With global power dynamics shifting from West to East, regional powers, namely China and India, have shifted focus to an ocean-based approach in determining geostrategies and foreign relations. The Indian Ocean, which facilitates a significant share of world trade and serves as an economic lifeline for over 2 billion people, has become a geopolitical hotbed. The Straits of Malacca in the east and Hormuz in the west are some of the most strategic choke points in this region, which hosts 64 percent of the world’s oil trade and movement of half of the world’s carrier ships. The availability of 40 percent of the world’s offshore petroleum, mineral deposits, and extremely diverse marine ecosystem, further makes the Indian Ocean region (IOR) important for economic and geopolitical interests.
Major littoral nations like China, India, Australia, France, as well as the countries of Southeast Asia and Africa ensure their strategic interests in the region through their own island territories or through engaging with smaller island nations.
There are two major reasons that explain the increasing significance of Indian Ocean islands: their location, which makes them vital for establishing a regional naval presence, and their proximity to sea lines of communications (SLOCs), which facilitates patrolling in the region during times of peace and conflict. The presence of these major powers in the form of naval establishments, trade, and infrastructure development aid to the smaller island nations, legitimizes their role as a security provider, thereby also allowing greater influence in the Indian Ocean region.
The challenges facing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, however, have significantly broadened. Traditional threats include the military presence of belligerent powers and the consequent strategic rivalry, as well as terrorism, piracy, and illegal smuggling; non-traditional threats include the challenges of climate change, such as increasing natural disasters and loss of traditional livelihoods. These disruptions severely impact the island nations in this part of the world. A close partnership between these island nations and larger littoral countries thus becomes a practical necessity and plays a critical role in maintaining stability in the region.
A strong governance and security architecture in the Indian Ocean is necessary and ought to be a global priority. New Delhi’s Indian Ocean policy, enshrined in “SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region,” articulates India’s vision for building a secured regional architecture, which includes “safeguarding mainland and islands, strengthening capacities of maritime neighbors and advancing peace and security” in the Indian Ocean Region.
For a country like India, the island nations of the Indian Ocean hold immense strategic value in shaping the geopolitical contours of the region and ensuring maritime security and order. The Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Lakshadweep, have significantly helped the country in enhancing its maritime capabilities. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are positioned close to the Strait of Malacca and are less than 90 nautical miles from Aceh in Indonesia. This enables India to closely observe military and economic activities in and around the Strait of Malacca and also overlook the maritime entry point of western Pacific countries in the Indian Ocean. To its west, India enjoys rights over nearly 400,000 square kilometers of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) due to the Lakshadweep islands.
Farther west from India, the islands of Socotra (Yemen), Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles have gained strategic importance, standing at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and South Asia. While Socotra is strategically located at the opening of Gulf of Aden, which connects the Suez Canal with Indian Ocean, the maritime zones of Madagascar, Mauritius, the Maldives, and Seychelles span over 1 million sq km, which allows them greater rights in ocean waters. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Madagascar in March 2018, the first ever by an Indian president, symbolized the increasing importance of African island nations in India’s ocean diplomacy and their role as a key stakeholder in building a secured regional architecture. However, it is with the island nations of Mauritius and the Seychelles that India primarily seeks to bolster its economic and strategic relations in order to influence the dynamics in Indian Ocean.
Mauritius’ proximity to some of the most important SLOCs (including the Cape route connecting Europe to Asia) and to West Asian oil fields has enhanced its commercial and strategic significance. As part of its efforts to further its relations with Mauritius, India transferred a patrol vessel to strengthen the island nation’s coast guard capacities. For better sea and air connectivity, Indian assistance will be provided for infrastructure development of Agalega Island that will inherently increase the defense capabilities of the island state and will also safeguard Indian interests in the region. Furthermore, Mauritius accounts for a majority of FDI inflow to India, with over 50 percent of the country’s population being of Indian origin. Development assistance to Mauritius, also called as “Little India,” as well as joint mechanisms to ensure a stable Indian Ocean region, thus, are mutually beneficial to both countries.
Another island nation with which India has established diplomatic relations in the recent past is the Seychelles. The country holds the rights to a 1.3 million sq km EEZ, thus making this small island nation extremely important for commercial and strategic reasons. By offering $100 million in credit, the Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, along with assistance for strengthening the Seychellois coast guard in the Assumption Islands, India has marked its presence in the western and central Indian Ocean region and expanded the scope of its maritime surveillance. The close proximity between Assumption Island and the Mozambique channel, which facilitates major movement of merchant ships, further highlights the importance the Seychelles holds in New Delhi’s strategic calculations. Relations with the Seychelles have not just been confined to naval diplomacy; people-to-people relations have been a strong focus. The Twinning Agreement, connecting cities of Panjim in India’s Goa state and Victoria in the Seychelles, as well as relaxing visa norms and inviting Seychellois for the ITEC program are some concerted efforts to build an environment of peace and shared prosperity.
Even as bilateral relations between India and the island nations strengthen, the sheer vastness and diversity of the Indian Ocean region necessitates India to engage in multilateral cooperation through institutional mechanisms. The Indian Navy has provided hydrographic assistance to the islands of Mauritius, Maldives, and the Seychelles for mapping ocean waters to ensure maritime security. India has also played a leading role spearheading the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which aims at strengthening maritime security through naval cooperation of its 35 members, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), involving 21 members to work toward security, governance, promotion of blue economy, and cultural tourism. The membership of Comoros, the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Madagascar to these intergovernmental forums is indicative of India’s efforts to promote stability and prosperity by involving all stakeholders irrespective of their economic and naval capacities.
Resonating with the words of Alfred Mahan that “whoever attains control of the Indian Ocean, will dominate Asia,” India has charted the path of becoming an “influential” and “responsible” leader in the Indian Ocean region. As New Delhi ambitiously moves toward this end, it must ensure that island nations, owing to their centrality in shaping power dynamics in the Indian Ocean region, gain prominence in India’s ocean diplomacy.
Arunima Gupta is manager of foreign relations, at Vision India Foundation, New Delhi.