Middle Powers Shaping Strategic alignment future of Indian Ocean Islands


 The concept of middle power has evolved considerably since the twentieth century through constant diplomatic practice. This concept has continuing relevance in contemporary international relations (IR) theory.  In the international system, middle power refers to states with moderate influence and strategic importance. Significant interest in middle power has returned with the re-emergence of multi-polarity as the predominant format of international affairs. With regard to small island states and particularly in matters concerning their own regional systems, these islands may pursue middle power ‘great strategies’. The evolving geopolitical circumstances in the Indian Ocean Region have led to the formation of new alliances between states in this part of the world.

This region has become the geopolitical arena of power.  Hence, Indian Ocean island states should not be taken for granted by major powers or traditional powers. By committing to neutrality and refraining from taking sides, the five Indian Ocean island states of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion can pursue self-reliance and survival. These islands can hedge their position by balancing relations with an assertive power against those with a competing force. The conceptual underpinnings are geographic. The geographic positioning of these five islands in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) at the geopolitical juncture of maritime powers and regional powers plays the role of buffer zone or choke points. 

Strategic priorities

The concept of middle power has provided a vital framework for the diplomatic initiatives of South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The multilateral approach of these states has been influenced by their middle power and strategic priorities. As rising middle powers, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia are well placed to make significant contributions towards the stability of the five Indian Ocean islands through trade, aid and diplomatic initiatives.  South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia have established solid diplomatic ties that have developed progressively with the five Indian Ocean islands. By updating the scope and scale of middle power definitions and presenting more clarity to the Indian Ocean regional order, South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia are placed as regional middle powers.

South Korea: A rising  middle power in  the Indo–Pacific

The concept of middle power has been prominent in South Korea’s diplomatic narrative for more than a decade. Korea’s middle power characteristics have largely been understood in geographical, hierarchical and strategic terms under the presidencies of Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae and  YoonSouth. An increasingly important part of South Korea’s middle power diplomacy in the Indian Ocean Region is likely to be Official Development Assistance (ODA).  During the past decade, South Korea has been upfront in assisting the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion islands. The governments of Roh, Lee and Park have described their respective versions of middle-power diplomacy in different terms. Another significant feature of Korea’s foreign policy has been regarding Asian regionalism.

 The middle power aspiration of the Roh Moohyun (2003–08) government was expressed in the Northeast Asian Initiative which projected South Korea’s pivotal role as a regional ‘balancer’ or ‘hub’ to facilitate regional cooperation in economy and security. South Korea’s self-identification as a middle power took a more explicit form mainly under Lee Myung-bak (2008–13). Lee’s ‘niche diplomacy’ concentrated on issues such as international development, environmental and economic cooperation. In comparison to its predecessor, the Lee administration made limited efforts to apply a middle power vision in a regional security context. As a means of countering military tensions with North Korea, Lee pursued to further strengthen the country’s strategic ties with the United States.

The government of Park Geun-hye’s (2013 to 2017) has founded its foreign policy on three pillars within a predominant philosophy of ‘Trustpolitik’. These pillars consist of: the Trust-building Process on the Korean Peninsula; the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative; and middle-power diplomacy.After coming into power in 2017, the Moon Jae-in administration has initiated a ‘New Southern Policy’. This doctrine promotes closer links with ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ) and India while bringing them on par with the four major powers.  The Yoon government has realigned its foreign and security policy by strengthening the country’s own defence forces and security alliance with the US and enhancing ties with Japan and China.

Indonesia: A rising regional power

Indonesia, which is a resource-rich nation, is the largest country and the biggest economy in Southeast Asia. In this context, Indonesia is questionably not considered as a middle power but conceivably as a regional great power in Southeast Asia. The nation is possibly the foremost middle power to have used traits of liberal-realism in its foreign policy. Given the vibrant trade relations with Indonesia and the evident potential synergy, the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion islands have great interaction with the 17,000 islands of Indonesia.  There is a need to revive the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to assure  persuasive takeaways. The NAM had its roots in the Bandung Conference of April 1945 in Indonesia.  For Indonesia, IORA is a meaningful affirmation of President Joko Widodo’s global maritime fulcrum policy (GMF).  The policy has strong oceanic connection influenced by Indonesia’s past maritime kingdom such as Majapahit and Sriwijaya historical pride

Malaysia and its foreign policy

 Through its foreign policy, Malaysia has sought to present the country as a middle power in both the regional and in the global landscape. Since the late fifties, Malaysia has had a consistent foreign policy.   Malaysia continues to develop economic and diplomatic ties with the five Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion islands. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are seeking alternate security frameworks founded on cooperative principles in line with ASEAN’s aversion to notions of collective security. The foreign policy approach of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003), favoured Malaysia’s autonomy on the global platform on several instances. For a country of its size, its influence and leverage in regional and global affairs had been remarkable. Abdul Razak, was the pioneer in steering the country towards a neutral course .During Najib Razak’s tenure as Prime Minister, Malaysia’s ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states deepened substantially.

Middle powers continue to influence IOR

The Northeastern and ASEAN middle powers lead the way in forging trade agreements with the island nations in the Indian Ocean Region. A modest disbelief in power is required to be a middle power. Middle powers such as South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia   retain a privileged position in influencing the Indian Ocean’s regional order.  While investing in the economies of small island states of   Mauritius, Seychelles, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Réunion, today, these middle powers have a uniquely privileged position that   plays a major role in the power dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region.

About the Author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in 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