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September 16, 2015



IONS-strengthening seafarers’ camaraderie

In the maritime environments of 21st century, oceans are coming under increasingly sharp focus as new power centers emerge due to nation states extending influence beyond their shores, which is often at odds with dynamics of global politics. This is a cause for concern for many countries since oceans and seas are generally less regulated as compared to land masses a result of which maritime crimes such as piracy, gun-running, illegal immigration; smuggling and flight of capital are on the rise.
For much of the time during last one hundred years, influence of western naval powers remained dominant in the Indian Ocean while Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries remained narrowly concerned with their individualistic maritime problems mostly related to delineation of maritime boundaries and fishing rights.
With ebbing of influence of major western naval powers in the region, and growing importance of Indian Ocean to international trade, there is a surge of unusual extra-regional interest as exemplified by Germany’s recent hosting of a conference in Berlin to explore possibilities of co-operation to overcome challenges faced by Indian Ocean littoral states. This interest is clearly motivated by a view that Indian Ocean is seen as trade and energy highway of this century and is therefore in everyone’s interest that it remains calm and peaceful for collective good of everyone.
One such challenge is the asymmetry in the size and capabilities of IOR nations, which inevitably determines the level of enthusiasm and interest from smaller nations in affairs of the Indian Ocean or conversely where states with larger seaboards try to impose their hegemony on those with smaller coasts. In the larger interest of better co-operation, it is important that bigger states carry smaller ones without a feeling of overbalance.
In today’s maritime milieu, co-operation in the shape of Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is an idea, whose time no doubt has come. The IONS was

conceptualised by Indian navy chief in 2008 and its maritime security construct is based on a similar idea known as West Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), except that it addresses Indian Ocean region issues. It is a voluntary initiative, which aims at increasing maritime co-operation amongst navies of Indian Ocean littoral states by furnishing an open and inclusive forum for discussion on relevant maritime issue in the region.
The ‘inclusive’ nature of this forum means that all principal maritime agencies of states in Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) are members unless they desire otherwise. This facilitates participation of almost all littoral states in the region to address and co-operate in finding solutions to maritime issues.
The inaugural IONS-2008 was held in India and since then other biennial conclaves of chiefs of the navies of member states have taken place in different countries while the next one is planned in Bangladesh in 2016-18.
There are 35 navies from member states, which have been geographically grouped into four sub-groups. The South Asian littoral group comprises of Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Seychelles and Sri Lanka. The West Asian group includes Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen. The East Asian group consists of Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, France, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania, while South East Asian and Australian group constitutes Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.
The principal objectives of IONS is to foster a shared understanding of maritime issues faced by nation-states situated on IOR and formulation of a common set of strategies designed to enhance maritime security. It also aims at capacity building of littoral states to satisfactorily deal with existing as well as anticipated challenges in their regional maritime security and stability paradigm.
It is in times of major disasters, however, when need for greater co-operation amongst Indian Ocean maritime authorities is felt acutely. Take the example of 2004 Tsunami which struck 14 countries in the Indian Ocean and killed 230,000 people, injured tens of thousands others and rendered 100 million homeless in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Or the more recent example of search for Malaysian Airline Flight MH 370 where brunt of search effort was borne by a few rather than shared fairly by littoral states of Indian Ocean. The distance between where a piece of the stricken aircraft was eventually found and where the search centre was mostly based during that herculean effort, would elucidate this argument.
IONS examine ways to establish and promote a variety of trans-national, maritime, co-operative mechanism designed to mitigate maritime security concerns within the Indian Ocean region. It also develops interoperability amongst navies of littoral states in terms of doctrines, procedures, organisational and logistic systems and operational processes, so as to promote the development of regional naval capacities for speedy, responsive and effective Human Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) throughout the Indian Ocean region.
Previous themes around which IONS deliberations have ranged from contemporary trans-national challenges, international maritime connectivity, together for the reinforcement of maritime security in the Indian Ocean and regional maritime security initiative aimed at reducing contemporary maritime security threats. These opportunities have been very useful in generating flow of information between naval professionals with different backgrounds towards common objective of evolving co-operative solutions in situations of (HADR) and Piracy.
Pakistan Navy (PN) has effectively demonstrated its reach by responding to 2004 Tsunami when it dispatched a task force comprising of a tanker, a destroyer, helicopters and medical relief teams to Indonesia. Under the ambit of IONS information sharing and PN is spearheading a working group on interoperability. The anti-piracy effort in the Horn of Africa (HOA) has been a success story with formation of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151).
Pakistan is consistently contributing towards maritime security operations along with Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, UK and USA in CTF-150. It is not farfetched to state that global trade across Indian Ocean would have had to struggle had it not been for these anti-piracy efforts which have kept this nuisance in check.
One of the achievements of IONS has been the endorsement of its Charter of Business during Conclave of chiefs held in Perth, Australia in 2014. A number of workshops have been conducted under the aegis of IONS since its inception, deliberating on such subjects as technical support within IOR (in Sri Lank), resource sharing (in Bangladesh) and anti-piracy concept (in Indonesia). Pakistan is hosting a similar workshop this year to stimulate new ideas on ‘info sharing and interoperability’ amongst member states. Delegates from 22 countries, 4 observers and 3 observer applicant countries are expected to participate.
There is plenty of good, which can come out of IONS but there has to be greater sincerity in the execution of its Charter of Business. Some incidents in recent past unfortunately betray this desired sense of commitment and sincerity. In 2011, Pakistan and Indian Navy ships (PNS Babur and INS Godavari) brushed each other when Babur was escorting MV Suez which had been freed from pirates control but Indian vessel unnecessarily created a close quarter situation in an apparent effort to steal credit where there was none.
Similarly in 2009, an India Navy submarine tried to play cat and mouse with two Chinese destroyers deployed off Somalia on anti-piracy operations but was forced to surface. There are different accounts of this incident but close proximity of vessels of two different states is beyond doubt. The fine point being made here is that both these incidents happened after 2008 when the Indian Navy chief took the initiative to establish IONS, and China has since then been making an effort to gain observer status. In both these incidents, vessels were involved in activities defined in Charter of Business of IONS. In both these incidents Indian Navy vessels were involved in uncalled for and aggressive maneuvers/ activities in international waters.
This is rather alarming because India is an important member of IONS with expectations of a far more responsible conduct. It has to be remembered without any shadow of doubt that just because an ocean is named ‘Indian’ for historical reasons, it does not make it an extension of India. The United Nations Conventions on Laws of the Seas is quite clear on that subject.
There is plenty of potential for co-operation amongst navies of IOR nations provided it is kept in mind that Indian Ocean is for the collective well being of all countries whose shores its waters wash. Any attempt by any nation to impose hegemony through actions or policies is likely to be a hindrance towards that worthy cause.