emerge from asymmetric threats, climate change, natural disasters, sea level rise, food, water, energy security, etc. These pose wide and deepening impact on the socio-economic fabric of the society. Besides these are transnational in nature and cut across boundaries and societies.
India has demonstrated a collaborative approach to address many of these challenges and regional cooperation through capacity building has been its mantra. As a proactive member of the IORA, it has spearheaded a number of initiatives that have found resonance not only in the region but also far and wide.
There is ample evidence of New Delhi’s commitment tohelp IOC member states through maritime domain awareness.It is a common sight to see Indian Navy ships operate in the western Indian Ocean and make ports calls in Mauritius, Seychelles, Reunion Island and more recently to Madagascar to deliver humanitarian aid after it was hit by a Cyclone and to Comoros Islands on a goodwill visit.
Likewise, Indian Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) operate out of the facilities in these countries. During its recent deployment, an Indian Navy P-8I MPA landed in Reunion Island to train with the French Air Force and Navy operating from FAZSOI (forces armées de la zone sud de l’océan Indien in French) located north of the Reunion island.
Among the IOC member states, the India-France engagement merits attention. Both sides signed the White Shipping agreementwhich led to the appointment of a French liaison officer at the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurugram. Both sides have also agreed to coordinate their action at the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to counter piracy and maritime trafficking operations in the Southern Indian Ocean. France can be expected to proactively engage India during its Chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2020 to 2022.
It is useful to mention that Indian(Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO))and French space agencies (Centre national d'études spatiales or the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES)) signed an agreement to develop launch a constellation of satellites capable of carrying AIS, radar and optical remote-sensing instruments to monitorships in the Indian Ocean.
Similarly, both sides plan collaboration in marine science research (MSR) for a ‘better understanding of oceans, including the Indian Ocean’. MSR is important for development of Blue Economy, preserving biodiversity and responding to impacts of climate change on IOC member states.
Another important facet of CIO member states’ cooperation with India is about infrastructure developmentin the Indian Ocean. In 2019, leaders of Indiaand IOC member states met at the ‘Choose La Reunion' business meet to explore economic and development partnership.
Finally, New Delhi’s admission to the IOC is an opportunity for maritime capacity building of Comoros and Madagascar (LeastDeveloped Countries), and Mauritius and Seychelles (MiddleIncome Countries). And close cooperation with France (through Reunion Island) is perhaps the best way to lead issues such as maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.