Salience of Indian Ocean Island States in Indian Foreign Policy

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    14th Jun, 2019

Issue

Context:

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit abroad in his second term to Maldives and Sri Lanka is being billed as the reaffirmation of Delhi’s traditional diplomatic emphasis on “neighborhood first”.
  • While partnerships between big and middle powers will determine the balance of power in the region, Indian Ocean Islands States will shape the new framework for a security architecture.

About:

  • The visit to Male and Colombo offers the opportunity to firmly place the Indian Ocean island states into India’s regional geography.
  • A beginning was indeed made in his first term, when Modi travelled to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in early 2015 and outlined an Indian Ocean strategy called SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).
  • Modi must now expand the ambit of the strategy to draw in Madagascar, Comoros, Reunion and Diego Garcia. Reunion is part of France and Diego Garcia hosts a major American military facility.
  • Throughout history, rising nations have controlled strategic islands to project power across vast areas of the globe.
  • Access to and influence over islands will provide strategic advantages, thereby influencing the response from the other competitors.
  • It is in these terms that the foreign policy of India has seen a strategic re-alignment and this article intends to cover this angle - comprehensively.

Background:

  • The most widely discussed strategic islands in the Indian Ocean are Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles.
  • These islands span the ocean from India to Africa. Their strategic importance is highlighted by their location along key sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
  • These islands are vital to, and can facilitate a navy’s continuous presence along, key international shipping routes, allowing a navy to patrol and secure SLOCs during peace times and an option to interdict and cut off an adversary’s communications during times of conflict.
  • Such presence allows navies to project power, increasing their profile as a net security provider. While operations from and near these four islands provide good coverage of the south and central Indian Ocean, there are other islands which are equally important but poorly examined.

Analysis

Criticality of islands and the intertwined security architecture:

Part of Indian Territory, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean are located near the Straits of Malacca. These islands allow a navy to cover the key waterway facilitating trade between East and Southeast Asian countries with Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

As the main entry point into the Indian Ocean from the western Pacific, these islands could provide India with unparalleled advantages as Beijing expands its presence in the Indian Ocean.

COCOS (KEELING) ISLANDS

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian external territory, is an archipelago similarly located in strategic waters, south of Sumatra. The Indonesian straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai are the alternative routes to the Indian Ocean, especially for military vessels.

These straits will become important as China continues to explore ways to send their sub-surface vessels to the Indian Ocean undetected. The strategic value of these islands is closely related to their ability to monitor the Indonesian as well as the Malacca Straits.

SOCOTRA

The island of Socotra sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden just past the Bab el Mandeb—a critical chokepoint between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.

Any disruption in the waterways of the Bab el Mandeb would result in blockage of the Suez Canal, interrupting all traffic between Europe and Asia. Socotra provides an ideal position to monitor traffic in and out of the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

MADAGASCAR

The island of Madagascar is a prime location for operations in the western Indian Ocean or along the eastern coast of Africa. The island also borders the Mozambique Channel, once a primary trading route between Asia, Europe, and the Americas before the opening of the Suez.

While commercial traffic has dropped off, the Mozambique Channel remains strategically important for the eastern coast of Africa. Additionally, an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the area is likely to bring attention back to this channel.

DIEGO GARCIA

Diego Garcia is the biggest island of the Chagos archipelago, in the central Indian Ocean. The island is a part of British Indian Ocean Territory which was leased by Mauritius post-independence.

There is an ongoing territorial dispute between Mauritius and the United Kingdom over claims on the islands. The U.S. military continues to operate from and stage through Diego Garcia for all of their Indian Ocean operations.

LA REUNION

La Reunion is a French territory in the Indian Ocean, located southwest of Mauritius. The French navy maintains a strong presence in the western Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa through this base.

France also patrols and deploys to the Mozambique Channel from La Reunion, maintaining a presence in the exclusive economic zone around several French islands in the channel.

The French and U.S. militaries also maintain their presences in the western Indian Ocean through their respective bases in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates, locations which allow access to the Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz.

Considering the sheer importance of marine economic security architecture and heavy reliance on ocean led growth, it is but obvious that Indian foreign policy has attempted to strategically link criticality of island security with its overarching foreign policy.

India’s past actions:

Although India has traditional ties with most of the island states in the Indian Ocean region, it has failed to leverage its strategic advantages. India’s island diplomacy has been one of confidence bordering on dismissal.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi toured Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles in 2015, it was the first visit by an Indian head of government in over two decades.

Contemporary and stated actions:

India’s military strengths lie in the northern and eastern Indian Ocean, with operational limitations specifically in the western Indian Ocean.

If India is serious about playing a dominant role across the Indian Ocean region, it would have to step up its presence in the Gulf, western Indian Ocean, and the eastern coast of Africa.

As the navy moves to a mission based deployment, a prospect which proposes continuous deployments in seven key areas of the Indian Ocean, access to and collaboration with islands and littorals has become significantly more important.

While India has always maintained a presence through annual patrols and assistance to Mauritius and Seychelles in those waters, it requires facilities for logistical support at the minimum to ensure the sustained presence necessary for an effective mission based deployment. These facilities need to be strengthened in the Gulf and western Indian Ocean.

Indian efforts at building possible military infrastructure in Seychelles and Mauritius underlines Delhi’s understanding of its challenges in operating in those waters.

India’s operational challenges could also be bridged through joint collaboration, such as logistics agreements with France and the United States.

The French agreement can provide logistical support to Indian ships operating in the western Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa through its bases in Djibouti, United Arab Emirates, and perhaps in the Mozambique Channel.

India can explore similar engagements through the agreement with the United States. In the meantime, India will have to continue re-examining its relationship with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles to address the challenges in its island diplomacy.

Way Forward

  • Delhi should have no problem recognizing that Islamabad is not ready for economic integration with India; it wants a settlement of the Kashmir question to precede any economic and political cooperation with India.
  • That might take a while. But should we hold up the rest of the region until Pakistan is comfortable with India-centered regionalism?
  • It is these narratives that has re-oriented Indian diplomacy to shift its stance towards BIMSTEC with a heavy reliance on Indian Ocean trajectory.
  • India needs to develop its own national capabilities — especially in the delivery of strategic economic and security assistance to the island states. Without that the ambitious goals identified under the SAGAR vision will remain elusive.
  • Capacity augmentation must follow capital intensive "neighborhood first" dimension. The project timelines should be met with swiftest accountability norms.
  • Care must be taken as not to antagonize China - as India is yet to match the latter's 'funding capabilities'.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

“With the SAGAR vision, the government signaled India’s readiness to work with other powers in promoting regional prosperity and security in the Indian Ocean. There are big possibilities for collaboration with France, the US, Australia and Japan in different corners of the Indian Ocean”. Discuss while elaborating key nodes of the stated architecture.

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