The Role of Small Island States in the Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean


    Ambassador (Prof) Anil Sooklal, Ambassador-at-Large: Asia and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, and South Africa’s BRICS Sherpa, IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) Sherpa and Focal Point for IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association).



    The Indian Ocean and its littoral states are increasingly at the epicentre of the evolving global geopolitical architecture. Since the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the main theatre of major power competition and contestation, the Indian Ocean has come to occupy strategic importance within the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean is home to one third of the world population, twenty five percent of its land mass and forty percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. The Indian Ocean is increasingly characterised by growing strategic competition involving both external powers and territorial states.

    The Small Island States (SIS) of the Indian Ocean are increasingly courted by the major powers as well as newly emerging powers of the Global South. The key six SIS of the Indian Ocean, viz Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, are assuming critical strategic importance for a variety of reasons, ranging from the geographic, political, security, economic, developmental, and environmental domain’s, among others. The SIS have become the key focus and attention of major power competition and rivalry in the region seeking to pull them into other respective spheres of influence. The rivalry for influence and “control” of the SIS creates a dilemma for these states as it presents both opportunities as well as threats to their sovereignty, development, stability, and progress. One of the major recourses of these states is to reinforce their commitment and adherence to a rules-based order underpinned by international law and the United Nations Charter within a multipolar world.

    The role of regional and sub-regional organisations of which the SIS are members can also serve as important platforms in strengthening their sovereignty and independence and addressing the challenges of the SIS. In this regard, it is important to note that all the SIS are member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). This also provides an opportunity to engage all the major role players of the Indian Ocean who are either member states or dialogue partners of IORA in addressing the key challenges and opportunities as it impacts especially on the SIS of the region.

    This paper will seek to discuss the strategic geopolitical significance of the SIS of the Indian Ocean and their increasingly significant role in the accelerated evolution of the geopolitical dynamics of the region. It will also seek to explore the role of IORA as it pertains to the SIS in the Indian Ocean region.

    Small but not powerless

    The Small Island States are vulnerable, but not powerless. Abdullah Shahid, the Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly noted that “we cannot deny that Small Island Developing States are exceptionally vulnerable, but I don’t believe that we are powerless.” He further notes that the peace and security of the Indian Ocean is dependent on the continued stability of small islands.

    All the six Indian Ocean Island nations (Madagascar, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Mauritius and Sri Lanka) have in recent times entertained the importance of their geography and their identity as islands against the backdrop of major power rivalry and competition in the Indian Ocean. These island states have recognised the potential of linking their security needs, economic growth, their development agenda, and their role in the region and globally to their geography. The SIS of the Indian Ocean are all located near key transit routes providing access and influence over important chokepoints and transportation corridors, hence, their key geographies have the potential to impact geopolitical competition. Major powers are increasingly alert to this fact, and this has been one of the determining factors influencing their increasing interaction and sphere of influence regarding the strategic value of these island states.

    These vital global shipping routes and choke points of the Indian Ocean includes the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Bab al Mandeb, the Sunda and Lombok straits, the Mozambique channel, and the Cape of Good Hope. However, despite the strategic geographical location of the SIS, they all share similar challenges and vulnerabilities. These states differ in population size, geographical spread, economic development, as well as development programmes. The SIS are highly vulnerable developing countries for a number of reasons. This includes high exposure to natural disasters, climate change, global economic shocks, low economic diversification with small or unstable domestic revenues, increasingly limited borrowing opportunities and declining levels of development assistance. All of these factors represent a disproportionate threat to the SIS.

    In addition to the above challenges, the SIS have been thrust into the forefront of global geopolitics in recent times. Foremost amongst these are the challenges of climate change, major power competition and its impact on the SIS, the increasing importance of the oceans and seas, and in this instance, the Indian Ocean as a theatre of geo-political and geo-economic contestation and competition.

    The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as one of the most dynamic geopolitical regions of the world in recent times, has resulted in shifting power dynamics in the Indian Ocean region.  The increasing rivalry between the USA and China is also manifesting itself within the Indian Ocean. Escalating maritime disputes are increasing concerns about trade, security, military, and geopolitical dynamics within the region. Major and emerging powers are seeking to wield influence over the SIS, leading to tensions within the region and posing challenges to the stability and security of the Indian Ocean.

    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. States, which include the P5 members viz. USA, Russia, UK, France, China, as well as Japan, India, and the EU, have all enhanced their engagement by strengthening economic, security, military, development and political ties with the region. The major powers have intensified engagement with all six of the SIS, seeing them as important and valuable role players in the region. However, given the numerous vulnerabilities of the SIS, most of the major powers tend to view these countries as pawns in the geopolitical competition rather than critical stakeholders in the security and stability of the region.

    Strategic competition, which has been on the margins of the Indian Ocean region, has now come to the forefront of global geopolitics. Today, the Indian Ocean is perceived by many as the emerging centre of gravity in the strategic world. The rivalry for power and influence on the global stage between the USA and China is intensifying within the Indian Ocean region and the SIS are a major focus of the USA, China, and other traditional and emerging powers. China sees itself as a global power and increasingly seeks global leadership and is steadily working to create a new global order defined by its own set of rules, norms, and values. The geo-strategic rivalry has intensified as a result of the perceived overstretch and erosion of US influence in the region.

    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. An often-overlooked factor in this geopolitical rivalry is the role of SIS, which has a direct bearing on the region as a whole. The large regional and extra regional countries need to take cognisance of the geopolitical importance of the SIS. The evolving great power contestation in the Indian Ocean provides new opportunities for growth and expansion. It gives choices in addressing their development and security needs, not previously offered from amongst a variety of role players courting their allegiance and support.

    However, these new opportunities come with a “cost factor.” Some of the SIS are hesitant to fully engage and align with a particular country as they are careful not to be entangled in great power politics and would prefer to remain strategically neutral and maintain good relations with all. Strategic autonomy is becoming increasingly challenging and difficult to maintain. The numerous development programmes, touted by major powers, provides the SIS with choices and give them leverage to negotiate their choices, based on their national interests.

    China’s Belt and Road Initiative

    China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is beginning to alter the balance of power in the Indian Ocean and some view the BRI as the Chinese blueprint for global hegemony, including in the Indian Ocean region. One may recall the words of the maritime strategist Alfred Mahan who stated that “whoever controls the Indian Ocean, will dominate Africa, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.

    All the SIS have embraced China’s BRI, resulting in China having active development cooperation programmes in all of the countries, either under the banner of the BRI or through bilateral agreements. China’s generous loans to some of the SIS, especially for infrastructure projects, have led some countries, especially from the Global North, to describe the Belt and Road as “Debt Trap Diplomacy.”  This accusation was sparked by projects such as the Hambantota Port development in Sri Lanka. Although the port benefits Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean, it is important to note the misconduct and corruption of the ruling elite in Sri Lanka also played a crucial role in its failure.

    India and the Indian Ocean

    The Indian Government considers the Indian Ocean as a key strategic economic theatre, critical for its diplomatic, military, security, economic and regional engagements. India’s recent initiatives and policies towards the region has cemented its role as a key geo-political player. In 2016, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) set up a new division focusing on the Indian Ocean, which looks at the region more holistically and as one theatre, primarily through the SIS. Since assuming power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has prioritised relations with the six SIS and has paid state visits to nearly all of the SIS. India has bolstered its development cooperation and capacity building efforts in the region. India encapsulates its Indian Ocean policy through “SAGAR”, an acronym for “Security and Growth for All in the Region.”

    The USA and the Indian Ocean

    In recent times, there has been several calls within the echelons of power in the USA for the country to prioritise the “Indo” within the “Indo-Pacific”. The Indian Ocean region matters a great deal to the USA for several strategic reasons. However, in the absence of an Indian Ocean Strategy and its effective execution, the USA risks becoming a junior player in the region. The Biden administration has taken note of these calls and has increased interaction with the region, including the SIS. In addition to China, India and the USA, several countries from within and outside the Indian Ocean region have increased their interactions with the SIS, including Australia, France, the UK, and Germany.

    IORA and Small Island States

    It is important for all stakeholders in the Indian Ocean region to cooperate and advance the collective interests of security and stability of all, including the SIS. IORA is in a unique position to bring together both the major and emerging powers in helping to shape the Indian Ocean Region, underpinned by cooperation and development, rather than contestation and containment.

    All the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are represented in IORA, with France being a full member, and the others as dialogue partners. IORA can become a platform in addressing both the challenges and opportunities pertaining to the Indian Ocean region, including that of the SIS. The SIS of IORA have been instrumental in advancing the growth and development of IORA as the apex body of the Region. Three of the SIS, viz. Mauritius, Madagascar and Sri Lanka, are founding members of IORA. Mauritius is the host country of the Secretariat. Both Mauritius and Sri Lank have served as past IORA Chairs.

    It was at the request of Sri Lanka that the UN General Assembly in 1971 for the first time included on its agenda the question of establishing a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean. As a result of this initiative, the General Assembly adopted resolution 2832 by which the Indian Ocean was designated as a Zone of Peace (UN Library UN Yearbook of Disarmament Affairs, 1983). The provisions of this resolution were further endorsed in the IORA Jakarta Concord adopted by the IORA Leaders’ Summit in March 2017. All of the SIS are critical to the successful and integral functioning and advancement of the mandate of IORA. It is, therefore, important that IORA serves to address and advance the peace, stability, security, and prosperity of the SIS.


    It is critical, given the current challenges to the global geo-political security architecture, 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.

    The SIS are critical to the peace and security of the region.  They need to act both individually and collectively to promote and protect their interests. They should not become political pawns of the powerful in their quest for global hegemony. As countries of the region wedded to the values of multilateralism as enshrined in the UN Charter, and underpinned by international law, we must cooperate and take collective action in preserving the peace, security and sustainable development of all in the region, including the SIS.

    Main photo by © 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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