The Indian Ocean Rim Initiative:A Comparative Indian and Southern African Perspective

-David Burrows


India and South Africa have been key players in the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative (IORI) from its inception, and even before Jawaharlal Nehru is on record as having discussed the commonality of the peoples of the region,2 but the concept was first seriously mooted in November 1993 by former South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roelof "Pik" Botha. He identified the IOR as an area of great mutual importance to both South Africa and India.3

In January 1995, during a visit to New Delhi, President Mandela put forward the proposal to form an Indian Ocean "trading alliance" and it was enthusiastically received. He expressed the opinion that growing business ties between South Africa and India could help shape what he termed a "trading bloc among Indian Ocean Rim nations."4 President Mandela will again be visiting India this week, from March 27-29, 1997, but this time what was but a dream only two years ago has materialised. Through hard work and determination, the concept of an Indian Ocean Rim community became a reality on March 6, 1997, with the establishment of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

While President Mandela's visit to India will cover a number of important issues, including business ties and the future of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM),5 the IOR-ARC cannot but be an issue for mutual congratulation if not for official discussion. In fact, South Africa's High Commissioner in India, Jerry Matsile, was personally involved as part of South Africa's negotiating team at the Mauritius meetings which eventually resulted in the establishment of the IOR-ARC. Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa, was also a major supporter of the initiative.

Since the New South Africa's re-entry to the international community in 1994, India and South Africa have become partners not only in issues concerning the Indian Ocean, but many others besides. Both countries, for example, are important members of the NAM, with South Africa to take over the chairmanship of this organisation in 1998.6 According to Denis Venter, India could be regarding the IOR-ARC as an alternative power base for influencing the developing world. "With the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) having lost much of its relevance in the post-Cold War world, India is not part of any other broad-ranging organisation where it can demonstrate its full potential and status."7

As the IORI sees itself as a South-South cooperation initiative,8 it fits easily into the aims of both countries with respect to the developing world and their immediate neighbours. While it is true that the presence of Australia and Singapore and even perhaps Oman in the IOR-ARC make its credentials as a pure South-South cooperation initiative a little suspect, this remains one of the primary rationales behind it.

Both countries wish to include their respective sub-regions into the initiative in some way, but their overlapping nature is proving problematic. Thus, while the name of the IOR-ARC deliberately parallels that of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), there are problems to be overcome before all the countries in SAARC could become members of the IOR-ARC.

The same is true of Southern Africa. An example is South Africa's membership of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) which imposes a common external tariff.9 While South Africa is realigning its foreign policy to recognise the importance of its African neighbours, it has to deal with the implications of this policy for its other international obligations. Originally it wished to bring all of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) into the IOR-ARC, but has recently backtracked on this issue. If this were to occur, it would bring about the anomalous situation where Namibia and Angola, situated on the Atlantic seaboard, would become members of the IOR-ARC.10

It is thus important to examine and compare Indian and Southern African perspectives on the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative in order to determine whether these are convergent or divergent. As two key states in the region, one can draw conclusions as to the long-term viability and sustainability of the IOR-ARC from this study.


India has demonstrated its commitment to the IORI right from the beginning. V.K. Grover, Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs of India had the following to say at the first official meeting of the IOR countries in Mauritius on March 29, 1995:

"India is inseparable from the Indian Ocean for more than physical or etymological reasons. We are at the heart of the Indian Ocean region and constitute the junction between its eastern and western rim. Our contribution to, and participation in, the larger Indian Ocean community has been substantial over the ages. In the present context, given the size and importance of a globalising, outward looking and dynamic economy like India, we can be a positive--if not inalienable--element of any viable Indian Ocean rim cooperation grouping."11

The Indian Ocean is not so called by chance. The Indian subcontinent dominates the world's third largest ocean and thus India has a great strategic interest in this important waterway which carries a third of the world's bulk cargo and two-thirds of its oil.12 The Indian Ocean is, however, a comparatively recent concern for India. Apart from coastal shipping, India has not traditionally been a maritime nation. It has been more concerned with continental affairs. C. Uday Bhaskar puts it as follows:

"India's determined refusal to acknowledge and realise its maritime inheritance and potential remains one of the strategic conundrums that characterise the evolution of the Indian state in the modern period. This reluctance to look south has been exacerbated by the post-1947 mind-set that compelled India to limit its security and strategic vision to the land borders on the northern and western perimeters, and to look to distant Europe and America for its trade and investment."13

Today India has built up a sizeable naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the world's fourth largest.14 As the country opens up to global trade, the trade routes running across this ocean become increasingly important and, therefore, defending them becomes a priority. The resources of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for fishing and potential future mineral exploitation will also become increasingly valuable. In terms of prestige, India with its huge population and growing economy needs to take its place as a leading Asian nation and this requires a presence in the Indian Ocean.

While India is committed to its immediate region, South Asia, there are several problems to be overcome before these states can become members of the IOR-ARC. Firstly, there is the problem of instability and political rivalry in the region. According to Talmiz Ahmad, "India could not but be aware that the region had no recent legacy of cooperation, but, on the other hand, had a long history of dissension and dispute."15

Sri Lanka, already a member of the IOR-ARC is preoccupied by the ongoing civil conflict in the north and east of the country. Pakistan and Bangladesh periodically go through periods of political or criminal unrest and India has experienced religious strife and the rise of nationalism in some of its extremities. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all to peaceful coexistence in South Asia and development of the IOR-ARC has been the ongoing tension between Pakistan and India, especially over Kashmir.

It is, therefore, extremely timely and fortunate that both countries have recently experienced changes in government which, for the time being, seem to have resulted in a warming of relations between the two countries. This has yet to bear fruits in the context of the IOR, however, with India still opposing the admittance of Pakistan into the IOR-ARC, although couching this opposition in other terms.

While even India recognises that Pakistan has a rightful claim to membership, it has advanced the very plausible and reasonable argument that expansion of membership should be gradual and incremental. Although there is still much debate over the precise definition of the region, it is generally accepted that all littoral states (and island states) may apply. This could, however, result in a relatively large number of members, even according to this limited definition.

There appears to be evidence that regional groupings which expand membership slowly are the most successful, such as the European Union Nations (EU) and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At fourteen members, the IOR-ARC is already large by international standards. Thus, there appears to be some justification for India's insistence on a phased approach to membership expansion.

On the other hand, this policy has led to the perception being created that this argument is being used solely to exclude Pakistan. This is especially so because there are as yet no strict criteria for membership. Thus, the question has been asked as to how the original seven countries involved in the initiative were picked. There do not appear to be logical reasons for their choice.16 In order to address this problem, the IOR-ARC has commissioned a working group to determine the criteria for membership, in order to make the process more transparent.

This is likely to be a long, drawn out process as many issues need to be settled such as the definition of the "region", if in fact a definable region actually exists at all, and membership questions. Should there be a maximum size and if so, what should it be and how will its members be chosen? India needs to come to terms with Pakistan's eventual admission and find ways to promote cooperation between the two countries.

India also needs to carefully assess the implications of the possible accession of Iran. If the Gulf littoral states are considered as part of the IOR, the potential number of member states increases. Iran could thus qualify and appears to be interested in membership. Both Pakistan and Iran, however, appear to be bent on bringing the whole of Central Asia in the IOR-ARC. They are specifically interested in the landlocked and resource rich states of the CIS in Central Asia. Linking these states to the Indian Ocean could give them an alternative outlet for their products from their traditional routes through Russia.

This could obviously mean a lot of additional income for the economies of Iran and Pakistan as the only two outlets to the Indian Ocean for Central Asian states. Iran is currently in the better position in this regard as it has recently expanded its road and rail links to this region. Pakistan is less fortunate in having war-torn Afghanistan between it and Central Asia. This could be one reason for the controversial purported support for the Taliban by Pakistan. In areas controlled by the Taliban, there is relative stability which has allowed the resumption of some trade.

While the accession of landlocked states to the IOR-ARC is still only under discussion, the implications of linking oil and gas rich states like Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean must be of interest to India, especially as the country is to become increasingly dependent on energy imports. According to John Cherian, "Almost all of India's crude oil imports come from the (Persian Gulf) region. The natural gas pipeline between Iran and India will become a reality (as) soon as Pakistan is also keen about it."17

Last, there is the issue of the Indian Diaspora or the perhaps more politically correct phrase "overseas Indians". In several waves over the centuries, a large number of Indians have moved away from India and settled in numerous other countries in the Indian Ocean, such as South Africa, Mauritius and Singapore. Capitalising on these links could have great benefits for India, culturally, politically and economically. While these communities no longer consider themselves part of India politically, they still feel a cultural affinity to the land of their forefathers.

These links may be exploited politically such as in the case of Mauritius with its ethnic Indian majority which traditionally maintains close links with India. In the same way that the overseas Chinese have been an economic asset to China, the overseas Indians could help to provide inroads into new markets for an increasingly internationalised Indian economy.

South Africa

South Africa faces many of the same dilemmas that India does, with respect to its region, the SADC. With its history of destabilising the former Front Line States during the apartheid era, South Africa feels an obligation to help to redress some of the damage done and to reward these countries for the support that they gave the anti-apartheid movement, often at great coast.

On a less altruistic basis, there is great comparative advantage for South Africa to expand its business interest in its immediate region, notably in products where transport costs are high. Already some South African consumer products are beginning to swamp just about all others in the region. South African companies are also heavily involved in infrastructual development in the region and South African mining companies are increasing their control of the region's mineral resources.

While this is worrisome for the other countries in the region, South Africa is at pains to try to reassure the region that it does not intend to try to dominate the region.18 Both South Africa and India share the fact that they are regional hegemons and this entails benefits as well as costs. Thus, Southern Africa occupies a unique place in South African strategy. Political stability in the region is essential to the success of the democratic process in South Africa.19 The South African economy will also be adversely affected if the Southern African region fails to develop successfully.20

South Africa cannot develop as an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty as this will only aggravate suspicions amongst its neighbours and increase political instability and refugee flows. This carries in its wake other problems such as increased crime, including drug trafficking and small arms proliferation. Thus there are real security reasons for South Africa's continued interest and participation in its sub-region and this goes some way to explaining South Africa's commitment to SADC and SACU.

On the other hand, however, in Africa there is very little spending power, while India alone has a middle class of somewhere between 70-300 million. Economic reality, therefore, pulls South Africa towards the IOR. Also the cost of rebuilding South Africa's domestic economy after the ravages of apartheid, does not leave much over for assisting the region. Thus South Africa must look for ways to benefit its own economy and if possible, simultaneously assist its entire sub-region, and the IOR-ARC could potentially achieve this. Denis Venter is of the opinion that the spillover effects of South Africa's membership of the IOR could have similar beneficial consequences for the whole of the Southern African region:

"...first, by countering South Africa's overwhelming economic dominance; second, by diversifying trade markets and altering existing trade patterns; third, by decreasing dependency on the North; fourth, by attracting investment flows; and last by enhancing sectoral cooperation in technical-functional fields."21

Already the Maputo-Mpumalanga corridor which will link the prosperous South African province of Gauteng to Maputo, via the Mpumalanga province promises much in terms of development for the two countries. As both countries are members of the IOR-ARC, this could benefit additionally from the extra trade generated by this new regional initiative.

On the other hand, there are obviously problems in trying to bring some of the landlocked states into the IOR-ARC. While Zimbabwe and even Botswana can make convincing claims as to their dependence on the Indian Ocean for trade, it would seem strange to have Namibia or Angola as members of the IOR-ARC. South Africa needs to determine how best to deal with these questions.

While it seems easy to limit the IOR-ARC to littoral states, one also needs to take into account those provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which deal with landlocked states and their right of access to the resources of the ocean. A study needs to be done to determine if there is an inherent conflict between a littoral only IOR and the UNCLOS.

South Africa is also currently in negotiations with the European Union for access to the European market, either through a Free Trade Agreement or through accession to the Lome Agreement. Here South Africa has made a commitment to SADC to negotiate on their behalf (South Africa is currently chairing SADC) and not leave them out. Mauritius is currently the newest member of SADC and is a signatory to the Lome Convention. Thus, South Africa can make use of the IOR-ARC as a collective bargaining tool for access to lucrative global markets in Europe, North America and Asia.

South Africa also has an important naval interest in the Indian Ocean. While the South African Navy has traditionally played a coastal defence role only, there are troublesome developments which require attention. The recent reports of a possible agreement between Mozambique and Iran for use of Mozambican port facilities by Iranian submarines needs further attention. This was reportedly in return for protection of Mozambican fisheries against unauthorised foreign fishing trawlers.

Mozambique obviously has a need for protection of its fisheries resources and South Africa could possibly facilitate a solution through SADC. This raises the thorny issue of security in the Indian Ocean. While the IOR-ARC is clearly primarily an economic initiative, the issue of security also needs to be addressed if such future issues are to be adequately addressed.

A suggestion has been made by P.J. Botha that a separate security body, perhaps called the Indian Ocean Regional Forum (IORF) should be created using the model of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This would prevent security dilemmas from preventing progress on economic issues, yet address the real problems of security in the Indian Ocean.22


The main difference between the Southern African and Indian perspective on the IOR-ARC is on the membership issue. While South Africa and Australia are in favour of increasing membership quickly, either for economic or political reasons, India is against this. India prefers a gradual, phased approach which appears to be more logical, but needs to be made more transparent, hopefully through a set of membership criteria.

On the other major issue of security, India and South Africa seem to agree on wanting to keep the IOR-ARC devoted to economics. Australia wishes to deal with these controversial issues in the IOR-ARC. A compromise could be P.J. Botha's idea to create a separate institution, the Indian Ocean Regional Forum to deal with these problems, as they arise, without jeopardising the progress made on economic issues in the IOR-ARC.

There seems to be consensus on most other issues, although there are many practical problems to be addressed before the IOR-ARC can bear fruit for South African and Indian business people. Trade liberalisation is likely to be an area of future dispute as South Africa's textile industry is extremely vulnerable to South Asia's huge, low cost producers. This fear, coupled with lack of policy direction from the government could endanger South Africa's continued role in the initiative.

While the IOR-ARC concept still seems to enjoy widespread support, as witnessed by the large number of states clamouring for membership, some of these fundamental issues need to be addressed in order to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the initative. India and South Africa, despite occasional differences of opinion, will remain major players in this exciting new regional organisation.



1. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of SAIIA.

2. Talmiz Ahmad, "A History of the Indian Ocean Rim" in South Africa and the Indian Ocean Rim: Obstacles and Opportunities, (Foundation for Global Dialogue) 1995, p. 1.

3. Gwyn Campbell and Mario Scerri, "The Prospects for an Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) Economic Association," The South African Journal of International Affairs, vol. 2, no. 2, Winter 1995, p. 11.

4. Denis Venter, "The Indian Ocean Rim Initiative: A Vehicle for South-South Cooperation," a paper distributed at the Indian Ocean Research Network (IORN) meeting in Durban, March 10-11, 1997, p. 1.

5. "Mandela Set for Official Visit to India," Business Day, March 13, 1997.

6. Ibid.

7. Venter, n. 4, p. 11.

8. Ibid., p. 9.

9. Ibid., p. 8.

10. Mfundo Nkuhlu, "South Africa and the Concept of the Indian Ocean Rim: A Strategic, Political and Economic Analysis," in South Africa and the Indian Ocean Rim: Obstacles and Opportunities, (Foundation for Global Dialogue, 1995) p. 17.

11. Hari Sharan Chhabra, "Economic Cooperation: The Indian Ocean Rim Concept," India Digest, vol. 2/96, February/March 1996, p. 7.

12. "India in IOR-ARC: Towards a New Partnership in the Indian Ocean Rim," a booklet distributed by the Indian delegation at the launch of the IOR-ARC in Mauritius on March 6, 1997.

13. C. Uday Bhaskar, "Policy for the Indian Ocean," India Digest, vol. 2/96, February/March 1996, p. 23.

14. Campbell and Scerri, n. 3, p. 20.

15. Ahmad, n. 2, p. 1.

16. Nkuhlu, n. 10, p. 15.

17. John Cherian, "Coming Together, Slowly," India Digest, vol. 2/96, February/March 1996, p. 18.

18. Campbell and Scerri, n. 3, p. 24.

19. Ibid., p. 25.

20. Venter, n. 4, p. 8.

21. Ibid., p. 9.

22. P.J. Botha, "Security and Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Rim."