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Indian Ocean Community: Challenges and Opportunity

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The Indian Ocean as a community has not existed as a definable concept for very long. Yet it has existed in an economic sense and cultural to a point. For millennia there has been an active economic and cultural exchange between peoples living along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Ideas have travelled along the oceanic currents, propelled by the monsoon winds. ‘Asian values’ as a common denominator across the ocean begins its journey from the shores of the Indian Ocean, spreading over generations of interaction. So languages have common words across thousands of oceanic miles. Common cultural traits are found amongst people who don’t live anywhere near each other, but are in fact separated by the vast expanse of water.

There is now a serious requirement for raising the idea of an Indian Ocean community to a campaign level issue. Asia is widely regarded as the pole sitter in the years to come. The sheer economic dynamism of the continent is evident to all observers. But it cannot grow to that status in isolation from each other. There has to be a greater sense of cooperation and sharing. The sense of togetherness has not always been evident, as the region remained divided, by history, experiences and interests. The region offered little in terms of hope for the future. Though there have been instances that raised expectations.

The December 2004 Asian Tsunami was one such episode that suggested there is a sense of belonging and sharing. The cooperation displayed, instantly and spontaneously, was as impressive as it was touching. It showed that the Asian land mass can rise to the occasion when the need arises. Well the need has arisen and is in fact long overdue. And it suggested that there is a sense of belonging to an Indian Ocean Community. It was a golden moment to grasp and encash. But it is still not too late, for there is a serious demand to belong to a community that is cooperative. The demand is based on cultural, economic and security factors. And that is an immediate challenge.

The Indian Ocean offers a ring of opportunity to all those willing to accept the challenges. Its location on the map makes it unique in many senses. Energy sources surround the water mass and its regional and internal politics makes for a combination that is exciting, perplexing and dangerous. The Indian Ocean Community is essentially an Asian venture, deeply embedded in the regional sense of belonging. And the Asian land mass offers the greatest economic opportunities for the future. That the future is Asian is not a loose statement, but based on potential and performance. The combination of the Indian Ocean water mass and its surrounding Asian land mass is the perfect brew for a heady future. But to achieve that glory and status there has to be greater cooperation in some very serious and basic issues.

The two biggest challenges facing the Indian Ocean Community are a working structure on trade and a verifiable mechanism on terrorism. Trade and Terror are the two biggest issues confronting Asia, on land and water. Even as the Indian Ocean offers routes of progress, it is also surrounded by ideas that are divisive, destructive and derail dialogue and cooperation. Therefore there is an urgent need to enhance security and economic cooperation. Greater economic cooperation will ensure a togetherness in tackling the menace of terrorism. For if it is not tackled to the fullest there is every chance that economic growth of the region will be affected. Sincere, transparent and regular cooperation on facing the challenges of terrorism will create the environment for enhanced economic growth.

The greatest opportunity in security cooperation is offered by regular naval interaction and exchanges. Since global trade and energy movement is largely water borne, navies remain an important factor for the future. Despite economic crises that influence budgeting, investment in naval research and development remains a core pillar of defence planning. So much so that many countries are pooling resources to enhance naval capabilities. This has a direct impact on the development of naval systems and the future suggests there are exciting changes in the offing. A perfect opportunity for the Indian Ocean region to show that it belongs to a Community.

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