Event Proceedings: The Role of Small Island States in the Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean


    Madvee Jane Moteea-Sewlall, Editorial Assistant at the Charles Telfair Centre


    Back in February, the Charles Telfair Centre and Curtin University organised an international open forum on “The Role of Small Island States in the Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.” With 150 guests gathered on the grounds of the Charles Telfair Campus, the event was an opportunity to engage on a most pressing topic for the region. Small Island States (SISs) of the South-West Indian Ocean region are emerging as important security partners in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region for the larger countries in the region. Within a context of contemporary geopolitical and legal competition at sea and institutional fragmentation for governing high seas, SISs find their position to be both an advantage as well as a constraint as they navigate the different geopolitical interests of the great and emerging powers.


    On the day, our keynote speaker, Ambassador (Prof.) Anil Sooklal and the panelists, Dr. Roukaya Kassenally and Jean Claude de l’Estrac unpacked the complexities faced by SISs of the South-West Indian Ocean region by exploring the challenges and opportunities faced by SISs in the complex geopolitical landscape of the Indian Ocean and the growing capacity and interest of great powers and emerging powers in playing a greater role in the Indian Ocean. They explored the role SISs can play in securing their interest in building safe, secure, and sustainable seas while leveraging from great power politics.

    Amb. Sooklal started his talk by reminding us of the words of Abdullah Shahid, the Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs: “We cannot deny that Small Island Developing States are exceptionally vulnerable, but I don’t believe that we are powerless.”

    In his keynote, Amb. Sooklal addressed the Indian Ocean SIS’s awareness of the importance of their geography and identity as islands in the face of major power rivalry and competition in the region. He noted that these states, due to their strategic locations, are significant for geopolitical competition. While diverse in size, economic and social characteristics, SISs share similar challenges and vulnerabilities, including high exposure to natural disasters, climate change, and low economic diversification. They also face increasing tensions due to major power competition within the Indian Ocean, leading to escalating maritime disputes, and concerns about trade, security, military, and geopolitical dynamics in the region.

    Viewing the Indian Ocean through the lenses of the IndoPacific construct

    The Indian Ocean’s amalgamation with the Pacific Ocean to form the ‘Indo-Pacific’ singular regional construct has been driven by foreign policy stakeholders, think tanks, and academic scholars. This concept, created due to security concerns arising from China’s increased influence, has resulted in shifting power dynamics in the Indian Ocean. Amb. Sooklal highlighted: “The Indian Ocean has become central to the geopolitical aspirations of both the major as well as emerging powers with vested interest in the region.” 

    Strategic competition, which had been on the margins of the Indian Ocean region, has now come to the forefront of global geopolitics. The SISs of the Indian Ocean are strategically significant for geopolitical competition, but they face numerous challenges and vulnerabilities. They are increasingly caught in the middle of major power competition, with tensions escalating due to the growing rivalry between the USA and China. While the major powers view them as important role players in the region, Amb. Sooklal argued that their vulnerabilities and challenges suggest that they need to be viewed as critical stakeholders in the security and stability of the region, rather than just pawns in the geopolitical competition.

    From unipolar to multipolar global order

    Amb. Sooklal stressed that the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is altering the balance of power in the region, while India and the USA are increasing their interactions with the SISs to protect their interests. The SISs have choices to address their development and security needs, but these new opportunities come with a cost factor. The strategic autonomy of SISs is becoming increasingly challenging to maintain, as they are hesitant to fully engage and align with a particular country to avoid being entangled in great power politics.

    In Amb. Sooklal’s words: “The transition from both a bipolar and unipolar world towards a multipolar global order has seen other major players seeking primacy in the region together with China and the USA.” A multipolar global order entails there will be various axes of power in different region of the world with not only one major hegemon. The Indian Ocean, through the lenses of the Indo-Pacific, is already witnessing these changes, with multiple countries investing in different countries, but none of them being able to claim to be the hegemon in this area. This will further complicate the Chinese and American rivalry in the Indian Ocean because the SISs in this region are ready to engage with both China and USA and their respective allies, without displaying outright alignment with any of the two countries.

    Amb. Sooklal concluded his keynote saying: “It is critical, […], that the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace. It should not become a political theatre at the centre of major power rivalry. The littoral states of the Indian Ocean region as well as the global community must work in a cooperative spirit, in spite of differences, to ensure that the Indian Ocean is not “captured” by a few who seek to control and shape the region in a divisive manner rather than ensuring that it is inclusive, open, and free.”

    Spheres of influence and soft power

    During the panel discussion moderated by A/Prof. David Mickler, Jean Claude de L’Estrac and Dr. Roukaya Kasenally joined Amb. Sooklal for further deliberations. Dr. Kasenally highlighted the shift in power dynamics in the Indian Ocean region is due to the confluence of hard power and soft power approaches. Referring to soft power, Dr. Kasenally explained the use of soft power in the Indian Ocean region as a form of influence and argued that there is an ongoing shift in power relations in the region: “The Indian Ocean is being the theatre of confluence between hard power (for example, military bases) and soft power approaches (for example, the rise of Confucius Institutes).”

    She stressed on the cultural forces of Confucius Institutes and other language institutes such as the French Institutes, Hindi Speaking Unions amongst others, as potent vehicles to propagate the values and principles of the respective countries. Dr. Kasenally also highlighted that privacy of national data has emerged as a key concern for Indian Ocean islands and remains a contentious issue whereby emerging/major powers wish to access confidential national information, putting at stake the sovereignty of the state. It can be argued that data has emerged as a new form of currency and influence in foreign policy negotiations.

    During the panel discussion, Amb. Sooklal shared that none of the SISs and countries engaging with the emerging powers, are at the losing end in their engagement with these new players in the region. Their foreign policy is guided by their country’s national and priority needs. To a certain extent, it can be argued that SISs lack the adequate foreign policy expertise and may, inevitably, remain stuck in the donor-recipient relationship with emerging powers. Undeniably, the SISs will not be able to preserve their strategic autonomy on the long run in this climate of geopolitical contestation and competition which may pose serious threats to their sovereignty, development, stability, and progress. The resulting strategic competition in the Indian Ocean makes the Indian Ocean SISs seem like pawns in the geopolitical gamut of geopolitical influence.

    While Amb. Sooklal was more optimistic for SISs’ current and future ability to negotiate with powers on their own terms, Jean Claude de L’Estrac argued that in the current geopolitical climate of the Indian Ocean, there are major threats to peace and prosperity for SISs due to the increasingly assertive approaches adopted by major powers such as China, France, and India to protect their interests in the region. The SISs may have to act accordingly to the demands of the great powers who are offering extensive assistance to them; and this highly jeopardises the sovereignty of the islands on the long run. The panel closed on the recommendation that in order for SISs to engage as stakeholders, they must come together as one single unit force to put forward their agenda, priorities, aspirations and vision for the Indian Ocean in front of emerging and interested great powers.

    Main photo © Charles Telfair Centre.

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).

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