Balancing the IP Order

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By Dr. Srimal Fernando

Balance of Power is a principal notion in neorealist theory. Observers of realist foreign policy perceive that strategic directions will be critical in any future balance of power to bring in more security and stability to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In international politics, a nation’s geographic location impacts on power relationships and at times is a binding link to regulate the policy and strategy of a nation. The IOR lies in a key geostrategic space concerned with maintaining the world’s power balance.  The Indian Ocean is vital for international trade as it provides critical sea trade routes.

Out of the eight South Asian nations, five of them have direct access to the Indian Ocean. At the international level, it can be seen that the Indian Ocean has risen in importance with the rise of India.  India, through its neighbourhood first policy has been developing close ties with its South Asian neighbours. In the Indian Ocean, the islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion are of great geographical and strategic importance as they are close to sea lines of communication and key maritime chokepoints. These five Indian Ocean islands also form a vital pillar in India’s regional policy which is the centre of attention.  As of late, India has initiated to take note of managing the oceans, particularly the Indian Ocean with the evolving dynamics of international diplomacy. In the twenty-first century, the Indian Ocean has developed as a significant maritime sphere that has seen the redrawing  of the oceanic and monetary geopolitics of security and economics in the Indo Pacific (IP) region.   As such, on the one hand, the five Indian Ocean islands that are central in both geo-economic and geostrategic terms have now forced the great powers such as United States to recognise the legitimacy of their security and diplomatic interests in the Eastern Indian Ocean Region and the Western Indian Ocean Region. However, on the other hand, the five Indian Ocean islands’ concurrence with the great powers not only incorporates better political relations but also includes sensitive military planning with them. Hence, these five small Indian Ocean islands regulate their strategies and find partners suitable to respond to the developing strategic environmental structure. The new strategic partnership between these five small Indian Ocean islands has the prospect of being the milestone around which a new geopolitical balance of power will form in the IOR. The Island states located in the Southwestern quarter of the Indian Ocean host military bases of major powers including the US and France.   As it maintains a naval base in the island of Réunion, France considers itself to be an IP resident power. Diego Garcia, a British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) is home to key air and naval facilities used extensively by the US.  

Bilateral engagement between the five IOR Islands has developed considerably in the last few years. The interests and capabilities of all five nations harmonise with each other. The realities of geopolitics are never static, and alterations in the balance of power challenge old presumptions.  A small island in the Indian Ocean provides big lessons for traditional powers. 

International diplomacy

The IP presently signifies the economic and strategic centre of gravity of the world. By 2017, the IP became the main regional term of official US dialogue. Also starting to monopolise headlines was the term ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). In the conception and promotion of the IP, EU member nations such as France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands play a significant role as important allies of the United States in the IOR. The priorities of the US and EU’s Indo-Pacific strategies also overlap. While promoting maritime security, the EU provides unhindered safe passage on shipping routes. The EU strives to work alongside its partners in the Indo-Pacific on matters of collective interest. For the EU, supporting connectivity through free and open maritime supply routes that are fully compliant with international law remains a vital aspect. America’s closest ally in the region, India, is considered to be the key security provider that is seen as a counter balancer in the IOR. In 2018, India’s IP policy was pronounced at the Shangri-La Dialogue which incorporated principles on keeping the region ‘free, open and inclusive’. The Indian Ocean small Islands are naturally prime actors due to their geostrategic locations.  The US and the EU member states have already started to shift their regional focus towards these five small states in the Indian Ocean as they stand to gain from a rules-based order. The US, France and India play the leading security role but Australia and Japan have also been developing their security links with these five small islands. The formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) comprised of four nations namely Australia, India, Japan and the United States has strengthened their cooperation through the Quad partnership and has broadened their scope in the IP sphere.  The signature of a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between Japan and the European Union (EU) in 2018 seeks to capitalise on maritime security in the Indian Ocean which offers an invaluable opportunity to deepen their strategic ties.

Strategic geopolitical relevance

The strategic shift in the IP has become an urgent concern in South Asia. SAARC’s (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)   mandate to foster cooperation delivers the strategic link between global and region level issues.  As mentioned by some theorists, SAARC’s inability to attain the necessary authority to fully implement regional integration policies has been a critical challenge in operationalising supranationalism in South Asia. In order to promote regional economic integration in South Asia, regional policymakers need to consider supporting the compatibility of their laws. 

The Indian Ocean alliance 

The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) aims to accomplish the sustainable usage of resources in the Indian Ocean. One of six priority areas of the IORA is maritime safety and security. The Indian Ocean rim states are politically, economically and diplomatically connected through the Indian Ocean. The founding of the IORA played a crucial role in epitomising and creating the principles of sovereignty among the Indian Ocean rim states. India’s strategic vision for the IOR: the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative highlights the role of IORA as a facilitator of trade and fisheries management. India sees IORA playing a key role in the Indo-Pacific region.

Synchronising Policies

The IOR is a central region on the global stage.  The United States and its partners have agreed to aspire for a “free and open Indo-Pacific characterised by massive economic growth rates and emerging markets. Maritime security, particularly in the IOR, is of expanding significance for the traditional powers as well as for the five Indian Ocean islands. Non-conventional security challenges in the Indian Ocean affect these actors.  A new reality amongst the Indian Ocean rim states should develop to reestablish the Asian power balance by revising their Indian Ocean policies. The foreign policy mix of the Indian Ocean rim states will bring about an extent of sustained socio-economic growth in the six regions encircling the Indian Ocean.

About the Author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) umbrella. As a Lecturer he focuses on comparative politics of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Dr Fernando is an academic specialist in International Relations and an adviser on New Regional Diplomacy. He has received accolades such as the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union.’