Diplomacy Of IOR Islands Leveraging A New Regional Order

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The Indo-Pacific is presently spearheading the global geopolitical discourse as a vital regional strategy. The Indo-Pacific (IP) concept, from a realism perspective is understood mainly as a balancing strategy. As a geopolitical strategy, the Indo-Pacific extends an ‘ideational construct’ for supporting value-oriented and norm-based regional diplomacy. In the foreign and security policy discourse, the Indo-Pacific (IP), as a geographical and strategic construct, promotes closer ties with countries like India, Japan and France within a US-led regional order. For the US and its allies who have mainly adopted the Indo-Pacific concept, the region is primarily of geo-economic concern. In recent years, the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion have often appeared on the diplomatic radar screens of the US (United States of America), India and France. The geographic locations of these five island States in the Indian Ocean makes it vital to propel the strategic interests of the US and its allies.

More recently, along with the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Quad (Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) concept has been introduced and advocated by numerous States at several points in time. The US regards the five small island States as a transit to the Indian Ocean and a vital partner in the Indo-Pacific (IP) region. For these five States, the characteristic of being island nations and their proximity to India is crucial in maintaining their political and financial relationship. This alliance will enable the US to increase its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Through the Indo-Pacific (IP) foreign policy the US and India influence the domestic politics of these island States. The US having made India its strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region, indicates its dependence on India.

India’s nearest island neighbour

 At the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, India pronounced its Indo-Pacific policy which included principles on keeping the region “free, open and inclusive”. From a regional standpoint, small island nations need India to advance their strategic interests. As the largest nation in the region, India perceives the five small island States to be important in numerous ways for its geo-political and trade interests while also promoting its ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine. For these island States, India has been the de facto security guarantor for decades.

Synthesising US-EU Diplomatic Cooperation

Forming a crucial pillar in India’s regional policy is the Western Indian Ocean (WIO), taking centre stage in France’s interests in the Indian Ocean. Of the European nations, so far, only France, Germany and Netherlands have presented their own ‘Indo-Pacific’ concepts. Having released a strategy for the region, France is a resident power in the Indo-Pacific with a chain of islands in the region.

Considering the continuing focus on the Indian Ocean region, the relationship and the formulation of a US foreign policy with the five islands has gone through a metamorphic change. One of the significant beneficiaries of the new thrust in US foreign policy is India. The nature of India’s ties with these five islands will determine the future in its favour: for regional continuity, to promote strategic interests, and strengthen economic prosperity of each other.

Protecting Sri Lanka’s Primacy in the IOR

As a close ally of the US, India is further pursuing grounded ties with its Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ foreign policy doctrine. The need to re-establish its strategic place in the Indo- pacific region has been a significant motivation for the Sri Lankan Government. 

India has historically stood by its neighbouring island nation during its challenging times and still abides by this policy today by being a trustworthy partner and mitigating the island nation’s economic burden. As such, India is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most trusted and closest external partner with assurances of security and progress. India and Sri Lanka deem one another to be mutually important for geopolitical and strategic reasons. Sri Lanka, with its new ‘India First’ doctrine, intends to further widen its engagements with India and protect India’s strategic security interests. Sri Lanka will be an important island partner for India with whom it can easily progress its ties to maintain the balance of power in the region. Given the increasing convergence of the strategic interests of Sri Lanka and its neighbours, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has mainly been characterised by synchronising its policies with the multipolar system and balancing the foreign policy manifestation with outreach to different regions and regional groupings.

Maldives foreign policy in a new era

The Maldives which is well within the boundaries of the Indian strategic orbit is a vital buffer zone that divides the East and the West of the Indian Ocean. The Maldivian Islands have strategic checkpoints on either end of their borders in the Indian Ocean through which oil passes on a daily basis. Well within its boundaries are the Straits of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait. Situated close to the equator, the Maldivian Islands have a vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that requires surveillance and security for important shipping lanes. Because of the Lakshadweep Islands to its West, India appreciates rights over almost 400,000 square kilometres of the EEZ. Also, directly involved in the defence of these small islands within the Indian Ocean is the United States through their naval base in Diego Garcia. Around 30,000 US defence personnel in the 35 sq. km base provide protection to the Indo-Pacific region. 

Mauritius-Seychelles -Reunion strategic cooperation

Under these unique circumstances, both Seychelles and Mauritius are located in geostrategic positions in the Indian Ocean with a bearing on their economic futures. A major part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of these nations is dependent on fisheries and tourism. Through their diplomacy, Seychelles and Mauritius have been long time supporters of the notion that the Indian Ocean should be a ‘zone of peace’. These two islands that span the ocean from India to Africa are the most crucial strategic islands in the South West for India. Part of India’s broader design is its attempts to establish security footholds in Mauritius and Seychelles.

India has been the largest exporter of goods and services to Mauritius and its largest trading partner. As a route to economic development, both the Seychelles and Mauritius have been pursuing the concept of a ‘Blue Economy’. As an island nation, Mauritius is at the centre of marine transportation on the Indian Ocean and is one of key nations for realising a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Mauritius and Seychelles are a part of France’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy. With the proximity of Réunion as a neighbouring State, France maintains close and friendly ties with Mauritius. France has released its Indo-Pacific strategy to guide its international action in this region while considering to being a part of the Indo-Pacific (IP) on the grounds of history and overseas territories. Currently, France is the sole European Union (EU) Member State to have territories in the Indo-Pacific region. Given the high stakes in the Indo-Pacific, (IP) France has strategic interests in the region where it has island territories including Reunion island. France’s military existence in the region is made up of ongoing ‘sovereign forces’ positioned at the French dominions in the Indian Ocean. 

Geopolitical shifts and strategic choices

In conclusion, it can be summarised that the Indian Ocean is a strategic arc for the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept. For small island States, the agenda of the collective approach has been reinforced by the ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy. A new line of thinking has developed in recent years on utilising diplomacy for the stability and sovereignty of small island States. The good relations that the  leading powers, the US, India and France, have with the  five Indian Ocean  islands  of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion could lead to enhancing their collaborative  association in the  Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

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