African states need a vision for Indo-Pacific relations

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Nine of the organization’s member states are African, ranging from Somalia in the northwest to South Africa in the south. It also includes islands, such as Mauritius, off the west coast. It brings together governments, businesses, academics and researchers from across the Indian Ocean region.

Created to strengthen regional cooperation and sustainable development, the association has grown from 14 Member States initially in 1997 to 23 in 2022. It has adopted the “blue economy” as its field of intervention. It is also paying increasing attention to climate change and environmental issues as well as fisheries regulation and other threats of growing importance to the maritime domain.

In recent years, member states of the organization have increasingly come to terms with the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States in the mega-region, called the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific is home to more than half of the world’s population and seven of the world’s 15 largest economies are located here.

For the United States and its allies, who have largely appropriated the Indo-Pacific concept, the region is above all a geo-economic concern. Economic interaction is crucial, as shown by the Build Back Better World initiative, even if it remains vague on the practical aspects.

For China, the Indian Ocean forms an important part of the maritime component of its Belt and Road Initiative. This emphasizes economic development rather than geopolitics.

China’s growing note of developments in the Indo-Western Pacific is reflected in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Africa in January 2022. His tour focused on the east coast of China. ‘Africa. It included Eritrea, Kenya and the Comoros (and even further to the Maldives and Sri Lanka).

The Indo-Pacific is crucial to the interests of all these states and their regional organizations or informal forums and alliances. The two oceans have been at the heart of world trade for centuries. It is estimated that 80% of the world’s oil passes through the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, oceans and coastal environments are becoming the next frontier for expanding sustainable development. Fisheries, mineral and energy resources, and tourism attract investment as countries realize the potential of ocean and coastal resources.

And ownership of these resources can become contentious. This was illustrated recently in the maritime boundary dispute between Kenya and Somalia.

Another reason for the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific has to do with the increase in transnational organized crime. This includes human and drug trafficking, illegal fishing and harvesting, and wildlife and timber trafficking and the illicit trade in e-waste.

Africa has long supported the idea of ​​the Indian Ocean as a ‘zone of peace’. This was first confirmed in a UN resolution in 1971. But the current geopolitical controversy in the Indo-Pacific is reminiscent of gunboat diplomacy and raises many concerns.

What is clear, however, is that Africa and the Indo-Western Pacific coastal states lack a vision for the super-region. The African Union’s Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050 could serve as a starting point. But even then, the states that sit on the Indo-Western Pacific need to consider their own interests in such a continental approach to this evolving super-region.

Growing importance of the region

In recent years, a multitude of political and strategic documents have defined the positions of organizations and states for the Indo-Pacific.

The “Quad” – the informal alliance of the United States, Japan, Australia and India – has already developed and formalized each state’s strategic outlook. Although their geographical imaginations of the Indo-Pacific vary. India and Australia are also important players in the Indian Ocean Rim Association.

ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Indonesia, France and the European Union all have policy documents relating to the Indo-Pacific.

A logical explanation for Africa’s silence might be that the Indian Ocean Rim Association’s focus from the start was on economic development. Security issues are a much more recent development. Yet it is perhaps the organization that best lends itself to African agency in developing common positions on the Indo-Pacific based on shared interests and principles.

Relations with powers outside the association are mainly bilateral. This is especially true at the level where infrastructure projects – including military bases – are negotiated.

Using the association for the development of a vision that reflects the African agenda would be ideal. Indeed, it provides a platform with global reach. More than half of the members are from the central and eastern Indian Ocean, while several are members of ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization. Additionally, the association’s dialogue partners include the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and South Korea.

But it all starts with a national vision. Since 2021, for example, Kenya has begun to formulate a position on the Indo-Pacific and explored the possibility of working with partners such as India. But he has yet to issue a clear foreign policy statement or strategy document. Neither does South Africa.

The coming year provides an excellent opportunity for states like South Africa to develop its approach to the Indo-Pacific. How to steer a position that would serve the interests of the country and the continent in the context of these developments has become a serious challenge. At the same time, it could promote a broader multilateral discussion within the African Union.

Failure to do so will mean that Africa runs the risk, once again, of being a spectator while others shape policy for the continent.

A development agenda remains important, but there is a growing realization that there is no escaping the reality of an increasingly politicized and militarized region.