Geo-strategic Interdependency of India and its Island Neighbours

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The Indian Ocean is emerging as the ‘centre stage’ of the 21st century, while it also continues to be the platform in the pursuit of global strategic and regional powers. A specifically important feature of collective action of traditional powers with island nations in the Indian Ocean is enhancing the maritime domain. Given the geo-political importance of the Indian Ocean, the geostrategic positioning of the small island nations in the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean region (E&WIOR) is a vital factor for the foreign policy formulation of the traditional powers and the new powers. 

India’s capacity to become a key regional actor in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) cannot be overlooked. With regard to their alliance with rising powers, ambiguity in the foreign policies of the island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Reunion islands continues to persist. The relationship that India has with these five islands needs to be looked at from the framework of the new geopolitical and geo-economic transformation that is unfolding in the regional and global system. To reinforce this relationship, India has taken a multidimensional approach with trade and aid diplomacy being an important part of it.

India pursues expanding economic and security cooperation within the region which comprises strengthening maritime-security capabilities and maritime economies. The Indian Ocean island nations hold immense strategic value for India in influencing the geopolitical contours of the region and guaranteeing maritime security and order. Historically, India has stood by these island nations during their times of need and still abides by this policy by being a reliable partner and by easing the economic burden of these island nations. In order to strengthen its neighbouring ties, India should take into close consideration domestic matters when framing its foreign policy agenda with these five island nations. 

Interdependence between SAGAR vision and the Island nations

The Indian Ocean has surfaced as a sphere of importance for India as a segment of its Indo-Pacific strategy and the doctrine of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). India is located in the centre of the Indo-Pacific. More recently India has begun to take note of managing the oceans more seriously with a special emphasis on the Indian Ocean given the emerging dynamics of international diplomacy. The SAGAR perspective provides a significant contribution in shaping the maritime order while it covers the entire spectrum of relevant challenges and offers Indian capabilities in the form of hard power and soft power.

The changes that have been taking place within the broader strategic picture of the Indian Ocean challenge the Indian Ocean littoral States and also the other States. Conceptualising a commensurate holistic Indian Ocean maritime system, India’s strategic ‘SAGAR Doctrine’ provides more reasons for Eastern Indian Ocean island nations to deepen their commercial and security linkages with India. The greatest strength in India’s SAGAR initiative is its positioning in the centre of the Indian Ocean providing India unhindered access to the Indian Ocean Region. This doctrine will aid in leveraging the blue economy. India’s SAGAR initiative can be utilised in reference to ‘Project Sagarmala’ with the objective of revitalising ports that are important for trade and economic growth.

The Alliance of Indian Ocean Littorals

India’s Southern neighbours are the two island States of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The Maldives lies to the South-West while Sri Lanka is located to the South-East of India. Sri Lanka’s strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean holds massive importance for India thus providing numerous reasons for India to pursue improved bilateral ties. To Sri Lanka’s west lies the African continent and to its east are the key nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Given Sri Lanka’s prospects of being a valuable and collaborative partner has numerous advantages and provides further encouragement for India and US (United States of America ) to build diplomatic ties with the island nation.

Situated 500 kms off the coasts of Sri Lanka and India are the Maldivian Islands with strategic checkpoints on either ends of their boundaries in the Indian Ocean through which oil passes on a daily basis. Within its boundaries are the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait. Given its proximity to the equator the islands have a massive Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) that necessitates surveillance and security for vital shipping lanes. In order to maintain the regional balance of power, Sri Lanka and the Maldives will be important island partners with whom India can easily develop its ties. 

Mauritius and Seychelles have been strategic destinations for a number of major powers with vested interests in the region. A strong and vital partnership in the Indian Ocean neighborhood is shared by India, Mauritius and Seychelles.

Seychelles is central to India’s SAGAR vision. India had chosen Mauritius to put forward its SAGAR vision. In 2020, India’s foreign Minister visited the Seychelles where he talked about the centrality of Seychelles in India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).vision.

Islands of Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar

While the geo-political setting of India and the Indian Ocean might have transformed, its geography has not.  The Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Lakshadweep, have significantly helped India in enhancing its maritime capabilities Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar Islands are two natural sentinels for India. With system-defence and policing powers the Indian Navy has the strongest presence here while developing supplementary infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to maintain these tasks. Lakshadweep also known as Laccadives is India’s smallest union territory consisting of 36 islands with its administrative headquarters in Karavatti. For major States these strategically located small islands are of manifold importance to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Balancing the multilateral order

The recent past has seen the growth of India’s regional interests with its southern island Nations. The prime focus of India’s relations with Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Reunion islands is trade diplomacy and maritime security. From the standpoint of a regional perspective of the Indian Ocean, these small island States need India to further their strategic interests. As the largest nation in the region, India perceives these islands to be of manifold importance for its geo-political and trade interests and for also promoting its Neighbourhood First Policy and SAGAR doctrine. However, India’s priority should be safeguarding these small island States and the territorial integrity of 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