India’s Strategic Interests and Partnership with Island States of Africa in the Western Indian Ocean Region

Published date01 August 2020
AuthorRaghvendra Kumar
Date01 August 2020
Subject MatterResearch Articles
AIA_7(2).indb Research Article
India’s Strategic Interests
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
and Partnership with
7(2) 227–243, 2020
The Author(s) 2020
Island States of Africa
Reprints and permissions:
in the Western Indian
DOI: 10.1177/2347797020938996
Ocean Region
Raghvendra Kumar1
The Indian Ocean has turned into the new geographical centre of power,
where global power dynamics is being revealed. It has been transformed into
a geostrategic heartland, forecasting new challenges and opportunities, and at
the core of this is an emerging power, India, which, being located at a strategic
juncture in the Indian Ocean, shapes much of this geostrategic transformation.
Therefore, sustaining and improving security and continuing economic expansion,
with an increased strategic presence in the region to safeguard its national,
regional and global interests are some of the elements which greatly influence
India’s involvement with the strategic island states of Africa in the Western
Indian Ocean Region. In this backdrop, this article has tried to contextualise the
‘Western Indian Ocean Region’ and ‘situate the actors’ to explore the various
contours of geostrategic engagements the region is witnessing. Further, the
article examines India’s strategic interests in the Western Indian Ocean, which
are critical for its global power aspirations. It discusses the linkages between India
and the Western Indian Ocean island states of Africa, which would become the
precursor for newer strategies and help in harnessing the potential of mutually
beneficial cooperation. Lastly, the article seeks to re-engage with the island states
of Africa to help forge a deeper cultural and strategic bond, which would be
crucial in balancing the power equation in the region.
India, Indian Ocean, island states, Africa, geopolitics, Western Indian Ocean
1 Department of Political Science, Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi, New Delhi, Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Raghvendra Kumar, Department of Political Science, Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi,
Vasundhara Enclave, New Delhi, Delhi 110096, India.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 7(2)
The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has found renewed emphasis in the strategic
geopolitical discourse of the world and is playing an increasingly active role in
global security considerations. India, being centrally located in the Indian Ocean
Region, has its key strategic interests linked to it. The vast expanse of the region
with the presence of strategic island states is the theatre of conflict, competition
and cooperation in the twenty-first century. The recent decade has seen an
expansion of India’s oceanic strategy. The maritime security domain of India has
witnessed an extensive reorientation of its oceanic strategy, owing to the ongoing
changes in the power dynamics at sea mostly on the western front. In this regard,
India has paid major attention on developing strategic partnerships with the Island
states of Africa (Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros and Madagascar) located around
the strategic points in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) Region. The asymmetries
in the form of size, economy and maritime capabilities along with the convergence
of interests complement the nurturing and development of such constructive
engagements as the scope for competition and conflict among the two is very
little. India, being the dominant player in the region and having the reputation of
a ‘net security provider’ (Ministry of External Affairs, 2013) in the region, has
plenty to offer to these small but strategic island states. Some of these states have
had a deep Indic connection and have long seen India as a benevolent power,
fulfilling their maritime security and policing needs. India effectively acts as a net
security provider and guarantor, especially for small island states like Mauritius
and Seychelles. However, there is ample scope for India to reorient its strategic
posture amid the growing influence of extra-regional actors in the region, and
New Delhi requires a proactive approach to further strengthen its footprints in the
WIO region.
India being centrally located enjoys strategic advantage as compared to the
other powers in the region. India shares a rich cultural and historical legacy with
majority of the states of Africa, including the island states of the WIO region. This
deep sociocultural linkage gives India a geopolitical advantage over the rest of the
extra-regional actors present in the region, but India has not been able to leverage
its strategic advantage in the past as it should have. However, ongoing
developments in the region have led to a reorientation of India’s oceanic policy
where ‘island diplomacy’ has become the main focal point of New Delhi’s new
maritime doctrine. This reinvigorated interest in the island states of the WIO
region was evident when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made state visits to the
island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles in 2015; this was the first visit by an
Indian head of government in over two decades (IANS, 2015) and showed the
importance of these island states to India’s oceanic strategy. India is a maritime
nation with a significant maritime history, and its navy is a force multiplier in the
region. Indian Navy has ‘blue water’ naval capabilities and is the net security
provider in the WIO region maritime community. A resurgent India, today, is
leaving no stone unturned in articulating its oceanic strategy to harness the full
potential of the oceans. In this context, the WIO region, which has enormous
oceanic potential, has been the focal point of New Delhi’s renewed maritime

Kumar 229
doctrine. This is one of the reasons why India has increased its presence in the
WIO region, especially near the Island states and eastern coast of Africa. India’s
clear strategy of ‘SAGAR which stands for “Security and Growth for All in the
Region” was articulated by PM Modi at International Fleet Review in
Vishakhapatnam on February 07, 2016’ (The Hindu, 2016), showcases India’s key
policy objectives meant to engage with the strategic actors in the region. The
mission mode deployment of the Indian Navy in the region aims at policing,
governing and securing the blue waters by both traditional and non-traditional
threats in regions across the key Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) along the
strategic island states. The collaborative and constructive engagement is meant to
not only secure the high seas but also harness the vast oceanic resources, in order
to develop sustainably and equally. Therefore, India’s approach of ‘equity of
development’ resonates in its constructive engagement with Mauritius and
Seychelles where the Indian Navy maintains a constant presence through patrols
and assistance in logistic supports.
The African island states of the WIO region, on the other hand, are leveraging
their strategic location as a key driver in engaging with other global actors and
power centres in the region to enhance their capabilities in maintaining and
addressing their maritime security challenges. These states have large exclusive
economic zones (EEZ) at their disposal with vast oceanic potentials, but they lack
the capabilities to harness it. Therefore, major actors (India, China, the USA,
France, the EU, Australia, South Africa, Japan, etc.) in the region with superior
maritime potentials could help build a rule-based maritime order by co-operating
among themselves and also by building strategic partnerships with key island
states in the region. This sort of multilateral engagement will help develop
capacities of these small island states to design and implement strategies of
oceanic governance for a sustainable future. However, the challenge for India, an
emerging global power, is to retain the perception of a benign power with no
hegemonic power aspirations in the WIO region among these small island states
of Africa. Situated on the other end of this spectrum, these strategic WIO island
states of Africa have the potential to reorient the power relations in the region. The
strong linkages between the WIO island states and India are so much that it is
often said that the Indian Ocean does not separate them but connects them. They
are weaved under the bonds of strong cultural connection dating back millennia.
From ‘Islamisation, European colonialism, the destruction of older trading
networks to the emergence of new economic relationships, all showcases how
human history has been shaped by the significant events, economic linkages and
political processes that took place in the WIO region’ (Sanyal, 2016).
The WIO region comprises 10 countries—Comoros, France (Reunion Island),
Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa
and Tanzania. Of these, five are mainland continental states, four are island states
and one, Reunion Island, is a French overseas territory. The United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) sees the WIO region as a
coherent biogeographic, climatic and socio-political region encompassing the western
part of the Indian Ocean and is one of the regional seas identified by the UNEP. It covers

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 7(2)
some 30 million km2,...

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