EU’s Geostrategic Interdependencies With the Indian Ocean Island Neighbours

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Balancing, in international relations theory, is one of the oldest and most intuitive concepts. For realists and neo-realists, a global balance of power might mean a return to normal international politics. Liberals debate that economic interdependence has decentralised the networks of power relations. An emergence of the geopolitical discourse on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ can be seen in recent years. In the post-Cold War period, the Indo-Pacific region has become the centre of gravity for global economic, political, and strategic interests.

The tendency of balancing geo-economic options with regional powers or with small powers states indicates that Europe endeavours to increase capabilities to form an alliance and also provide space for some small States to adopt neutrality. Large European Union trading partners can considerably influence small Indian Ocean islands. Numerous developing small island nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) have made significant advancement in the economic, social, and environmental dimensions, while many have established strong economic interdependencies with each other using economic diplomacy. With the rise of European Union (EU), there is a continuously evolving multipolar balance of power.

In the past four decades, the EU bloc of nations has expanded its sphere of influence in the IOR, specifically over India and its neighbouring island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Réunion. There are underlying political forces including the geography of these five Indian Ocean islands that shape their political options and establish certain limits and restrictions in the IOR. The new foreign economic policy has led to interdependencies between EU nations and India and its five Indian Ocean island neighbours. In the coming decades, the Indian Ocean region will shape the trajectory of regional diplomacy. Combining balance of power and developing multilateral mechanisms are necessary as simultaneous operations.  

EU, India, and its island neighbours

Since the commencement of diplomatic relations, India and the European Union (EU) have shared historical links. Dating back to the early 1960s, India was amongst the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the European Economic Community (EEC). These bilateral ties were further strengthened when India and the EU became strategic partners at the 5th India–EU Summit in 2004. In this backdrop, the EU considers itself as a natural ally of India. 

The EU and India celebrate sixty years of bilateral relations in 2022. The EU has indicated its global aspirations to become a player in the region that aligns with Indian interests. The Indian Ocean is the third-largest of the five oceanic divisions in the world. India’s geographical positioning in the IOR is crucial from strategic and economic viewpoints. The role of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as a facilitator of trade and fisheries management is emphasised by the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative.

From a geostrategic, geo-economical, and cooperation perspective, India is a champion of the principle of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ or FOIP. The EU is considered a natural partner in the IOR in terms of trade and investment. In addition, the EU’s efforts to chart a ‘third way’ could facilitate a new era of European strategic relations with IOR nations. Europe is also developing and administering its own Indo-Pacific Strategy cooperation with India and with the five Islands in the Indian Ocean.

In EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy in the IOR, the four most important European Union powers are considered to be France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. After Brexit, the United Kingdom (UK) aspires to be an Indo-Pacific security provider as a non-EU member. For the last four decades EU, and the UK in partnership with India has thrown its support behind the five Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Réunion. India’s closest island neighbours, Sri Lanka and the Maldives hold key strategic positions between the East and West Indian Ocean. The South-West Indian Ocean (SWIO) Islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Réunion lie at crossroads of their interests and those of India and the European powers.

EU-Sri Lanka economic diplomacy

EU-Sri Lanka ties began in 1975 with the signing of a commercial cooperation agreement between the European Commission (EC) and Sri Lanka. In 1995, the relationship was further enhanced with the agreement on partnership and development. The EU is Sri Lanka’s second-largest trading partner as a result of Sri Lanka’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status. Sri Lanka boasts a trade surplus with 17 EU member states. Total trade between the EU and Sri Lanka amounted to € 3,536 million in 2019 (gsphub.eu). In recent years, in its economic ties with the EU, Sri Lanka has seen growth in the tourism, textiles, and food processing sectors. 

EU-Maldives ties at 40

The roots of Maldivian-EU cooperation date back almost forty years. The largest foreign income earner for the Maldives continues to be the tourism industry. According to tourism statistics, European tourists consistently make up nearly 50 per cent of all arrivals, with over half a million European nationals visiting the country each year. Equally important are the economic aspects of the EU-Maldives relationship. The EU is one of the Maldives’ largest export destinations. 33 per cent of Maldivian total exports is worth more than € 220 million and the EU is one of the country’s largest trading partners (European External Action Service or EEAS).

Foreign relations of South-West Indian Ocean Islands

The European Union, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Réunion have strong diplomatic, political, economic, trade and development cooperation ties. In 2009, The Seychelles liberalised 98 per cent of its tariff lines under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). The EU continues to be the main trading partner of Mauritius. In the area of fisheries, the EU and Seychelles have built a solid partnership with successive sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements.

With its unique geographical positioning in the Southwest Indian Ocean, the   Réunion, an island and French overseas territory is an outermost region of the European Union. For this island, a priority is the development of tourism. Each year, around five hundred thousand tourists choose Réunion as a holiday destination. In the recent years, around 67 per cent of the tourist arrivals have been of European origin, with almost half of the visitors originating from France and Great Britain. 

Galvanising EU–IOR collective approach

High levels of trade and investment between EU nations and IOR nations such as India and its neighbouring islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Réunion will have more benefits. The application of economic interdependence will galvanise more bargaining power. In short, the future is in the Indo Pacific region, and the future balance of power in the IOR will mainly be influenced by the actions of European nations.

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 the South Asian Union.’

By Dr. Srimal Fernando