External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval recently visited Seychelles and Sri Lanka, respectively, to promote Island Diplomacy which assumes importance in the country’s foreign policy.

India officially acknowledged the importance of “Island Diplomacy” in its foreign policy orientation after reorganisation of the Ministry of External Affairs incorporated an Indo-Pacific Division and an Indian Ocean Region Division, only late last year.

In March 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with Doval and then Foreign Secretary Jaishankar visited Seychelles and was the first Indian leader to do so in over three decades. Modi also visited Mauritius and Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister said that India “attaches paramount importance to strengthening relations with this region, which is vital for India's security and progress”.

The Small Island Developing States in the Indian Ocean become important as logistics facilities for Asian and non-Asian navies to sail and sustain themselves faraway from their home ports. The presence of warships of extra-regional powers like the US and other western industrial democracies, in the Indian Ocean therefore lends importance to these islands.

Today India, China and the US strive to cultivate relations with these Island States in order to get access to logistics facilities on their territories. These island states include Sri Lanka and Maldives in South Asia, besides Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Reunion and Seychelles further away from Indian shores in the Indian Ocean.

Domestic politics in these island states determines their political proximity or distance from India or China. These island states want to avoid choosing sides in the India-China or China-US competition. Both India and China compete for power and influence in these islands through Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief operations and investments.

Strategic relevance

The Indian Ocean gained strategic relevance in November 1994 after the United Nations Convention on Laws of Sea came into effect and nation states started to identify their national interests with freedom of navigation and oceanic resources.

The countries of consequence in the Indian Ocean Region are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, China, Myanmar, besides the US and France.

For instance, France has logistics facilities in the Réunion Islands and Paris is likely to allow Indian warships to utilise its logistics facilities in Abu Dhabi and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Importantly, China attempts to alter the naval balance in the Indian Ocean through naval technology ties with Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Therefore, an interplay of military, political, economic and social relations among these littoral and extra-littoral nations, which include major Asian powers, western countries, small nations and island states, shapes the regional strategic environment.

Moreover, the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq with Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom since 2002 heralded the entry of US Navy carrier battle groups into the Indian Ocean. Thereafter, since 2008, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy maintains a semi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean for anti-piracy operations.

In August 2017 China acquired a naval base in Djibouti. Similarly, India obtained logistics facilities for the operational turnaround of Indian warships to refuel and get water in Singapore in 2017. Also India is the only other country, apart from a USNS Mercy, a hospital ship, to enjoy logistics facilities at Nha Trang on the Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam since 2018. The race for logistics facilities on island states in the Indian Ocean has started to take shape. As a result, the new Great Game has begun in the Indian Ocean.

India has over the years realised the importance of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as a military platform for aero-naval surveillance over the Malacca Straits and South-East Asia. As a result, the militarisation of these islands became imperative.

In 2001 this island became India’s first tri-Services Command with army, air force and navy, besides coast guard elements, to ensure maritime and territorial security. India has signed agreements to permit Japan access to its logistics facilities at the A&N Islands.

On April 19, 2016, China’s officiating Ambassador at a discussion about South China Sea in New Delhi, during deliberations between various think tanks commented that “Someone in, future may dispute the ownership of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands”.

Strategic analysts often refer to the “String of Pearls” about China’s strategy to acquire naval bases across South Asia to box India with base facilities at Gwadar, Pakistan and Hambantota, Sri Lanka, besides elsewhere in the region. However, India’s counter strategy to China, as former Foreign Secretary Lalith Mansingh articulated in 2012 at various Washington academic fora is the “Necklace of Diamonds” which involves bilateral relations with Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, besides Gulf Cooperation Countries.

In this context, India’s relations with the East Asian island state namely Taiwan merits mention. From an Indo-centric security perspective Taiwan provides a useful listening post into China to obtain relevant political and military intelligence which is otherwise hampered by linguistic and cultural barriers.

Clearly, India’s national security and foreign policy gradually acquired an oceanic dimension after Prime Minister Modi went on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in June 2014 following his assumption of office. Thereafter, the logical progression to this oceanic outreach involves island diplomacy which has gained momentum since then.

The writer is a former Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at the Christ-Deemed to be University, Bengaluru