Sunday, November 23, 2003

An ocean of opportunities
Madan Mohan Puri

Regional Cooperation in Indian Ocean: Trends and Perspectives
edited by P.V. Rao. South Asian Publishers, New Delhi.
Rs 450. Pages 306.

Regional Cooperation in Indian Ocean: Trends and PerspectivesOf the world’s three major oceans, the Indian Ocean is not just the smallest in the trafficked area, it is perhaps the one and only whose rich history has witnessed often-dramatic changes of perspective. The end of World War II, while dealing a death knell to the unchallenged British naval supremacy in this “Lake” of theirs, unleashed the Cold War that made the ocean a theatre of the superpower rivalry fuelled by the winds of change which eventually blew away the European empires in Afro-Asia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the closing years of the 20th century yet again changed the dominant perspective of the ocean, which is now conducive to the expression and attainability of a measure of cooperation, as the proliferation of emerging linkages in a particular segment of the ocean seems to suggest.

The compendium of 20 papers under review attempts to assess how the states framing the ocean and representing 3/4th of the developing world are trying to adjust their economies to the enveloping surge of globalisation, while simultaneously promoting types of economic regionalism through measures of cooperation.

Questioning the relevance of multi-lateralism to the Indian Ocean countries, three variants of regional cooperation practiced there — open regionalism, deepened regionalism and sub-regionalism — have been critically examined.

Broadly, it is argued that regional cooperation become sturdy and sustainable if the youth and the civil servants internalise its ethos through exposure and participation in a range of activities that ought to be introduced by the universities and civil services more particularly in the SAARC countries.

Together with this — and this is now more or less a deciding factor in founding and fructifying cooperation at all levels — it is the economic primacy more regionally determined, called geo-economics, that has come to influence the structure and character of regional cooperation in the era of globalisation.

Increased investment in port equipment and upgrading to the modern level of shipping infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region (which India should foster in her long-term maritime policy, given her mounting dependence upon sea) would significantly augment the growing intra-region trade and investment since the formation of the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC); the last named would enable South African capital, technology and skills to flow into the region even though some of the hegemonic practices of the apartheid regime may continue vis-a-vis the neighbourhood.

Elsewhere in the region, “fractured functionalism” caused by the inherent distortions in societies comprising SAARC inhibit any meaningful advance in fulfilling the association’s objectives and would continue to do so; the Gulf Cooperation Council has registered modest progress in regional cooperation in the oil sector, though security considerations do overshadow the council’s economic objectives and new bilateral economic engagements — like those between India and Australia, and India and Malaysia — have emerged.

In the present scenario, with its increasing dependence on sea resources and to sustain her economic security, it is imperative that India works out a multi-layered regional involvement so that the trend of cooperation is duly strengthened in the ocean. An edited work inevitably suffers from unevenness in quality of the included essays with their limited scope, which fractures the narrative as well as the cohesion of argument; general descriptiveness often drowns analysis, which seldom transcends the obvious. The work under review is no exception, though it does carry some very good essays. Therein lies its value for students and readers of a certain level, its flawed syntax notwithstanding.