The politics of maritime space is only rarely in the focus of international fora. Conferences devoted to the Indian Ocean region are a rare event, especially in Europe. On June the 9th the German ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, organized a one day conference on the region. The conference was titled “The Indian Ocean: A Maritime Region on the Rise.” The background of the conference was that Germany’s foreign policy currently is in a phase of renewal. After decades of searching for Germany’s place in the world, the foreign office now wants to think foreign policy differently and aims to set new impulses, identify new themes and new spaces to strengthen international cooperation. Part of this innovation agenda, is Germany’s new focus on maritime security, as evidenced in the G7 declaration from earlier this year.
Contributing to the revitalizing of the Indian Ocean region is another theme. In consequence the conference was opened by a keynote of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs. Frank Walter Steinmeier made a strong case why the Indian Ocean region deserves more attention. He identified it as the region of the future, in pointing to expected growth in population, trade, and economic development. But he also pointed out that 10 out of the 20 most fragile states are in the region, that inter-state disputes prevail and that risks such as piracy challenge the development of the region. He underlined that the Indian Ocean region is a zone of opportunity, but also dangers, which calls for better governance structures in the region. Steinmeier’s keynote speech was followed by a short film which set the context of the conference from a different perspective. The film gave a brief review through the long history in trade and cultural exchange the Indian Ocean has. It was a powerful reminder, that the Indian Ocean is not only a “visibly emerging global region” (Steinmeier), but also a very old region with long standing traditions and connections.
The first conference panel took up Steinmeier’s question of the future of the institutional architecture for the region. The panel feature the secretary general of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Deputy Minister for Maritime Sovereignty of Indonesia, the former director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA), a Counselor of the US Department of State, and the Deputy Secretar General of the European External Action Service who is currently also the acting chair of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The presentation and discussions concerned elements of a future institutional architecture with a high emphasis placed on IORA. The question was what the organization, which was more or less revitalized in 2011, can currently do and how it might strengthened. Proposals concerned to better link IORA with the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or the UN Adhoc Committee on the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace and to strengthen the maritime security dimension of the organization. But also to organize frequent ambassador meetings in capitals was one of the proposals. Participants agreed that maritime governance in the region is too fragmented. The US representative highlighted the need for more institutions that connect and create dialogue, while the EEAS representative introduced the Contact Group on Piracy as one example for how institutions that allow for networking and dialogue may look like. The task of the second panel was to zoom in on questions of maritime security. Participants in the panel highlighted how vital maritime security is for the region. This concerns the full spectrum of maritime security from undefined maritime boundaries and the risks of inter-state disputes, to illicit trade flows, piracy and climate change. If for many decades the Indian Ocean was largely seen as an innocent transit zone, there is a clear recognition that more will need to be done to secure it. As one participant highlighted, IORA is a start but institutions of maritime partnerships will be required. A vital component will have to be, as another participant highlighted to share information on what happens at sea and to develop a culture in which everyone “dares to share”. Another panellist was more sceptical towards the idea of integrating the entire Indian Ocean and strengthening security cooperation. He stressed that the majority of maritime security challenges are local and require the cooperation of 2-3 states, rather than over-arching security architectures. An observation that one could take from the panel was the high level of efforts that will be required to build a maritime security architecture for the region. Indeed, the debate has just begun.
There are several issues which deserve attention. The major strategic question will be in how far it makes sense to treat the Indian Ocean region as one space given its heterogeneous character. If it is certainly an eye-opener to think from the sea, rather than from land, isn’t it too great a challenge to develop an integrated institution for the entire region, especially given that the majority of challenges are sub-regional or rather local. The next question to be addressed is whether the region actually requires new institutions or whether it would be better off to strengthen the relations between the existing regional organizations bordering the Indian Ocean, such as the IOC, ASEAN or SADC. What role Germany will and can play along other international actors including the European Union and the United Nations family in facilitating and building capacity for maritime governance is another question. Indeed this conference was only a small step in what appears to be a long road.