If successfully actioned, the focus on such areas as economic development, improved maritime security and ecological protection has the potential to benefit not only the island countries of the south-western Indian Ocean, but also the wider region. Both the Commission and Australia would benefit from any move by Canberra to seek official observer status with the grouping.
Upon accepting the rotating annual presidency of the Indian Ocean Commission (la Commission de l’océan Indien, or COI), at the 35th Council of Ministers meeting, held virtually on 20 May, French Secretary of State Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, representing Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced an agenda [in French] that was ‘realistic and adapted to the region and its location in the Indo-Pacific.’
Established in 1982 and expanded in 1986, the COI brings together the five French-speaking countries of the south-western Indian Ocean region: Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and France (representing the overseas départements of Réunion and Mayotte, together with the French Southern and Antarctic Territories). More than one million French citizens live in the greater south-western Indian Ocean region.
Over time, the number of COI Observers has expanded to seven: China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Sovereign Order of Malta and the United Nations.
COI has its headquarters in the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, as does the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and Future Directions International suggests that both the COI and Australia would benefit from any move by Canberra to seek official observer status with the grouping. Ideally led by the Australian High Commission to Mauritius, observer status has the potential to further build upon Australia’s existing strong relationships with France and Mauritius, as IOC members, and with the other observers.
The overall mandate of the COI meshes neatly with Australia’s own foreign policy ambitions and is to promote regional development via a shared historical and cultural solidarity, underpinned by respect for national sovereignties and transparency of governance. At its broadest, the activities of the COI are focussed on:
- Stability and security, particularly in the maritime domain;
- The economic integration of the island states, particularly by promoting the blue economy;
- Preserving the environment and managing climate and environmental risks;
- Health co-operation;
- Scientific and university co-operation.
Under the French presidency, that will be further refined with an emphasis on the four priorities of:
- Maritime security and the blue economy;
- Climate resilience and disaster risk reduction;
- Economic development, including boosting entrepreneurship via greater dialogue with the private sector and multi-sector, multi-country partnerships;
- Increased mobility, particularly of students, academics and businesspeople.
According to Monsieur Lemoyne, the French approach is ‘ambitious but realistic’ and will be supported by the ‘institutional strengthening of the COI, the use and promotion of the French language and inclusive actions, which involve and benefit local populations.’
Billing itself as a ‘neighbour and partner of the Indian Ocean countries’, Paris – which funds 40 per cent of the COI’s budget, to the tune of around €36 million euros since 2018 – also brings with it technological knowhow and business and educational opportunities. Several hundred French companies are operating in the region and, each year, over 800 students from the other COI countries study at the University of La Réunion.
Although the implementation of the fourth priority may be somewhat delayed, given the global health situation, if successfully actioned, the COI countries should see at least some benefits from the focus on the above priorities, perhaps most especially in terms of economic development, improved maritime security and ecological protection. Such outcomes will, of course, bring benefits not only for the island countries themselves, but also for the wider region.