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Indian Ocean Unity

NEW DELHI – What international association brings together 18 countries straddling three continents thousands of miles apart, united solely by their sharing of a common body of water?

That is a quiz question likely to stump the most devoted aficionado of global politics. It's the Indian Ocean Rim Countries’ Association for Regional Cooperation, blessed with the unwieldy acronym IOR-ARC, perhaps the most extraordinary international grouping you've never heard of.

The Association manages to unite Australia and Iran, Singapore and India, Madagascar and the United Arab Emirates, and a dozen other states large and small – unlikely partners brought together by the fact that the Indian Ocean washes their shores. I’ve just come back (as India’s new Minister of State for External Affairs) from attending the Association’s ministerial meeting in Sana’a, Yemen. Despite being accustomed to my eyes glazing over at the alphabet soup of international organizations I’ve encountered during a three-decade-long United Nations career, I find myself excited by the potential of IOR-ARC.

Regional associations have been created on a variety of premises: geographical, as with the African Union; geopolitical, as with the Organization of American States; economic and commercial, as with ASEAN or Mercosur; and security-driven, as with NATO. There are multi-continental ones too, like IBSA, which brings together India, Brazil, and South Africa, or the better-known G-8.