Indian president Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Madagascar in March was a sign of the growing importance of strategic islands in the Indian Ocean region. The visit—the first ever by an Indian head of state—underlines both Madagascar’s strategic location in the southwest Indian Ocean and Delhi’s historical disregard toward island nations, a misstep that the foreign office has begun correcting only recently.
The importance of islands in maritime strategy has long been known, but has been underappreciated in recent times. Throughout history, rising nations have controlled strategic islands to project power across vast areas of the globe. In the modern era, especially following the end of the Cold War, the acceptance of the established international order reduced the geopolitical importance of islands.
As the nations of the Indo-Pacific debate an emerging security architecture, there has been an uptick in collaboration between likeminded countries and deepening partnerships with the littorals. While partnerships between big and middle powers will determine the balance of power in the region, islands will shape the new framework for a security architecture. Access to and influence over islands will provide strategic advantages, thereby influencing the response from the other competitors.
As Beijing continues expanding its presence across the maritime domain, nations are reshaping their maritime strategies to secure their national interests. For India, this competition is heightened in the Indian Ocean region. As with any other maritime space, the islands of the Indian Ocean region will significantly shape the new security architecture in the region.
The most widely discussed strategic islands in the Indian Ocean are Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. These islands span the ocean from India to Africa. Their strategic importance is highlighted by their location along key sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These islands are vital to, and can facilitate a navy’s continuous presence along, key international shipping routes, allowing a navy to patrol and secure SLOCs during peace times and an option to interdict and cut off an adversary’s communications during times of conflict. Such presence allows navies to project power, increasing their profile as a net security provider. While operations from and near these four islands provide good coverage of the south and central Indian Ocean, there are other islands which are equally important but poorly examined.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Part of Indian territory, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean are located near the Straits of Malacca. These islands allow a navy to cover the key waterway facilitating trade between East and Southeast Asian countries with Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. As the main entry point into the Indian Ocean from the western Pacific, these islands could provide India with unparalleled advantages as Beijing expands its presence in the Indian Ocean.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian external territory, is an archipelago similarly located in strategic waters, south of Sumatra. The Indonesian straits of Sunda, Lombok, and Ombai are the alternative routes to the Indian Ocean, especially for military vessels. These straits will become important as China continues to explore ways to send their sub-surface vessels to the Indian Ocean undetected. The strategic value of these islands is closely related to their ability to monitor the Indonesian as well as the Malacca Straits.
The island of Socotra sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden just past the Bab el Mandeb—a critical chokepoint between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. Any disruption in the waterways of the Bab el Mandeb would result in blockage of the Suez Canal, interrupting all traffic between Europe and Asia. Socotra provides an ideal position to monitor traffic in and out of the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.
The island of Madagascar is a prime location for operations in the western Indian Ocean or along the eastern coast of Africa. The island also borders the Mozambique Channel, once a primary trading route between Asia, Europe, and the Americas before the opening of the Suez. While commercial traffic has dropped off, the Mozambique Channel remains strategically important for the eastern coast of Africa. Additionally, an estimated 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the area is likely to bring attention back to this channel.
Diego Garcia is the biggest island of the Chagos archipelago, in the central Indian Ocean. The island is a part of British Indian Ocean Territory which was leased by Mauritius post-independence. There is an ongoing territorial dispute between Mauritius and the United Kingdom over claims on the islands. The U.S. military continues to operate from and stage through Diego Garcia for all of their Indian Ocean operations.
La Réunion is a French territory in the Indian Ocean, located southwest of Mauritius. The French navy maintains a strong presence in the western Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa through this base. France also patrols and deploys to the Mozambique Channel from La Réunion, maintaining a presence in the exclusive economic zone around several French islands in the channel.
The French and U.S. militaries also maintain their presences in the western Indian Ocean through their respective bases in Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates, locations which allow access to the Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz.
Although India has traditional ties with most of the island states in the Indian Ocean region, it has failed to leverage its strategic advantages. India’s island diplomacy has been one of confidence bordering on dismissal. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi toured Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles in 2015, it was the first visit by an Indian head of government in over two decades.
India’s military strengths lie in the northern and eastern Indian Ocean, with operational limitations specifically in the western Indian Ocean. If India is serious about playing a dominant role across the Indian Ocean region, it would have to step up its presence in the Gulf, western Indian Ocean, and the eastern coast of Africa. As the navy moves to a mission based deployment, a prospect which proposes continuous deployments in seven key areas of the Indian Ocean, access to and collaboration with islands and littorals has become significantly more important. While India has always maintained a presence through annual patrols and assistance to Mauritius and Seychelles in those waters, it requires facilities for logistical support at the minimum to ensure the sustained presence necessary for an effective mission based deployment. These facilities need to be strengthened in the Gulf and western Indian Ocean.
Indian efforts at building possible military infrastructure in Seychelles and Mauritius underlines Delhi’s understanding of its challenges in operating in those waters. India’s operational challenges could also be bridged through joint collaboration, such as logistics agreements with France and the United States. The French agreement can provide logistical support to Indian ships operating in the western Indian Ocean and the eastern coast of Africa through its bases in Djibouti, United Arab Emirates, and perhaps in the Mozambique Channel. India can explore similar engagements through the agreement with the United States. In the meantime, India will have to continue re-examining its relationship with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles to address the challenges in its island diplomacy.