Prospects for IOR Coalitions


The geopolitical environment in the Indian Ocean has seen epochal transformation. The small island States of the Indian Ocean have been geographically, historically and politically torn between India and the Western spheres of interest. In the globalised world, the most important sea route is considered to be the Strait of Malacca in South-East Asia. The coalition of Indian Ocean islands and the Europeans are natural partners .The latest development in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) is defined by the shifting balance of power and the newly emerging forms of cooperation.  

Indian Ocean alliance

The Indian Ocean island States of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion have developed solid bilateral links with their neighbouring States and global powers.  When considering strategic partnerships, the geographical proximity of these neighbouring five islands is a vital factor for the formation of such partnerships. While the IOR is diverse in political and cultural terms, it is linked by a unified body of water which carries the shipping lanes of most of the main global economic powerhouses. The new regional order currently under way offers a unique prospect for the European Union (EU) to demonstrate its added value. The foreign policies of both the EU and these five island States were established over a decade ago.

EU’s IP strategy

These five island States avoid explicit reference to great power competition.  However, for its economic security, the EU recognises the significance of the sea routes near these islands in the Indian Ocean. To protect the freedom of navigation and to reinforce the EU’s naval diplomacy, its Indo-Pacific (IP) Strategy calls for an increase in joint exercises and port calls in these five Indian Ocean islands.  For their part, these five island States tend to see the EU as a prospect to increase their economic leverage. As the world’s largest trading block and top economic partner of these five island States, the EU is dependent on maritime traffic and on its sea routes in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

In September 2021, the EU formally presented its own long-awaited IP Strategy. In this strategy the EU laid out how it will seek to reinforce the rules-based international order and address global challenges.  This Strategy reflects the EU’s resolve to advance its role in the IOR and to better coordinate its ongoing regional activities.  In relation to IP issues, the EU is in close consultation with the US. Collaboration between the EU and the five Indian Ocean island States takes place bilaterally and also in a broader multilateral setting.

The EU rightly prioritises new and critical areas of cooperation through its IP Strategy. The EU and the five island States already have a solid foundation to shape future cooperation. The EU IP Strategy fundamentally is a maritime strategy.  This Strategy recommends developing a comprehensible approach to the Indian Ocean formulated around collaborating with key partners among the Quad States; a four-way alliance consisting of the US, Australia, India and Japan.   The European Commission particularly emphasised the need for strong partners in the IP based on the promotion of EU’s ideas and values.

EU and the big four

With a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, France and the UK are established historical maritime powers. The IP space is a geographic reality for France with its presence in the IOR via its overseas territories. France considers itself to be a resident power in the IP with its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering Réunion. The country has a firm eye on India and also on the stability and importance of the Indian Ocean.   The French presence in the Indian Ocean demonstrates its ambition to be a middle power with global outreach.  As France attempts to engage with the five island nations the possibilities for greater trade, investment and geographical indicators becomes more positive.

Germany’s new IP policy guidelines were adopted on 2 September 2020.  The five Indian Ocean island States, with their strong presence and long-term commitment in the region, contribute towards stronger interconnection and regional dialogue of Germany and Europe. Thus, in drafting its policy guidelines, Germany has shown growing attention to economic, geopolitical and security developments in the IP region.


Italy strongly upholds the Strategy as the ideal framework to conduct its IP foreign policy. India, Japan and Italy have initiated a trilateral agreement to engage on the IP Region’s security, stability and prosperity.  Recently, Italy launched the dynamic Italy- Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) platform to showcase its obligation and active involvement in the region.

Dutch vision

While the importance of the IP region is growing the geopolitical and geo-economic balance of power is shifting rapidly. The third EU member state to release an IP strategy was the Netherlands. Netherlands has significant economic and diplomatic influence with the five Indian Ocean islands.  In its new policy document, Netherlands describes its strategy for the IP as a ‘Unique Dutch Vision’. In addition, another five nations notably Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal, and Romania are also ready to define their IP strategy.

UK’s IP policy

Britain’s new foreign policy strategy contains ambitious goals in the IP State actors such as India, Japan, the US and Australia welcomes the UK’s IP tilt. The US and the UK have committed themselves to coordinate the enactment of their respective IP strategies. UK-India relations have seen a ‘quantum leap’ given the changing geo-political environment, the shifting priorities and the mutual gains to be achieved. The UK, Japan and India’s trilateral engagement on security, defence and particularly on maritime issues has much potential. While engaging in bilateral cooperation, Japan and India are closely aligned in the IP as Quad members. 

IOR changes

 In conclusion, it is crucial that a multipolar region should be permitted to develop.  The EU’s IP strategy indicates the possibility of establishing maritime areas of interest in the IP and their deployment of naval forces under the concept – Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP). The EU sees India and the five islands as key players and partners: to address all challenges in the IP and to overcome inactions of the past, to have numerous opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the future.

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