Indian Ocean diplomacy: The amalgamation of foreign policies of India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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The geostrategic locations of the small island nations in the eastern and western Indian Ocean region is an important consideration for foreign policy reformations for both the traditional powers and the new powers of the 21st century. The ambiguity of the foreign policies of these six island nations (Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Maldives and Sri Lanka) persists, as regards their alliance with rising powers. 

The domestic political scenarios of these island nations play a significant role in their external relations. The challenge for these smaller nations is the vulnerability to external pressures alongside maintaining stability and sovereignty. Here is where diplomacy has been the key tool for building deep-rooted diplomacies. Due to the shifting and vulnerable domestic political agendas of these island nations of the Indian Ocean, the formulation of their foreign policy is slow in development and consequent implementation. 

Indian Ocean Region and ‘Sagar’ Doctrine

Enhancing maritime domain is an especially important feature of collective action of traditional powers with island nations of the Indian Ocean. With regard to the Indian Ocean’s geo-political importance, diplomacy is of paramount importance in uniting the interests of Asian-African and Australasian countries. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) consisting of over 20 major countries have been working together in influencing and aiding the foreign policy of its member nations. The significance of IORA takes into account the interests of 1.6 billion people of the member nations.  India believes the IORA as a vital channel for achieving peace and security in the territory. India plays a key role as an influential member in shaping the objectives and implementation of the policies of IORA. Recently, India was admitted to the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) as an observer member. This development is one of the steps in India’s strategic vision for ‘Sagar Doctrine’ (Security And Growth for All in the Region) provides more reasons for Eastern Indian Ocean island nations to deepen commercial and security linkages with India. Thus India’s approach to its neighbourhood through ‘Neighbourhood First’ foreign policy doctrine exerts more resources and influences for greater priority on small island nations such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Eastern Indian Ocean Island of Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy as an island nation promotes its national interest in coevality with mainland India without compromising its diplomacy with other proponent nations. For stabilisation of the Indo-pacific region, these geopolitically well-located islands are of utmost importance to major nations. However, China’s growing influence in these island nations such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives has been a major obstacle to India’s security interest.

Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean holds great importance for India, providing many reasons for India to pursue better bilateral relations. To Sri Lanka’s south and east are the key nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and on the west lies the African continent. It is estimated that more than 60,000 ships cross the coast of Sri Lanka and its proximity to India and China, provides reasons to believe for better relations.

On the other hand, the Eastern Indian Ocean Island nation faces competition for control by China on one side and the US-led Asia-Pacific Quadrilateral Alliance on the other. Given its active involvement in the IORA, Sri Lanka’s potential of being a useful and collaborative partner has many advantages and gives further impetus for India and US to build diplomatic relations with the island nation. The Indian Ocean island nation will solidify such strategic security policies that will be fabricated with an ‘India first approach’. Colombo, on the other hand, will keep its doors open to land into deals with other key players for economic development. Interdependence and bandwagoning have been central to the new foreign policy dynamics of smaller states in recent years. In the 21st century, the power matrix between bigger and smaller nations will be determined by this paradigm shift.

Western Indian Ocean Island of Maldives 

The Indian Ocean, which encourages a noteworthy portion of world exchange and fills in as a monetary help for more than 2 billion individuals, has become an international hotbed. To its west, India appreciates rights over almost 400,000 square kilometres of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) because of the Lakshadweep Islands. Situated 500 km off the coast from both Sri Lanka and India, The Maldivian Island has strategic checkpoints on both ends of their borders in the Indian Ocean where oil passes through on a daily basis. Straits of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait are all within its boundaries. 

As the island country is close to the equator, it has a vast economic exclusive zone (EEZ) that requires surveillance and security for important shipping lanes. They provide maritime defence services across 960 km from the north to the south including the EEZ from the 20 tolls. The Maldives is a vital buffer zone that divides the Indian Ocean from the east from the west, it is well within the boundaries of the Indian strategic orbit. Apart from India and China that has strategic influence, even the United States is directly involved in defence on these small islands within the Indian Ocean through their naval base in Diego Garcia. Around 30,000 US defence personnel in the 35 sq. km base provide protection to the Indo-Pacific region and also balances out the Chinese influence in this region

A far-sighted Indian Ocean foreign policy 

Making groundwork based on the predictions of the future of the small island state’s Ocean policy is a rather challenging task. With the growing influence of China in South Asia, majorly contributes to the doubt on whether Sri Lanka and the five small Indian Ocean Island’s foreign policy hold significant priority in the Indian National Security agenda. For this far-sighted foreign policy to take effect, the shared involvement in responsibilities between various agencies in both in the six Indian Ocean Island nations and India is important. This, in turn, will create the essential preconditions for India to secure a strong influence on the island nation.

(Dr. Srimal Fernando is a recipient of the prestigious O.P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and the SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He is also the winner of the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ award in South Africa, and has been the recipient of Global Communication Association (GCA) Media Award for 2016.)

(Vedangshi Roy Choudhuri is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA hons.) in Journalism and Mass Communication at the Jindal School of Journalism & Communication (JSJC). She mainly focuses on Indo-China global media relations. She was also a recipient of the ICASQCC Gold Medal in Mauritius. Roy is member of the SGRC at Jindal Global University and a social activist in Chennai.)

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