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Addressing maritime security challenges in the Indian Ocean

By Prof. Narnia Bohler-Muller (HSRC and IORA-AG Chair); Dr Juliet Hermes (SAEON and IORA-AG Vice-Chair); Aditi Lalbahadur (SAIIA) and KGame Molope (DIRCO)
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The Indian Ocean Dialogue is one of the main events on the calendar of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)

The 3rd Indian Ocean Dialogue, "Addressing Maritime Security Challenges in the Indian Ocean through Enhanced Regionalism", is one of the main events on the calendar of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Held in Padang, Indonesia, the Dialogue was attended by 19 of the 22 IORA partner countries and six of the seven dialogue partners. Indonesia is the Chair and South Africa the Vice-Chair of IORA. South Africa takes over as Chair in October 2017 and the United Arab Emirates will be the Vice-Chair for that period.

The theme consisted of five interactive sessions: Rules-based regionalism in the Indian Ocean; Piracy and armed robbery, illicit trafficking and maritime terrorism; Regional cooperation on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; The role of naval powers in enhancing security in the Indian Ocean; and Energy in the Indian Ocean.

The Dialogue was held alongside the Second Multi Naval Exercise Komodo, 15th Western Pacific Naval Symposium and the 2016 International Fleet Review.

The event was a "Track 1.5 Dialogue", which brings together government officials, policy-makers, academics and analysts to discuss pertinent matters. In this Dialogue there was a much stronger presence of government officials which led to more restrictive, although interesting, discussions.

South African delegation

The South African cohort consisted of KGame Molope (DIRCO), Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller (HSRC and IORA-AG Chair), Aditi Lalbahadur (SAIIA) and Dr Juliet Hermes (SAEON and IORA-AG Vice-Chair). Prof. Bohler-Muller spoke in the first session on rule-based regionalism. During this presentation she touched on a controversial topic of whether rule-based regionalism was the best way forward for IORA.

The focus of this session was what norms and principles should guide inter-state relations in the Indian Ocean, given the myriad security threats and the inherent heterogeneity of the region. It was conceded that "confidence building" is one of the most important priorities for the IORA at this juncture as this would be the foundation upon which more pragmatic programmes could be developed.


The South African cohort. From left: Dr Juliet Hermes (SAEON and IORA-AG Vice-Chair), Aditi Lalbahadur (South African Institute of International Affairs), KGame Molope (Department of International Relations and Cooperation) and Prof. Narnia Bohler-Muller (Human Sciences Research Council and IORA-AG Chair)

Building trust

"Confidence building" emerged as a recurring theme over the two days, as various countries expressed the need to build trust in order to enhance collaborative work. Speaker Rahima Abdurahman (Indonesia) stressed the importance of collective action to maximise the benefits of the region and to address shared challenges.

Prof Bohler-Muller explored the notion of IORA being used to strengthen economic cooperation and stressed that security is a pre-requisite for expanding economic cooperation and trade. However, she cautioned that IORA should best remain a flexible consensus-based grouping that is not restricted by rules. The region is in any event subject to the rules of International law, and particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Prof. Bohler-Muller ended her presentation by suggesting that IORA revisit the 1972 UN Resolution recognising the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. She suggested the following ways in which cooperation could be strengthened within IORA:

  • Grow and strengthen the Academic, Trade and Industry, and Business groups;
  • Establish two new IORA Working Groups on Safety and Security and the Blue Economy;
  • Strengthen and support the IORA Secretariat;
  • Agree on clear norms and standards within the region;
  • Increase trade facilitation;
  • Encourage the participation of civil society; and
  • Provide support to the Small Island States in the area of mitigating the damage caused by climate change.

Security threats

Commander Abhijit Singh (India) spoke of the various non-traditional security threats to the region such as piracy, human and drug trafficking, illegal, unregulated and unlawful fishing (IUU), and natural disasters. He stressed the need for collaboration that would result in a more strategic approach to maritime security.

The next session focused on piracy, armed robbery, illicit trafficking and maritime terror. The discussion, led by Somalia, was very interesting as it highlighted IUU fishing as the ‘mother’ of piracy. Thus, if piracy was reduced but IUU fishing remained, it would not be long before piracy would again become a problem.

There was a general consensus that fighting piracy and armed robbery at sea was best approached on land first. There were further discussions on how to enhance the capacity for patrol and interception at sea and the relationship and responsibilities of the coast guard, marine police and/or naval vessels; as well as the roles of privately contracted armed security personnel that could possibly act to undermine the authority of member states.


The third session around regional cooperation on IUU fishing gave some interesting statistics on the state of the Southwest Indian Ocean (SWIO) fisheries, including the fact that the Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna is 94% overfished. There are 24 listed species of fish, 12 unknown, 6 overfished, 4 not overfished and 2 subject to overfishing.

It has been 20 years since the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission was set up, yet the Indian Ocean is still overfished. One of the big problems is that there is currently a lack of criminalisation of own nationals taking part in the IUU global network. There was strong support for the recommendation that IUU be criminalised in the Indian Ocean. An example was given of the MV Viking, a vessel recently caught and subsequently blown up by the Indonesian authorities in a stance against IUU fishing.

There was a discussion around the need for regional management of fisheries within the Indian Ocean, but no mention was made of the Southwest Indian Ocean fisheries project. This should be highlighted in future discussions around fisheries. It would also be of interest to the countries to investigate developing the capacity of using SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) to identify IUU ships.

Following this session, the participants attended a dinner hosted by the Mayor of Padang, Mr Mahyeldi Ansharullah, at his official residence. The meal consisted of a variety of traditional Padang food and delegates were entertained by traditional dancing.

Enhancing security

The following day began with a session on the role of naval powers in enhancing security in the Indian Ocean. Questions addressed included: What roles can navies play to strengthen the security of the Indian Ocean? How could IORA enhance cooperation between regional and extra-regional naval powers in the Indian Ocean? What sort of international assistance can be given to the smaller coastal states to enhance their coastal patrol and police capabilities? How to enhance confidence among naval powers that are operating in the Indian Ocean?

The panel acknowledged that the navies of IORA have already begun collaborating on ways to secure the Indian Ocean. However, as Dr David Brewster (Australia) argued, this need not be the sole purview of navies - as often their involvement in activities that present as pure policing matters take on the appearance of aggression. Dr Brewster motivated for greater collaboration between non-naval agencies - like coast guards - to address much of the security challenges in the Indian Ocean.

Dr Reifqi Muna (Indonesia) highlighted the need to consider that maritime security was also intrinsically linked to land and air security issues. Mohammed Arif (Indonesia) advocated for the evolution towards ‘post-modern navies’ - whose principal concern would be overcoming transnational threats rather than security state interests.

Energy in the Indian Ocean

The penultimate session focused on Energy in the Indian Ocean. The first presentation described the different types of renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal, thermal and current). The speaker discussed pilot projects in India on tidal energy and a smaller one on current energy. These are currently in a research phase.

There were further presentations on the geo-politics of energy in the Indian Ocean and statistics of the amount of energy imported and exported by different countries. There was a request for more of a focus on the security threats of energy transportation.

Advice was sought from countries as to the cost and appropriateness of different types of marine renewable energy in different countries. There was also a discussion on exploring the seafloor and oil and gas exploration.

South Africa could make significant input into this topic. It would be useful to explore whether other countries have similar plans such as the proposed offshore marine protected areas that South Africa has just gazetted, as well as the South African Marine and Exploration Forum.

Other discussion points included: What is the current state of energy exploration and production in the Indian Ocean region? How to ensure that energy exploration and production in the Indian Ocean would be carried out in a regulated manner and benefit the Indian Ocean community as a whole? How to secure offshore upstream facilities and export terminals from threats, including maritime terrorism? How to enhance cooperation in securing sea lines of communication (e.g. strategic chokepoints and energy trading hubs), particularly in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean?

Padang Consensus

The final session focused on developing and finalising the "Padang Consensus", a statement agreed to by all members that is seen to encompass all the main points agreed upon during the Dialogue. There were some sticking points around reference to the draft IORA Concord in the consensus document, so country representatives were requested to provide alternative wording, whereafter the meeting was declared closed.

Prior to the start of the Indian Ocean Dialogue, the South African cohort met to discuss the way forward with the SA chapter of the IORA-AG. Useful discussions were held and Prof. Bohler-Muller will initiate a meeting with the Department of Science and Technology to finalise the business plan and terms of reference of the group in order to host the first SA IORA-AG meeting as soon as possible.

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