Calibrating aN Indo-Pacific Strategy for IOR Island Alliance

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The Indian Ocean is a strategic arc for the “Indo-Pacific” concept. The Indo-Pacific construct consisting of the Indian Ocean Island States and the Indian Ocean is seen as an increasingly interdependent strategic and economic space. The geographic conception of the Indo-Pacific (IP) spanning the Indian Ocean has now become a new policy and power projection of the five small island States of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion. The five island nations are strategically positioned in the vast Indian Ocean region (IOR). In its most prominent expressions, the Indo-Pacific notion is also linked with an exclusionary perception of regional order in the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific is home to some of the world’s rapidly developing economies. Some of the reasoning behind the Indo-Pacific’s advancement is the changing geopolitics of energy. 

The three sides of this new Indian Ocean construct will be: the West coast of India, the East coast of Africa and the Gulf Arab nations. The foreign policy priorities of the five Indian Ocean small Island States predict the probable engagement with Gulf Arab nations. As Island Nations, Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion should advance their national interests without compromising their external links with the Quad or with the ‘new’ Indian Ocean middle powers including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) , and Qatar. Through their foreign policies and engagement with traditional and new powers, the five-Island States could lay the foundation to alter the dynamics of the regional order. 

The Quad: a four-way alliance consisting of the United States (United States of America), Australia, India and Japan have solidified their ties to ensure a free and open Indo – Pacific policy. A seemingly distinguishable feature among the Quad States is that all four are democracies. India has been specifically active in supporting the democratic nature of the Quad and the five small Island States in the Indian Ocean. In this region, India particularly has a solid interest in maintaining a stable balance of power. The five small Island States will continue to depend on the Quad alliance and the support of the Indian Ocean to strengthen their strategic interests. The Gulf Arab countries are emerging as a vital sphere of competition in the Indo-Pacific. 

Gulf region’s new energy diplomacy

The five Indian Ocean Island Nations of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion have been exploring means to obtain maximum benefit from the energy-rich Gulf region in the fields of business and trade, expat remittances and the continued supply of energy. With limited governance in the Indian Ocean, Middle Eastern diplomacy could contribute to the stability of the Indian Ocean region. The three Gulf Arab States – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are positioning themselves as central actors in this sphere. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established as a common market with the goal of realising a fully integrated single market. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia commenced with key steps to create a single currency for the GCC In 2014. The Gulf Arab States are among Sri Lanka’s strong trading partners and are also the key source of remittances and energy supply to fulfil the country’s massive demand for petroleum. For most part of the last four centuries, the Gulf populations looked across the seas to build political and economic ties much more than they looked across the land. Saudi Arabia remains of vital significance to the rising middle powers in the Indian Ocean Region. Saudi Arabia is encircled on the Western and Eastern side by the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Arabian Gulf. The Arabian Sea is an expanse of the Northern Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean continues to be of significant strategic importance as an arena of superpower rivalry and intervention. 

Primacy of Saudi Arabia in regional affairs

Saudi Arabia occupies about four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia is being seen as a rising middle power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In their Middle Eastern diplomacy, the five Indian Ocean Island Nations have always given priority to their relations with Saudi Arabia. Given the significance of global energy markets, the basis of bilateral or multi-lateral bonds will be formulated on the fact that Saudi Arabia serves as a vital petroleum providing point for these States. 

UAE leveraging for a new regional order

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally of Saudi Arabia, is also spreading its wings. Over a long period the UAE has provided financial and political support to the small Indian Ocean Island States. The UAE also anchors the country into the Indo Pacific geography. The UAE’s Asia policy has been the most apparent. For the period 2019–2022, the UAE like Saudi Arabia used its rotating presidency of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to put issues such as the blue economy on the agenda. Having strong political links with Indo-Pacific nations, the UAE may feel confident about its hedging strategy towards the Indo-Pacific (particularly in maintaining strategic autonomy) but in the final reckoning, the national security and overall stability of the country remains extremely dependent on Western military presence. The five small Island States of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion provide valuable possibilities to seek a range of external policy priorities.

Geo strategic choices for Qatar

Qatar strived to establish itself as the architect of the newly materialising regional system. Qatar’s Indian Ocean regional ties and foreign policies are defined by a strategy of balancing acts and alliances. Qatar is targeting the promotion of greater cooperation with its neighbours and of strengthening the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In order to broaden its regional and global influence, Doha established stronger links with Tehran and Ankara, and these ties are likely to remain a vital component of Qatar’s foreign policy. Doha is likely to continue maintaining its independent foreign policy and engage in regional balancing to secure its strategic priorities with the five small Indian Ocean Island States. Qatar’s diplomatic ventures with these nations are in the form of investments, trade and substantial employment prospects for the islanders. Consequently, the foreign policy engagement of the five Island Nations with Doha could form the basis to pursue expanding bilateral or multi-lateral ties. 

New era in international solidarity

In the next few years, the profound changes at the fundamental level in the Indo-Pacific policy initiatives are likely to affect the littoral States in the Indian Ocean. Over a long period of time, the Gulf Arab nations and the other Quad nations have sustained solid diplomatic and business links with these small islands. The main goal of the small islands in the Indian Ocean when framing their foreign policy priorities should be to promote their national interests in consensus with the US (United States of America ) , UK ( United Kingdom) ,France and India without compromising their links with the other key nations in the Indian Ocean region. 

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.’

By Dr. Srimal Fernando