Indian Ocean Diplomacy

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Neorealism provides a strong basis for clarifying great power balancing behaviour. Scholars of neorealism have frequently focused on alliances and the balance of power to be the main characteristics of international relations. The formation of alliances widens the sphere to which neorealist theory has been shown to be applicable. However, small powers would favour a multipolar system in which they could pursue their interests unilaterally and collectively.  Formation of new regional small island alliances boosts cooperation.  On the international stage, the changing power metrics in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has drawn major attention. 

India’s gradual transformation from a regional superpower to a global power requires the country to transform its foreign and defence polices to a higher level.  A growing focus on its neighbours has made India develop its ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) Doctrine which is central to fostering its regional diplomacy.  One of the top priorities of India is the littorals of the IOR, particularly Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Réunion. These geopolitically well-located islands are of utmost importance to major nations to maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Sri Lanka

Located to the South and the West of the Indian subcontinent, these Island States are politically and economically important for the stability and the security of the region.

India is developing as a regional power that has extended its maritime orbit of security in the Indian Ocean specifically with its Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka. Its proximity to the Indian sub-continent positions Sri Lanka as a gateway to a market of 1.9 billion people in South Asia.  This has resulted in noteworthy engagements along with consequent arrangements with major countries such as India.

As far as perceiving economic diplomacy as a priority, India-Sri Lanka relations have progressively developed from the power bound and trust-building neighbourhood strategy; the Gujral Doctrine of the late ’90s to the present-day Neighbourhood First Policy. With its new India First foreign policy approach, Sri Lanka does not intend to jeopardise India’s ongoing strategic security interests in the Indian Ocean region. For India and Sri Lanka, improving maritime security in the Indian Ocean rim is critical for securing the strategic interests of both nations and achieving sustainable growth and development on a national scale.  The foreign and defence policies of India with its Southern neighbour is intact to create an environment of collective security and enhance connectivity of the exclusive economic zone.

Economic Diplomacy

Sri Lanka’s exports to India have recorded a sharp increase since March 2000 when the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement came into existence. Sri Lanka’s most important trading partner is India which is also one of the top sources of Foreign Direct Investment.  In 2020, India was Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner with bilateral merchandise trade amounting to about US$ 3.6 billion.

Hence, Sri Lanka recognises India to be its most trusted and closest external partner which provides assurances of economic stability to balance the order in the global shift.  India has extended US$ 2.4 billion support to Sri Lanka since the beginning of this year as the country grapples with an economic crisis. By its constant support to Sri Lanka, India has proved its true genuineness and priority through India’s Neighbourhood First policy.

Maldives

To agree on maritime boundaries, India and the Maldives signed a maritime boundary treaty in December 1976. In 1981, both countries signed a trade agreement to export essential commodities. Having grown from modest beginnings, bilateral trade between India-Maldives stood at US$ 246 million in 2020.  Maldives continues to be a top travel destination for Indian tourists providing a strong boost to the Maldivian economy.

Funded by India on a grant-cum-credit basis, the US$ 500 million Greater Male Connectivity Project is the largest infrastructure project to be implemented in the country. A 6.74 km bridge and causeway will connect Malé to its neighboring Islands. Thus, India’s foreign policy approach and prioritisation through its ‘Neighbourhood First’ doctrine wields more resources and influence on the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Mauritius, Seychelles and Réunion

Mauritius is progressively becoming a vital part of India’s Ocean Diplomacy.  From the five island nations, India has an advantage over Mauritius due to the strong cultural affinities it has with India given that more than half of the Mauritian population consists of Indians. Due to its Indian diaspora, many Indian companies have invested in Mauritius and played a significant role in its national and regional economy.  This development is one of the steps in India’s strategic vision for its ‘SAGAR Doctrine’ which offers more reasons for the Western Indian Ocean island nations to widen commercial and security ties with India.

India is among the leading trading partners of Mauritius in the last five years. The first trade agreement signed by India with an African country is the India-Mauritius Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA). India and Mauritius will provide preferential access to a number of items using the new framework under the CECPA. India and Mauritius have been working closely in developing the secure maritime link considering the security threats in the Indian Ocean region.

Réunion is geo-strategically located in the South-Western Indian Ocean. India and France have collaborations across a number of important sectors such as defence with specific emphasis on the Indian Ocean.  France has military facilities on Réunion. The latest Coordinated Patrols (CORPAT) between the Indian and French navies in Reunion Island became a possibility solely because India and France signed an agreement in 2018 that gave reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities.

Among the five island nations Seychelles geographical location in the Gulf of Aden provides it with unique privileges. Bilateral diplomatic ties between India and Seychelles have come a long way since 1979 after both nations established their residential missions in Victoria and New Delhi. However, India’s bilateral trade and commerce with Seychelles is rather modest. In the sphere of maritime defence India and Seychelles have had an elaborate architecture of defence and security collaboration which has expanded over the years due to increasing challenges posed by piracy and economic offences.

With the change in the global order and global power shift, nations will need to balance their foreign policy making founded on their interdependencies with their neighbouring States. In order to balance the power in the Indian Ocean, external powers such as India attempt to influence these States.

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