Niche Diplomacy of Commonwealth Creates a new Sphere of Influence


Neo-realism in international relations describes the interest of a State in terms of power and wealth in a period of great changes. The neo-realist perspectives in international politics have usefully highlighted the significance of system structure in shaping a State’s strategic behaviour. Essentially, small islands have lesser collective structural power than bigger States or regional powers. Debatably, a great power is a State with superior material power and hence it has additional power (capability to influence) to exercise outside its boundaries. As such, it is the opposite with small islands which are therefore more vulnerable to pressure, more likely to give in under stress, and have limited political choices that they can pursue.

Traditionally, the theoretical framework through which international relations describe alliances is neorealism. Alliances are usually formed by small island States and great powers in order to survive and to concentrate power. Collectively, the small islands in the Indian Ocean are more likely to have a preference for alliances than neutrality. Nevertheless, in broader observations, the identity of the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Réunion was conceptualised in a different manner than was previously.  The key factor here is that small island nations continue to face new challenges as well as new opportunities. Despite this fact these islands can either stay neutral or join alliances, as well as bandwagon or balance.  The foreign policy choices and outcomes of these island nations are influenced by the international environment at any given time.   In order to achieve successful bargaining outcomes these five Indian Ocean island nations have used diplomatic strategies and employed multilateralism.

Geopolitical interests

A neo-realist approach to current affairs such as multilateral diplomacy and international market regulation is absolutely necessary.   Diplomacy of small island States, particularly in the Indian Ocean region, has been seen to be vital for the Commonwealth’s geopolitical interests.  Of the fifty-six Commonwealth nations, twelve are littoral or island States in the Indian Ocean. Thirty-two of the Commonwealth nations are small States. In development cooperation, smaller States are currently interested in the South-South model rather than the traditional North-South model. These small Island States often pursue similar foreign policy objectives regarding their economy, diplomacy, prosperity and the overall wellbeing of their citizens. Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are member States of the Commonwealth. Despite its colonial roots, the member nations of the modern Commonwealth established in 1949 with the London Declaration spans over five continents.

When considering the collective gross domestic product of the Commonwealth member States, over 75 per cent of it comes from the four largest economies: United Kingdom, India, Canada and Australia. As the UK re-evaluates its global position post Brexit, Britain sees the Commonwealth as an opportunity to build new international relationships.

Commonwealth the Symbolic power in diplomatic practice

Spanning five continents and home to over  two  billion people, the modern Commonwealth is a voluntary association comprising fifty six States mainly with historic links to the United Kingdom (UK) . Seventy years on, the Commonwealth’s relevance and value has progressively developed. The mandate of the Commonwealth is to serve the needs of the Governments and citizens of its member States in the spheres of political, economic and social development. The Head of the Commonwealth is a symbolic role that was held by Her Majesty The Late Queen Elizabeth II. In 2018, during the summit, Britain’s new monarch His Majesty King Charles III formerly called, the Prince of Wales was officially chosen to succeed Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as head of the Commonwealth. The current Commonwealth comprises some eighty official and non-official bodies engaged in promoting multi-pronged partnerships among members of governments. The Commonwealth comprises three intergovernmental organisations: the Commonwealth Secretariat; the Commonwealth Foundation; and the Commonwealth of Learning. The key intergovernmental agency of the Commonwealth facilitating consultation and co-operation between member States and Governments is the Commonwealth Secretariat that was established in 1965.

The Shared Competence: India and the Commonwealth

Given the increased convergence of India and its neighbours’ strategic interests, the main feature of India’s foreign policy is synchronising its policies with the multipolar system and balancing the foreign policy manifestation with outreach to different regions and regional groupings.. India’s rising regional leadership role and increasing engagement with the Commonwealth helps to protect India’s common interests with member States. A prominent characteristic of India’s diplomacy has been its wider engagement with other Asian partners such as the Commonwealth nations. By striking the right balance, India stands to benefit both economically and strategically in its engagement with the Commonwealth. India has been engaged in all the vital aspects of the Commonwealth network of institutions while the Commonwealth has developed as a key ally for the future of India’s economy.

Island Diplomacy: Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

The Indian Ocean region’s ever-changing geopolitical landscape has driven Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to forge closer ties with the Commonwealth. As small island States, these nations have recognised the great need to interact with other Commonwealth nations. Sri Lanka was the eighth country to join the Commonwealth. Furthermore, in 2013, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was also held in Colombo. The highlight at this opening ceremony was an address by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who represented the Head of the Commonwealth.

In 2020, more than three years after the Indian Ocean island nation quit the association, the   Maldives re-joined the Commonwealth. The Maldives is also a member of the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance – the Blue Charter Action Group on tackling marine plastic pollution. India has always been an important supporter for Maldives to play a larger role in international organisations and for its readmission to the Commonwealth.  Mauritius, lying off the Southeast coast of Africa and East of Madagascar, joined the Commonwealth in 1968. Mauritius is a co-champion of the Blue Charter Action Group on Coral Reef Protection. Mauritius and Seychelles sign the groundbreaking Treaty to create the world’s largest off shore joint management area.  The Treaty is unique in that it provides for seabed resource management for the mutual benefit of both countries.

IORs Pursuit for Multilateralism

Essentially, the Indian Ocean region’s (IOR)  evolving geopolitical landscape has driven Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to form closer ties with the Commonwealth. Arguably, the nature of India’s ties with its immediate neighbours, Indian Ocean member States and other partners, will go a long way in providing the required motivation for the prosperity of Commonwealth member nations.  Undoubtedly, a good multilateral policy will assist these islands to exploit the massive economic opportunities offered by Commonwealth members.

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