India and the IOR: Policy Convergence in a Multilateral Arena
By Dr Srimal Fernando
To restore the Asian power balance in the Indian Ocean, a new reality needs to emerge among the Indian Ocean rim states by rethinking their Ocean Policy. An Ocean Policy is a code of behaviour formed for a nation’s strategy, course, development plans and external relations concerning the seas. A region’s security and well-being could be ensured only by incorporating vital foreign policy strategies such as the Ocean Policy.
Bordering the Indian peninsula, the Indian Ocean is a strategically important and resource rich oceanic space connecting the world’s diverse regions which acted as a platform for exchanging knowledge, culture, technology and goods and services benefiting the numerous regions that border this ocean. The Indian Ocean once again stands at the point of change in the 21st Century and for good reason.
The world’s fastest-growing economies are concentrated in Asia with a substantial proportion of global trade moving through the Indian Ocean. With vital sea lanes that help feed some of Asia’s largest economies and as the third-largest body of water in the world, the significance of the Indian Ocean has long been clear. The Indian Ocean is rich in natural resources and the Indian Ocean basin is where forty per cent of the world’s offshore oil production takes place.
The Indian Ocean is a good model of where normative frameworks such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) apply in principle. The emergence of regional organisations such as ASEAN (Association of North East Nations), SAARC (South Asian Association for regional cooperation) and others has unfolded a new era of security through regionalism. With the concept of peace and stability, SAARC was the primary regional organisation that was established in the South Asian region. Though at a slower pace, compared to other regional organisations, SAARC has demonstrated its will to realise regional collaboration in the South Asian region.
India's IOR Strategy
For India: the littoral’s most populous nation, the Indian Ocean holds specific importance. Undeniably, India’s leadership role will be significant in defining the strategic future of the rest of the Indian Ocean’s littoral states including those outside the region. Bridging the Indian Ocean to the Pacific in the East and the Mediterranean in the West, this region is of strategic importance: In addition, by connecting the states that produce natural resources with other consumer states, this region has emerged as a vital intersection of maritime trade.
The strategic geographical positioning and physical magnitude of India, provides the country with excessive political, economic and strategic influence over its immediate neighbouring states thereby naturally upsetting the balance of power in the region in favour of India. With the newly developing threats in the global arena, it is now important for India to take the needed steps with the backing of Indian Ocean rim states to preserve its security in the international order. By incorporating its foreign policies such as Neighbourhood First policy, Link West Policy, Act East Policy, Indo Pacific and Focus Africa Plan into the platform of Indian Ocean Rim states, India can become politically, economically and diplomatically strong.
With its strong position in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), India can advance its emergence as the world’s third largest economy and subsequently improve intrastate dynamics and economic performance of the other states in South Asia. The gradual transformation of South Asia from a realist region to a neo realist region took place with the conceptualization of regional organisations such as SAARC, IORA and ASEAN. Indian diplomacy in the last two years has concentrated on the regional and continental approach towards foreign policy such as the Neighbourhood First policy, Act East, Focus Africa Plan, Link West and Indo-Pacific.
Rich in resources and connecting the contiguous waters of the Indian Ocean with the Western Pacific, the Indo-Pacific biogeographic region has gained traction in the last number of years with the shifting global center of gravity that has been propelling towards this region in both geo-political and geoeconomic terms. The Indo Pacific region, as a geostrategic construct goes further than a geographical demarcation.
Both, the US and India collaborate on a broad range of diplomatic and security matters in this region such as defense, nonproliferation and regional cooperation. India remains crucial for the US’s strategy in the region since the two nations share a common strategic vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific is a brandnew area in India’s foreign policy engagement, describing a modification in India’s strategic setting expanding its perils entirely from its continental borders to its maritime area.
Small Island States
Diplomacy of Small Island States, specifically in the Indian Ocean sphere, has been identified as being integral to the geopolitical interests of these states. Similar to other states in the sphere, for Small Island States such as Sri Lanka, diplomacy forms a vital part of the international and regional order that operates in the political and economic environment of the Indian Ocean sphere.
Notably, these Small Island States often pursue comparable foreign policy objectives related to economics, diplomacy, prosperity and the overall wellbeing of their population. Given these dynamics, Sri Lanka, as a small island state, has recognised the great need to interact, influence and benefit from its diplomacy with other such states in the Eastern and Western Indian Ocean Region. At the bilateral level, the ties between Sri Lanka and other Small Island States have been influential in shaping the foreign policy dynamics of these states. Over the years, Sri Lanka’s strategic relations with other states have been progressively getting stronger.
This new pattern of cooperation by establishing collective associations of security and regional arrangements can be the beginning of a new era in India’s foreign and defense policies. This has been accomplished through policy scrutiny, regional ties and the role of foreign nations in regional partnerships. The maritime doctrine of India focuses on the country’s maritime security with its neighbours. India’s security necessitates reinforcing its diplomatic and defense cooperation specifically in the Indian Ocean. Hence, India should foster regional collaboration within the Indian Ocean rim states to offset future security threats.
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 SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 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