Paradigm Shift in Foreign Policies

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Neo-realism is one of the latest dominant theories in international relations. According to Neo-liberalist states are unitary rational actors; more specifically economic actors who will affect the world’s political system with their undertakings. From the standpoint of Neo-realism, there are fundamentally possible systems according to changes in the distribution of capabilities and defined by the number of great powers within the international system. Given their location in the Indian Ocean Rim, it would be an omission for the world powers to overlook island nations given the strategic importance to their regional foreign policy-making. In the long run, the nature and approach of dealing with them have benefits as well as serious challenges.

Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion have vital checkpoints on either end of their borders. Forging realistic and pragmatic positions on regional issues in the Indian Ocean sphere can lead to stronger cooperation and enhance relations. These small island states should certainly exercise influence on large states by appealing on their mutual interests. These five islands are considered by the US as key partners in the Indo-Pacific region and as the passage to the Indian Ocean. To offset the impact of different powers in this region, the enhanced US international foreign policy under the current administration is lining up with EU nations through its Indo-Pacific approach.  Having expanded its maritime orbit of security, India, a close ally of the US, is already pushing for stronger ties with its neighbouring Islands.

With time, India, the US and the EU have shifted the nature of their association with the Indian Ocean Island nations.    Considering the continuing focus on the Indian Ocean region, the relationship and the formulation of Indian, US and EU foreign policies with these Indian Ocean islands have gone through a metamorphic transformation. To create an environment of collective security and to enhance connectivity, the power-bound and trust-building neighbourhood strategy – the Gujral Doctrine of the late ’90s and the present-day Neighbourhood First Policy and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR ) doctrine remain intact. As a regional superpower and while slowly moving towards becoming a global power, India needs to transform its foreign and defense policy to a higher level to bring about political, economic and military stability in the region.  Subsequently this will create the vital preconditions for India, the US and the EU to establish a strong influence on the five Indian Ocean island nations.

Geopolitical Importance

A main feature of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been synchronising its policies with the multipolar system. For geopolitical and strategic reasons, both India and Sri Lanka consider each other to be mutually important.  India-Sri Lanka ties have gradually developed as far as perceiving economic diplomacy as a priority. A crucial local strategy need was India’s Neighbourhood First Foreign Policy which had a substantial bearing in setting the neighbourly links between India and Sri Lanka.  As the closest neighbour and with its new ‘India first’ strategic security policy, Sri Lanka does not intend to jeopardise India’s ongoing strategic security interests in the India Ocean region. Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean Island has been a key focus area of US and EU foreign policies.  EU-Sri Lanka ties commenced as early as in 1975 with the signing of a commercial cooperation agreement.  In 1995, the ties were further strengthened with the agreement on partnership and development. The EU’s GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) plus scheme has greatly benefited Sri Lanka with the provision of duty-free access to the EU: the country’s largest export market.

Foreign Affairs of Maldives

The Maldives has followed a policy of international engagement since 1978. A founder member of The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Maldives is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other numerous conventions on environment protection. Aiming to further deepen its engagements with India, the Maldives reaffirmed its India First Policy under its new “India First” doctrine recently.  The growing interdependencies of India and the US across various fronts are founded on basic key interests. The foreign and defense policies of India, the US and the EU nations with these five island nations are intact and India needs to get its Island neighbours on its side to create an environment of collective security and to enhance connectivity. 

Diplomacy

Diplomatic relations between India and Mauritius were established in 1948.  India and Mauritius are linked by a shared history. At present, around 68 per cent  of the Mauritian population is of Indian descent. One of the leading trading partners of Mauritius has been India. The first Trade Agreement signed by India with an African country is the India-Mauritius Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement.

After Mauritius gained independence from the United Kingdom, the United States established diplomatic relations with Mauritius in 1968. Mauritius is a leading beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act in the Indian Ocean. France is a major economic actor in Mauritius being its third-largest trading partner. 

The Seychelles provides a surprising case of successful small state diplomacy through its foreign policy. Seychelles attained freedom on 29 June 1976. India’s bilateral links with Seychelles has progressed over time.  India and Seychelles have a complex architecture of defence and security cooperation that has expanded over the years.  Given its geostrategic positioning, Seychelles is being courted not only by India but also by numerous other nations such as the US and France.  Réunion was a French colony until 1946 when it was granted the status of an Overseas Department. France maintains a naval base in the Réunion Island.  More recently, France has moved towards island diplomacy initiatives such as the alliances for bilateral engagement with the five Indian Ocean islands. 

India and its Island Neighbours

The small Indian Ocean island states such as Seychelles, Mauritius, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion located to the South and the West of the Indian subcontinent are economically and politically important for regional stability and security. Hence, to safeguard the territorial integrity of these three nations, focusing on maritime defense policy will be a key feature.

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