Non-Aligned Movement has greatly emphasised the need for inter-regional cooperation. Maritime cooperation has emerged as an important component of such inter-regional cooperation.

A major initiative in this regard is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a multilateral project for naval cooperation initiated by India in 2008. IONS was created to foster discussion and initiate cooperation in the relevant issues pertaining to maritime cooperation.

IONS is “a voluntary initiative that seeks to increase maritime co-operation among navies of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean Region by providing an open and inclusive forum for discussion of regionally relevant maritime issues. In the process, it endeavours to generate a flow of information between naval professionals that would lead to common understanding and possibly cooperative solutions on the way ahead”. The IONS has more than 30 members grouped into four sub-regions- South Asian, West Asian, East African and South East Asian and Australian.

The establishment of IONS in 2008 also reflected the Indian foreign policy vision of conducting external relations through multilateralism and inclusivity. The inaugural IONS was held on 14 February 2008 in New Delhi with the then Chief of the Naval Staff as the Chairman of the forum for the period from 2008 to 2010.

Since then, the chairmanship of IONS has been tenanted by the navies of the UAE, South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh and Iran.

The objectives of IONS are: 1) To promote a shared understanding of the maritime issues facing the littoral nation-states of the Indian Ocean and the formulation of strategies designed to enhance regional maritime security; 2) To strengthen the capability of all littoral nation-states of the Indian Ocean to address present and anticipated challenges to maritime security; 3) To establish a variety of multilateral maritime cooperative mechanisms designed to mitigate maritime security concerns among Members; and 4) To develop interoperability in terms of doctrines and procedures, so as to provide speedy, responsive, and effective Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

IONS has been actively pursuing action in the domain of Maritime Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) as well as Information Sharing and Interoperability. The IONS Working Group (IWG) on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, which is ‘Chaired’ by India, evolved the Draft IONS HADR guidelines that aim at developing a speedy, responsive, coordinated and effective disaster management response for IONS members.

The guidelines call for navies to be employed as a tool for complementing existing relief mechanism in order to provide specific support to specific requirements and in response to the acknowledged humanitarian gap between the disaster-needs that the relief providing community is being asked to satisfy and the resources available to meet them.

In September 2018, the 3rd meeting of IONS Working Group on HADR was held at Maritime Warfare Centre, Visakhapatnam, India. The participants shared their experiences gained and lessons learnt during the conduct of various HADR operations by their Navies and deliberated on best practices that can be imbibed during Joint HADR operations in IOR.

A table time exercise was also conducted simulating a real time scenario of a major disaster in the IOR and working out coordinated efforts an effective Joint HADR operation in the region. In 2017, IONS conducted its first sea exercise – IONS Multilateral Maritime Search and Rescue Exercise (IMMSAREX), Four Indian Navy ships (Ranvir, Sahyadri, Gharial and Sukanya) and one aircraft (P8I) participated in the exercise. In addition to the ships from the host nation Bangladesh, ships from Iran and Indonesia also participated in the exercise.

The 10th anniversary celebrations of IONS were held in Kochi, India on 13th and 14th November 2018. The event was organised on the theme of SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) – a term coined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The rationale behind formulating this term was one of India’s principled foreign policy goal that a peaceful & stable maritime environment is critical for the regional and global security. Thus, through envisaging IONS, India strives to realise its vision of a rules-based and stable maritime order in the Indian Ocean Region.

By Dr. Ankit Srivastava