External Affairs

Faraway France Enters Indian Ocean Rim Association as India Backs Move, Iran Eases Off

Two countries, Russia and Saudi Arabia, remain firmly outside, having faced objections from three countries in their bid to become dialogue partners of the group.

New Delhi: After a significant period of struggle, France has finally obtained membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. However, in reflection of the fact that geo-politics in the Indian Ocean is always difficult, the doors on Russia and Saudi Arabia’s possibilities to join the group as dialogue partners remain shut.

On Thursday, IORA – the main regional association of countries on the periphery of the Indian Ocean – held a virtual meeting of the Council of Ministers, chaired by United Arab Emirates. The key decision taken at the meeting was that France would have its entry approved and become the association’s 23rd member.

Other member states were soon public with their congratulations for France. Among them was India.

This is probably the first time that a country whose mainland is not on the Indian Ocean has been brought into the fold of the IORA. France applied for membership citing its overseas territory of Réunion Island in the western Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean region. Photo: Google Maps

Since all decisions in IORA are taken by consensus, objection from even a single country stops a process. The membership is open to “sovereign states of the Indian Ocean Rim willing to subscribe to the principles and objectives of the Charter”.

A highly-placed diplomatic source told The Wire that France got the key to the IORA only after Iran finally withdrew its reservations. 

It is not yet clear as to why Iran decided to change its mind, but Tehran has been looking to France and the other remaining parties of the 2015 nuclear deal to shore up support for it before US President-elect Joe Biden assumes office next month. Biden has indicated that he wants the US to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had started to unravel after the Trump administration abandoned it.

At the same time, there has also been a recent uptick in tension between Iran and western nations following the execution of dissident Ruhollah Zam, who had been living in France and was lured back by intelligence agents.

France first joined IORA as a dialogue partner in 2001, just four years after the association was formed. Its ambition to become a full fledged member had been well known, but it had seemed a long shot until now.

A screenshot of the 20th CoM meeting of the IORA. Photo: Twitter/@MOS_MEA

The main opposition to France, according to sources, had been from its former colonies in the region, who were concerned that Paris would subdue their voices. While both Comoros and Madagascar also have territorial disputes with France, President Emmanuel Macron has been working towards a compromise deal and increased aid since 2019.

The official IORA press note indicated that France was a member “on the basis of Réunion Island only”, which left out Mayotte, an archipelago that is also claimed by Comoros.

When France had started to push for full membership a couple of years ago, South Block had initially been wary. “If France was brought into IORA, UK and US can also claim to be qualified due to Diego Garcia and Chagos. Then, how does one keep away China?” said an Indian official, referring to the argument against supporting France’s full scale entry into IORA. The inclusion of P-5 countries into the inter-governmental body would also inject new power dynamics, which may not be entirely helpful, felt officials.

However, the special relationship between India and France seems to have carried more weight than these misgivings.

India conveyed to France that it would back Paris’s bid for membership in principle, but also that New Delhi was aware that the path ahead would be thorny as one or more countries were likely to oppose it.

There was, however, no public announcement of Indian backing. The joint statements from 2016 to 2019 had no explicit mention, besides mentioning the need for increasing coordination in the Indian Ocean region. 

However, the 2018 Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region gave a strong hint of the Indian position on Paris’ qualification for IORA membership. The bilateral document, released during the visit of President Macron to India, describes France as a “State of the Indian Ocean rim”.

File photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

That document had also announced that France would support India in becoming an observer to the Indian Ocean Commission, the five-member association of south-western Indian ocean. This year, India’s observer status to IOC was confirmed.

While not made public, India also announced at the meeting that it will apply to become vice-chair of IORA from 2023 to 2025, which means it wants to be chairman from 2025-27, The Wire has learnt. India had been chair of IORA once previously – from 2011 to 2013.

Left outside

While France has got into the inner corridors, Russia and Saudi Arabia still have not managed to get a leg inside the door.

According to sources, Russia and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to become dialogue partners in IORA was not approved, largely due to opposition from Australia, South Africa and Iran.

The current dialogue partners of IORA are China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, the UK and the US.

Russia, which remains critical of the Indo-Pacific concept, has been looking to expand its footprint in Indian Ocean. Last month, Russia announced that it will open an overseas naval base in Sudan. Worried that Russia’s suspicions about the Indo-Pacific and ‘Quad’ would lead it further into China’s embrace, India has advocated greater cooperation with Moscow in the “regions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans”.

Saudi Arabia had been trying to become a dialogue partner for several years, but Iran has consistently stalled Riyadh’s application.

The grounds on which Russia’s request was opposed by member countries is not immediately known.

“By referring to the Principles in the Charter, it is very easy to stall any application if a country wants to, as the language is broad and vague,” said an official.

New Delhi had opposed Pakistan’s membership of IORA on grounds that it did not grant Most Favoured Nation status to India, in contrast to the principle of free trade flows.

Incidentally, the member states, at the Council of Ministers, decided to establish a task force to revise and consider IORA’s criteria for membership, dialogue partners and position of secretary general, sources added.

Russia and Saudi Arabia’s applications were not the only contentious matters on the agenda. 

It is learnt that the members could not reach a consensus on the name for the next secretary general of IORA. The term of the current secretary general, Nomvuyo Nokwe, ends in February 2021. With no successor, IORA’s senior most director – from Indonesia – will be the acting secretary general.