Indo-Pacific Order: Pursuit of a Neoclassical Realist Model in the Indian Ocean Realm


 Neoclassical realism is an important approach to international relations.   This approach claims that the extent and objective of a nation’s foreign policy is determined principally by its relative material power or resources.  Neoclassical realism strives to clarify the grand strategies of individual States as opposed to recurrent patterns of international outcomes. Neoclassical realists examine the policy process in a different manner. Small island States broadly have some common features.   As such, these States can be described as ‘the State which is characterised by limited national capabilities’. The two main strategies for the alliance policies of these States are balancing and bandwagoning. An external actor may encounter a comparative decrease in power, or it may increase its power projection, both of which alter the structural limitations acting upon a State’s foreign policy options. To overcome this inherent problem, Small island States usually depend on allying with great powers. 

Global and regional international systems largely affect small island States. In times of conflict among great powers they may be prepared to pay attention to small island States and aspire to ally with them. This can be seen as a favourable situation for small States. There has been a shift in the approach of the island nations of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Réunion islands   to the Indo-Pacific and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (comprising the United States of America (US), India, Australia and Japan).  The advocates of neoclassical realism underscore the constraints on great powers that originate in the international system and the domestic environment.   To work towards a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region is one of the primary objectives of the Quad. India is evidently central to any meaningful concept of the Indo-Pacific. India should make sure that it continues to be the primary partner for small island States in the Indian Ocean. Countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consider India’s role in the Indo-Pacific to be crucial. India features prominently in all European strategies including in the defence and security components of the EU strategy. Furthermore, India has a solid partnership with France in the maritime sphere. The European Union (EU) and the four-nation Quad  has started envisioning a role for the five. Indian Ocean Islands  in its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. 

India and the Indo-Pacific order

 The Indian Ocean Region (IOR), is a part of India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ and   the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) maritime cooperation policy which aims to improve and extend regional cooperation among India’s maritime neighbours.  In an era of great power competition, the five Indian Ocean small island States    in their trends of economic interdependence have begun to formulate effective foreign policies and have transformed them from inefficient States to efficient regional States. India as a regional superpower that is slowly moving towards being a global power needs to transform its foreign and defence policies to a higher level aimed at responsible behaviour towards its neighbours in order to bring about political, economic and military stability in the region.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy in Transition

 Small nations like Sri Lanka have to implement a balancing act regarding the prevailing United States’ Indo-Pacific Foreign Policy.  Evolving as a regional power, India has extended its maritime orbit of security in the Indian Ocean especially with its Southern neighbour, Sri Lanka. By appealing to their mutual interests, small island States like Sri Lanka have exerted influence on nations like India. India and Sri Lanka share solid and consistent economic interdependence. On the whole, economic diplomacy is undoubtedly a very significant segment of this foreign interface. Through its Neighbourhood First policy, India has proved its true genuineness and priority by its constant support for Sri Lanka. With its new India First approach, Sri Lanka does not aspire to jeopardise India’s current strategic security interests in the India Ocean region. Certainly, small island States should exert influence on large States like India by appealing to mutual interests.

Maldives’ Neighbourhood Diplomacy

 Some small island nations benefit from their larger neighbours. Situated five hundred kilometres off the coast from India and Sri Lanka, the Maldives has strategic chokepoints at both ends of the Indian Ocean.  The President of Maldives has Stated that “Maldives and India share common perspectives on peace and stability in the South Asia and Indian Ocean Region”. The new Maldivian government has pursued an “India First” policy since 2018. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy has helped the Maldives to gain immense economic benefits. India has also reinforced its strategic links with the Maldives.

Diego Garcia and the United States

 In addition to India’s strategic influence, the U.S (United States of America) has a direct defence impact on small island States in the Indian Ocean with the presence of its naval base in Diego Garcia. Around thirty thousand U.S. defence personnel are present on this  thirty-five Square kilometre base with the purpose of providing protection to the Indo-Pacific (IP)  region.

Geostrategic Importance of Western Indian Ocean

  Small island States located in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) such as Seychelles and Mauritius are economically and politically important for stability and security in the Indian Ocean region. The mainstay for international development has been stability and security on the Indian Ocean waterways. Mauritius is willing to promote and maintain a secure, inclusive, peaceful and a free and open Indo-Pacific foreign Policy. Given its trade and strategic importance and in order to wield influence, the Indo-Pacific region is the most vital region for any State. The geographical location of Seychelles in the Gulf of Aden provides it with unique privileges. With a territory in the Indian Ocean, France has articulated its focus on the Indo Pacific. France’s decades-long partnership with India is set to culminate in a significant defence partnership in the French territory of Reunion.  

A Strategy for islands of the Indian Ocean

 While being a major nation in the region and with the ability to influence regional groupings, India plays an important part in securing the sovereignty of these island States and their foreign policies. The US and India are very important nations in the foreign policy formulation of small island States. Through their counterbalancing act, the US and India influence foreign policy making in these island States utilizing the Indo-Pacific foreign policy.  A stable political environment is needed for small island nations to have a prosperous, peaceful and sovereign State. Therefore, to secure a better future, it will be advisable for them to be neutral and non-aligned with either of the great powers.

About the Author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando has a 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 the South  Asian Union.’

By Dr. Srimal Fernando