Geostrategic Significance of Middle Powers in the Indian Ocean Region


Power and capability issues are still a dominant discourse in the world of international relations (IR) and diplomacy. In regional governance, the role of middle powers can be examined to a larger extent.  Certain nations alter the behaviour of great powers. Middle powers aid in maintaining international order through building coalitions and are also known for their inclination to pursue diplomatic solutions that embrace compromise. Middle powers hold a unique relative position, while being less resourceful than great powers and more resourceful than small States. Capability deficiency is most often taken to imply a lack of influence. An opportunity has arisen.

Notwithstanding their small size, island States like Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion have sufficient weight to influence what occurs around them. For example, India and the Quad members were considered to be vital players and remained as critical partners for the United States of America (USA) to maintain the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In addition to their capacity, these nations have consistently presented favourable opportunities to assume an influential role specifically with the regional affairs of the five small Indian Ocean islands, which can do little to influence big powers, but provide greater manoeuvrability to shape the diplomatic order through emerging middle powers.

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy

As a focal region, the Indo-Pacific has become the global power centre. Spanning two oceans and several continents, makes the Indo-Pacific vital to US maritime interests. A quarter of US exports go to the Indo-Pacific. The Bush Administration began considering solidifying ties with allies in Asia and potentially revising the US doctrine.

There is transformation in the Indo-Pacific region as the global centre of gravity shifts from West to East. The Indo-Pacific region’s balance of power in the future will mainly depend on the actions of major powers. From Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, America’s foreign policy was realigned towards an Indo-Pacific strategy during the former Donald Trump Administration.

In addition to the expansion of the Quad partnership, the present Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific foreign policy strategy identifies strengthening US-India cooperation as a key line of effort. The global economic and strategic centre of gravity is represented by the Indo-Pacific region. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a policy symbol of regional engagement has been adopted by the United States, Australia, Japan, India, France, the United Kingdom (UK), and the EU (European Union). India, Japan, and Australia are vital pillars of a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region. This feature aims to explore plausible futures, power shifts, and consequences for the Indian Ocean Rim. The maritime trade routes connecting Europe and the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean via the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia have become vital to India. 

In the coming years, the strategic interaction between China and India will be a key part of the Indo-Pacific story. A noteworthy development taking place in the Indo-Pacific region is the escalating strategic and economic competition between the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion.

India and its Island Neighbours

The increasing significance of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has given new momentum to the Indo-Pacific region. The Straits of Hormuz and Malacca with key naval choke points are connected by the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) matters a great deal to the United States, which sees India as one of its most important partners in the IOR. Ensuring maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the broader Indo-Pacific region is vital for security.

For its part, India remains intent on attaining a position of regional dominance. India has been promoting a trilateral security dialogue with its closest island neighbours. India and the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion share maritime security and geopolitical interests in the IOR. India’s Southern neighbours are the two island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives from among the Indian Ocean islands.

The union territories of India are the Lakshadweep archipelago and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Southwest Indian Ocean features several islands: Mauritius, Seychelles, and a French island territory of Reunion islands. India’s Foreign Policy doctrines: The Neighbourhood First Policy and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), gives special priority to ties between India and the five Indian Ocean islands. The four-nation Quad dialogue developed as an informal strategic dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US to discuss concerns of collective interest. 

Japan’s Foreign Policy : ‘Yoshida Doctrine’ to ‘Abe Doctrine’

From the ashes of war, Japan has emerged to become the world’s second largest economy. Since 1952, Japan’s post-war foreign policy has been founded on the Yoshida Doctrine or Yoshida Line. This doctrine established that Japan’s key objective was to rebuild the Nation and thus concentrate its efforts on economic recovery.

Since World War II ended and with the shift in the global balance of power, the security alliance between the US and Japan is one of the bedrocks of America’s foreign policy. The group of major Indo-Pacific democracies: The United States, India, Japan, and Australia have an alliance called the Quadrilateral Dialogue or Quad which is committed to the Indo-Pacific region. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister’s foreign policy was unique in Japan’s post-war history. The late Japanese Prime Minister left a vital legacy in global economic rulemaking and norm-setting. 

Initially outlined in his ‘Confluence of the Two Seas,’ the late leader’s foreign policy doctrine introduced the concept of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ Having held office for nearly eight years consecutively, the first policy area in which Abe achieved striking success was the US-Japan alliance. On the historical front, during his tenure in office, Abe’s foreign policy doctrine put in place a strategy that contributed to the improvement and development of China-Japan relations. In addition, the late Japanese Premier made Japan’s relations with Russia as one of his foreign policy priorities. Like many Japanese premiers, Shinzo Abe endeavoured to broaden the scope of Japan’s diplomacy from South-East Asia to Europe.

Japan is heavily dependent on open sea lanes for its global trade. The Indian Ocean sea lines of communication are responsible for transporting vast numbers of Japan’s fossil fuel-based energy procurement from the oil-rich Arabian Gulf region. This aspect would result in Japan’s geostrategic interests with the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion. Japan has vital interests in the Indian Ocean Region and has also been a big infrastructure provider elsewhere in the region.

The Shifting Regional Geopolitics of IOR

With the return of great power competition, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has emerged as a key theatre of engagement. India, Australia, and Japan could demonstrate how a middle power can successfully set a path for these five Indian Ocean islands.

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