Indian Ocean Power Competition

[op-ed snap] Delhi might want to add another geography for its diplomatic lexicon — the Vanilla Islands


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Vanilla Islands

Mains level : India - Indian Ocean islands


Vice-President heads to Comoros and other destinations in Africa. 

New frontiers – Vanilla Islands

  • India is devoting greater attention to the Indian Ocean. Many places that have long fallen off Delhi’s political radar are coming into view.
  • A group of exotic island states in the South Western Indian Ocean — The Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mayotte, Reunion, Seychelles — joined hands to promote tourism.
  • Many of them grow vanilla and so they call themselves after it.
  • Vice president is the first senior figure from the Indian leadership to visit the Comoros.

Island states – Significance

  • India is witnessing a growing interaction with the island states.
  • Prime Minister met leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) on the margins of the UNGA last month.
  • Together they account for more than 40 members. Their large numbers and impact on the voting patterns in the UN and other multilateral forums had made island states of interest to major powers.
  • Immediate vulnerability to rising sea levels has made island states the most active champions of urgent global action to mitigate climate change.
  • Island states have also taken the lead in developing the concept of “blue economy” focused on sustainable use and development of ocean resources.
    India’s activism on countering climate change and promoting blue economy have made the island states special partners for India.
  • Many of the island states are also beginning to see themselves as large “Ocean States”. Due to the provisions of the Law of the Sea, the ocean states are entitled to large exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
  • Seychelles for example, has a land area of approximately 455 sq km spread over 115 islands and a population of barely 100,000. But its EEZ is close to 1.3 million sq km.
  • Comoros is a founding member of the International Solar Alliance. It is a member of the IORA that India is reviving. It is also a member of the Arab League and the OIC.

Vanilla Islands – the colonial past

  • In the colonial era, the Vanilla Islands were the object of rivalry among the European powers.
  • All the sea lines of communication between Europe and the Indian Ocean came round Africa and went through the Mozambique channel – the Vanilla islands became attractive way stations.
  • The Comoros was of special importance as it sits at the northern end of the Mozambique channel and provided a strong base to control the channel.
    France gained the upper hand among the European powers in the Vanilla Islands in the 18th century.
  • The construction of the Suez Canal obviate the need for European shipping to go round Africa. This reduced the strategic significance of the Vanilla islands.

Vanilla countries – current importance

  • African resources became important for Asian powers like China, Japan, and India. Thus SLOCS from Africa’s east coast and the Vanilla islands have once again become important.
  • The islands are looking to develop partnerships with the major powers.

What is in it for India?

  • India can contribute significantly to the security and prosperity of the Comoros.
  • India has had strong ties with one of the Vanilla Islands, Mauritius. India has long seen it through the prism of the Indian diaspora.
  • Only recently, India has begun to pay attention to the strategic dimensions of the relationship with Mauritius.
  • Foreign Office set up a separate Indian Ocean Division with a focus on the island states. It clubbed Maldives and Sri Lanka with Mauritius and the Seychelles, but left out the other Vanilla Islands.
  • India must begin to treat the Vanilla Islands as a single strategic space.
  • It can build on its traditional presence in Mauritius to launch substantive economic and defence cooperation with the littoral.
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