Given that the stability of the Indian Ocean is crucial for global prosperity, India has repeatedly called for maintaining the world’s third largest ocean as a free, open, and inclusive zone based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; all this while, as a first responder and net security provider in the region, India wants that member states should cooperate closely with each other in order to address happenings beyond the ocean
“Whoever controls the Indian ocean will dominate Asia. This ocean will be the key to the seven seas in the 21st century. The destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.”

Thus goes the famous 1897 saying of American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan.
The visionary US Admiral foresaw the importance of the Indian Ocean, emerging as a zone of rivalry for big powers. The Indian Ocean has been an area of intense competition between big powers since the Cold War days. 

In 1971, UNGA resolution, mooted by Sri Lanka, called upon "great powers not to allow escalation and expansion of military presence in the Indian Ocean."

Importance of Indian Ocean

Stretching from the Strait of Malacca and western coast of Australia in the East to the Mozambique Channel in the West and the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea in the North to the Red Sea in the South—the Indian Ocean is very important for global trade. More than one-third of the global bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the world’s global oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean.
“In the resurgence of Asia, and global rebalancing, the Indian Ocean holds a central position, playing a crucial role in the development and prosperity of the littoral nations, by supporting trade and sustaining livelihoods, offering immense possibilities of connectivity and resource utilization,” External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in his opening remarks at the 23rd IORA Council of Ministers’ meeting in Colombo on October 11.
India calls for maintaining the Indian Ocean a free, open and inclusive space based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
This was emphasized by Jaishankar in his remarks at the IORA Council of Ministers’ meeting.
During this meeting, India also indirectly asserted the need to cooperate and work together to ensure that the ocean remains free from any effort by any single country following the dictum of Alfred Mahan to establish hold over the ocean.
If any nation has the authority over the ocean it should be the littoral states first and they must collectively take required steps to assert their authority in order to maintain peace and stability of the region for their collective good.
With China as dialogue partner listening, Jaishankar said, “India’s priorities are clear. It is our effort to develop an Indian Ocean community that is stable and prosperous, strong and resilient and which is able to cooperate closely within and respond to happenings beyond the ocean.”
This was a veiled warning and clear but indirect reminder to China to treat the waters beyond its territory as defined in the UNCLOS and not as its own waters. The littoral states should listen to the warning bells and must get together to assert their collective right to benefit from the maritime resources and keep the sea routes of communication open for all.
The littoral states of South China Sea must learn lessons from the IORA member states who have come together to safeguard their collective rights and deny undue advantage to any one member state, howsoever powerful they may be.
All states big or small are full sovereign nations in their own rights and must be allowed to equally share the maritime resources and the advantages they offer in terms of sea lanes of communication being kept open and made available for use to all nations as equal partners.
Unlike the South China Sea, where China has staked its suzerainty over almost entire maritime zone, Indian ocean is a model for cooperation for all coastal nations of the world to create an atmosphere of cooperation in their maritime area, so that maritime resources are shared equally and not allowed to be over exploited by one single country, taking advantage of its financial and technological power and resources.
Nelson Mandela’s connection with IORA
The IORA is now a 26 years old grouping which is said to be the brainchild of South African leader Nelson Mandela. 

In 1995, while addressing a function in New Delhi then South African President Nelson Mandela suggested that India and South Africa should explore the concept of an “Indian Ocean Rim of socioeconomic cooperation and other peaceful endeavours” that could help developing countries within multilateral institutions such as the UN, the Commonwealth, and the Non-Aligned Movement to take care of their collective interests.
In 1997, the IORA was set up with the initial name as Indian Ocean Region-Association for Regional Cooperation in Mauritius. The group has 23 member states from Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and Australia.
The 23-nation IORA is composed of India, Australia, Bangladesh, Union of Comoros, France, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

Besides, there are 11 dialogue partners of IORA and they include China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Türkiye, the UK, and the US. 
Sri Lanka has assumed the Chairmanship of the group for two-year (2023-25) and India as current Vice Chair would be next Chair of the maritime body from 25-27.
As current Vice Chair and future Chair India is expected to provide guidance and direction to the maritime body. The maritime Association is expected to benefit from the experiences and wisdom of Indian leaders and diplomats in the body.
IORA strategic dialogue held in Mauritius on June 20-23, this year had cleared the strategic objectives of the group, which included promotion of trade and investment, enhancing maritime safety and security, strengthening the blue economy and fisheries management, disaster risk management, facilitate academic, science and technology cooperation, promote tourism and cultural exchanges and women’s economic empowerment.

Significantly, an important topic for discussion among IORA member states and dialogue partners is cooperation with Indo-Pacific through the group. The member states and dialogue partners are discussing IORA Outlook on Indo-Pacific, which was adopted in 2022. 
The IORA Outlook contends that ‘interconnectedness of the Indian and Pacific Oceans is fundamental to understanding the Indo-Pacific region and notes IORA’s strong interest in ensuring peace, prosperity, economic cooperation, maritime safety and security, and stability for all the peoples of the Indo-Pacific region.
*** The writer is a senior journalist and strategic affairs analyst; views expressed here are his own