Gurgaon, Nov 2 (IANS) Against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean emerging as a new theatre of maritime competition, India Friday pitched for more robust "cooperative regionalism" among 20 countries along its rim in the area of maritime security. The US joined the 20-member regional body as its sixth dialogue partner.
The Union of Comoros, an archipelago of four islands and several islets located in the western Indian Ocean, also joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) as its 20th member.
In an important step, the 12th meeting of council of ministers of the 20-member IOR-ARC unanimously approved the US's inclusion as a dialogue partner, providing greater heft to the 15-year-old organization which was set up in 1997 to foster greater maritime cooperation among littoral states of the Indian Ocean.
China, Japan, Egypt, France and Britain are the other dialogue partners in the regional body.
The US's entry as a dialogue partner is widely seen as an attempt to counter-balance the Chinese maritime assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region. India, the chair of the IOR-ARC, circulated the proposal for the US inclusion as a dialogue partner which was accepted by all member countries.
Inaugurating the ministerial meeting of the IOR-ARC, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid underscored the growing geo-strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, which forms the transit point for more than 40 percent of global trade. Over 90 percent of India's energy supplies transit through the Indian Ocean.
"As focus of global economic growth shifts to Asia, it will occupy even greater salience in our strategic perspective," Khurshid said at the Hotel Oberoi Trident in Gurgaon, often referred to as the millennium city, bordering the Indian capital.
"We envision IOR-ARC as a regional body that can respond effectively to this need and enhance our individual and collective capacities to deal with contemporary challenges facing our common maritime domain," he said.
The 19 members of the IOR-ARC are Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, the Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, the UAE and Yemen.
The ministerial meeting culminated in "Gurgaon Communique", which puts maritime stability and counter-piracy cooperation at the heart of the agenda.
"Piracy is an increasingly serious concern, posing a threat to maritime commerce and the safety of seafarers, making insurance costlier and adding to the costs incurred by the shipping industry in the Indian Ocean Region," said the communique.
"We welcome the emphasis that our Association has placed on cooperation in maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean and reaffirm the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and safety and security of Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean," said the communique.
Khurshid stressed on promoting sustained growth and balanced development of the region as a strategy to ensure maritime security.
"Economic development cooperation requires a conducive environment to flower. Security of maritime commerce and safety of seafarers are of concern to all of us," he said.
"There is a need, for example, to be more precise in defining High Risk Areas in the Indian Ocean, based on actual incidents of piracy, as this impacts adversely on insurance premiums and adds to the cost of shipping in our region," he said.
Khurshid announced that India would host an IOR-ARC seminar on maritime security in early 2013 and stressed that it could be institutionalised as a regional forum for discussing security-related issues.
He called for galvanising the Indian Ocean body to deal with common challenges collectively. "We should consider ways and means of providing greater structure to the IOR-ARC process, and enhancing the capacity of the secretariat to support this effort," he said.
"In our view, the objective of this exercise should be to lay down a roadmap and agenda for our Association for the coming years that will eventually establish IOR-ARC as an apex organization for the Indian Ocean region," Khurshid said.
"A prospective roadmap for our Association must therefore be inclusive, taking IOR-ARC forward at a pace acceptable to all," he said.
"Secondly, in facilitating the creation of a regional climate conducive to peace and prosperity, IOR-ARC should aim at opening as many channels of communication and cooperation amongst its membership as feasible," the minister said.