The new Era of geopolitics of IOR Islands

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The last few years have seen a surge in global attention on the Indian Ocean region (IOR) in both geo-economic and geo-strategic terms. The world has been taken by surprise by the rapid speed with which the Indo-Pacific agenda has gained momentum.  In the coming years, no region other than the Indo-Pacific will be more important to global peace and prosperity. In the Indian Ocean Regional neighbourhood, the political, economic and social landscape has changed significantly. India, France and Japan have all sought to reaffirm their identities as Indo-Pacific powers. The maritime sphere is a key energy and trade corridor where these nations have long enjoyed regional power status.

A central element of the Indo-Pacific strategies of India, France and Japan is connectivity and providing alternatives. In their broader Indo-Pacific strategy, these three world and regional  powers  in the Indian Ocean  have started  envisioning a path to strengthening relations  with  Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion.   The nexus of the three regional powers with the five Indian Ocean islands will develop to build on convergences in their vision of the Indo-Pacific to work for a free, open, inclusive and rules-based region. To form such an establishment for the future, ends and means carry much significance. 

US-India strategic partnership

A key principle of India’s foreign policy in the Indian Ocean had a massive impact on India’s historical engagement as the prominence of the Indian Ocean as a political space is in dominance. The United States is an Indo-Pacific power. The United States and India have been on track to increase the convergence of their Indo-Pacific regional strategies. The US national security strategy of 2017 had stated, “We will deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region”. India’s Indo-Pacific engagement dates back several centuries while the nation stands for an open, balanced, rules-based and stable international trade regime in the strategically  important region.

The US while aiming new security partnerships with India is working towards strengthening traditional alliances with Japan and France. India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) policy enables the nation to retain strategic partnerships with the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion. As neighbouring island nations, India needs to take a long-term view of its engagement with these five States.

In the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), ample evidence is provided by history. India has proven itself to be an instinctive and unstinted primary responder with these five Indian Ocean islands and has also built robust capacities. With the emphasis on the Indian Ocean, the role of these island States is crucial for India.   India has found itself in need of better ties with its Indian Ocean island neighbours and is also challenged to offer better options. Particularly through Project ‘Sagarmala’, the Blue Economy has been given renewed impetus. India is increasing the area covered by its Indo-Pacific policy to include the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. In order to deal with challenges and to focus on opportunities, India and the five Indian Ocean Islands will reinforce the ASEAN-centred regional architecture. The Indian Foreign Minister, Jaishankar made the strongest official statement yet on Europe’s role in the Indo-Pacific at the Indo-Pacific Forum in Paris in 22 February: “India appreciates the enormous contribution that Europe can make to world affairs”. The EU (European Union) strategy also gives prominence to the Indian Ocean which it calls the “gateway to the Indo-Pacific”.

Island diplomacy of France

 France has made the Indo-Pacific one of its priorities.  Given its territories in the region, France is considered to be a legitimate Indo-Pacific actor. France has increased its involvement in this region since the 1990s. With its overseas territories, France is the biggest and most active European player in the region. France entered into a new security alliance with the US and the UK.Paris has also been expanding other geopolitical partnerships in the region. This has meant building maritime partnerships with major Indo-Pacific actors. Specifically, France has maintained a relationship as well as a strategic partnership with India that goes back decades. 

Over the years, economic ties between France and the Indo-Pacific have grown immensely. There are more than 7,000 French subsidiary companies present in the region.  In addition, more than one-third of French exports to non-EU countries go to the region. French overseas territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans cover nearly 90 per cent of its exclusive economic zone.  On the military front, in its five military bases across the Indo-Pacific, there are about 8,000 French soldiers deployed permanently. 

France has historically pursued multilateral regional opportunities such as the Australia-France-India Trilateral Dialogue which appeared more promising for France.  France and India speak a similar language of strategic autonomy. France has moved towards island diplomacy initiatives such as the alliances for bilateral engagement with the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion.    The French Presidency in the Council of the EU in 2022 offers prospects for Paris to influence the EU as a force multiplier to progress its goals and agenda in the Indian Ocean.  

Indian Ocean Strategy of Japan

Currently, there has been a rise of Asian powers while the Indian Ocean is fast emerging as a huge economic and human resource potential. In the 2010s, Japan progressively increased economic links in the Indian Ocean region. Given the fluctuations in the Asia-Pacific region’s strategic environment and considering its roots and norms amidst three decades of change, both the Yoshida and Fukuda Doctrines   are still applicable for Japan’s relations with Indo Pacific nations.  Japan’s contribution to peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region was first mentioned by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declaring a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy in August 2016 during a keynote address to the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Nairobi.  

The Indian Ocean states islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion provide a market and an arena for cooperation for Japan.  Most significantly, Japan now appears to perceive that India has a stake in the stability of the Indian Ocean region.   The region has great economic opportunity. The five islands in the Indian Ocean are keen to enhance their links with Japan. Japan needs to step up its engagement with these key island partners.  It would be in Japan’s long-term interests to develop consistent relations with these five Indian Ocean islands.

The state of affairs of Islands 

At present, the Indian Ocean is indisputably the most active and most sought after ocean sphere. The five Indian Ocean islands have been central in the attempts of world powers to exercise dominance and influence. The exact path to strengthening relations between Japan and the five Indian Ocean islands will be forged by both sides. The five Indian Ocean islands envisage that the regional powers; India, France and Japan require a demand-driven consultative shared growth process.

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