Sister Islands in the Indian Ocean Region: Linking the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to La Réunion
Strategic islands played a key role in establishing the British empire’s dominance over the Indian Ocean region. Through a ring of bases and naval presence on islands, the British essentially controlled the entry points into this crucial area. In the east it had Singapore and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while Socotra and the port city of Aden provided access to the Red Sea and Bab-el Mandeb. With control of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles and, briefly, Madagascar, the empire turned the Indian Ocean into a “British Lake.” To consolidate its presence along the coast of Africa, the British Empire fought bloody wars to take control of Kenya, Uganda, and the island of Zanzibar. With these islands and coastal territories, the empire projected its power across the region and dominated the key chokepoints and shipping lines between Asia, Africa, and Europe.
History has time and again highlighted the importance of islands in establishing naval dominance. In the 21st century, maritime affairs have returned to prominence on the geopolitical stage. As countries debate an emerging security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, a key area is missing from the discussion: the role of islands. Much as they did in the past, islands will come to play a critical role in shaping the new order in the Indian Ocean region.
India urgently needs to chart a roadmap toward the sustainable development of islands — in particular, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While some efforts are in place to promote this development, Delhi has the opportunity to make island development an area of collaboration with its maritime partners, such as France. India should seek out collaborations, not just for strategic reasons, but also to bolster the development of “smart islands” — a concept that looks to develop a sustainable model for islands catered toward generating islands’ economies and protecting their unique biodiversity. While the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tremendous strategic value, India also recognizes the need to develop them commercially. Moreover, given the islands’ environmental and tribal welfare constraints and concerns, the only practical solution is to develop them in a sustainable manner, to the point that they have their own independent economy.
As India continues to explore a dual development roadmap, emphasizing both strategic and commercial development, the island of La Réunion – a French overseas territory in the western Indian Ocean – can provide a useful model. Delhi could begin by extending the idea of “sister cities” to islands. The concept of sister cities or sister states pairs cities in different countries with similar potential. The cities might have similar geographic advantages or cultural ties, or they could be financial hubs or port cities. The two sister cities learn from each other’s challenges and, most importantly, leverage advantages and adopt frameworks to develop areas of common interest. A sister island concept between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and La Réunion could be the beginning of an effort to realize a sustainable development model for strategic islands. While the strategic importance of islands is known to naval theorists, there has been a significant lack of effort in developing a sustainable model for islands, which often serve as launchpads for bigger naval powers. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands as well as La Réunion, sit near key chokepoints, providing access to the Strait of Malacca and the entire coast of Africa and the Southwest Indian Ocean.
While maritime powers tend to face hard security concerns, the threats facing islands are primarily non-traditional. To engage with islands, larger powers need to understand the security concerns of islands and help address their unique threats, rather than imposing their own views of the security landscape. While the region’s navies want radar stations and bases on islands, the islands themselves want collaborations on “blue economy,” sustainable development, and illegal fishing. If large and middle powers are to engage with islands, they’ll have to meet them in the middle when it comes to security concerns. As India and France look to strengthen their maritime partnership, a collaboration on sustainable island development would be a real contribution — not just for the Indian Ocean region but across the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-French relationship has seen significant developments in the recent past, and there appears to be political will for greater convergence of the two countries’ visions for the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, while the two democracies have maintained a strong bilateral relationship, it is the convergence of maritime interests in the Indian Ocean that seem to elevate this partnership today. Should India appear to be a strong partner in France’s maritime engagements in the Indian Ocean region, Paris offers great opportunities for India’s presence in the western Indian Ocean.
France has a considerable presence in the region, with one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the world. Although more limited in its capabilities than it once was, Paris continues to remain engaged in Indian Ocean affairs through its presence in La Réunion. The first French presence on the island was through the French East India Company in 1642, which named it Ile Bourbon. In 1794, the island’s jurisdiction fell directly under the French crown and it was renamed La Réunion. The island was briefly colonized by the British in 1810 before being returned back to the French in 1815.
Geographically, the island sits between Mauritius and Madagascar, offering France and its partners access to the southwest Indian Ocean, the western Indian Ocean, and the eastern coast of Africa. Just as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide access to the key chokepoints of the Malacca Straits, La Réunion offers access across the Mozambique Channel and the western Indian Ocean. Both sit at a distance from their mainland hosts and have similar governing bodies, climates, vegetation, and vibrant marine ecosystems. They also both have severe restrictions on clearing land for development purposes. While approximately 94 percent of the land on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is under forest cover, according to my interview with the regional government in La Réunion, 70 percent of the French island is a World Heritage Site. Moreover, the two islands are the only overseas territories in the Indian Ocean region with a sizeable population and economic potential – although La Réunion is far more developed. For instance, it has a viable commercial port, excellent connectivity (roads and bridges) through the island as well as electricity. The island also has its own university and has a robust science and technology research community. Other islands that similarly serve as overseas outposts of larger naval powers —Andaman and Nicobar, Diego Garcia (The United States on lease from the United Kingdom), and Cocos Keelings (Australia) — remain either poorly developed or function purely as military outposts.
An Emerging Hub for Indo-French Cooperation
La Réunion brings continental France to the Indian Ocean region, making it a member of the Indian Ocean Commission and an observer at the Indian Ocean Rim Association. French military presence on the island allows Paris to monitor its exclusive economic zone in the Indian Ocean, including the Mozambique Channel. The permanent presence of the French military on La Réunion facilitates France’s ability to fly, sail, and generally maintain a presence in the region.
At a time when maritime domain awareness is becoming a key component of the Indian Navy’s priorities, islands like La Réunion can bridge the gap by giving Delhi a platform to operate in the western Indian Ocean. Such an approach seems to be the basis of the 2018 Varuna exercises (Indo-French bilateral maritime exercises). The 2018 edition included the maiden deployment of a P-8I to La Réunion, making it one of the Indian aircraft’s farthest deployments in the southwest and western Indian Ocean. Given that France and India recently signed a logistics support agreement, which allows both countries to use each other’s military facilities on a case-by-case basis, there is both an opportunity and a platform to use each others’ resources to foster a favorable maritime environment.
La Réunion is home to France’s biggest overseas base, and the French Navy also maintains a monitoring and information fusion center on the island. La Réunion, consequently, could not only provide India with a platform in the western Indian Ocean, but also allow for the sharing of information and the exchange of data. Together, India and France could make significant gains in generating maritime domain awareness in the southern and western Indian Ocean, feeding into Delhi’s initiatives to create such awareness for the region at large. If deployed from La Réunion, the P-8Is can cover and monitor the entire eastern coast of Africa, including the strategic Bab-el Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz. In return, Delhi can use its maritime advantages to facilitate a greater French role and presence across the Strait of Malacca. Given the geographic advantages and potential for maritime domain awareness capabilities inherent in both the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and La Réunion, India and France could together become key players in securing the Indian Ocean region. Collaborations such as the logistics supports agreement, white shipping (that is, the exchange of information on commercial ships and sea traffic), and intelligence sharing strengthen such interests. In this way, La Réunion could emerge as a key island facilitating military cooperation between France, India, and other partners in the southwest and western Indian Ocean.
Developing Smart Islands
Islands provide significant positional advantages, and it is clear that India and France have realized this in the case of La Réunion. The larger question is about the sustainable development of these islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and La Réunion have sizeable populations and are need better development and connectivity. Delhi has started using the term “smart-islands” an initiative to sustainably develop islands and make them self-sufficient. India first used the term in its 2016 joint statement with Japan, noting that both countries would “develop smart islands by initiating consultations to identify technologies, infrastructure, development strategies and management processes that would facilitate development of smart islands in an efficient and effective manner.”
The idea is borrowed from the concept of smart cities, seeking sustainable holistic development through innovation catered to islands. Some define smart islands as improving lives on “islands through sustainable, integrated solutions that make the most out of islands’ competitive advantages,” while others approach it as “delivering smart solutions to energy, waste, water and sewerage services.”
Most islands have a unique and fragile ecosystem that requires a development map far different from the methods used in cities and towns. For example, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have an indigenous population that remains largely disconnected from the outside world. Additionally, there are severe restrictions on land clearance and development, in an effort to preserve the islands’ natural flora and fauna. Any developmental model needs to factor in protection for the indigenous population and ecosystem. This is part of the reason India’s islands have remained underdeveloped, despite the growing enthusiasm for development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
France, on the other hand, has pursued a more sustainable development model for La Réunion. Last year, I conducted numerous interviews with officials and experts on the island. I’ve found that despite the restrictions on 70 percent of the island territory, La Réunion has been able to use the remainder of its land to sustainably develop various sectors, such as agriculture, tourism, and commerce. The commercial port in La Réunion is one of the clearer examples of the island’s efforts to become self-sufficient. It facilitates trade and commerce between Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, generating revenue that forms a critical part of the island economy.
One of the reasons the island is able to promote tourism is the good connectivity to and from the island. In addition to regular air connectivity with mainland France and other parts of the European Union, the island has its own airline, ‘Air Austral,’ with direct flights to the Indian city of Chennai, presenting a platform to further strengthen ties with India. Further east, Air Austral also operates direct connections with Guangzhou, China, and Bangkok, Thailand.
According to my interviews, there are efforts in place to boost connectivity amongst the Vanilla Islands (Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Madagascar, and La Réunion). Various cruise lines offer stops at multiple destinations within the Vanilla Islands, offering tourists an opportunity to travel to these beautiful, remote islands. There is great potential for luxury and eco-tourism opportunities, not only for the Vanilla Islands, but also for islands across the Indian Ocean region. These initiatives contribute to the islands’ economies and self-sufficiency. In terms of energy, the island continues to invest in its clean energy initiatives under Paris’ global efforts on climate change. La Réunion has its own challenges, but overall it offers a great model for India’s efforts in building smart islands.
La Réunion is one of the few islands under the sovereignty of a bigger power that has a sizeable population and a military base. As an overseas French territory, La Réunion receives funds from both France and the European Union. It has its own regional council and collaborates with other states under the auspices of the French government. As a result, La Réunion has the advantage of being able to utilize E.U. funds for research and development on island development, and can collaborate with similar islands on such projects.
Delhi should tap into this opportunity to collaborate with La Réunion in order to create a road map for its own sustainable island development. The result of such research — island development with a focus on environment preservation as well as generating blue economy — would be applicable to neighboring islands and across the region. As India continues to map the development of its own islands, it can learn from La Réunion, and should look to set up joint research ventures on island development through the concept of sister islands. Both India and France are keen to strengthen their maritime cooperation. If Delhi is able to learn from La Réunion’s success, this would allow Paris to establish itself as a key player in sustainable development projects. France is keen to play a bigger role in the Indian Ocean, and strategic collaborations with India will help strengthen France’s role and visibility as a maritime player in the region.
As India and France continue to elevate their strategic partnership and strengthen their collaboration in the Indian Ocean region, the two nations could become strong pillars in maintaining a stable and secure maritime domain in the face of new geopolitical competition. While both countries understand the need for maintaining a presence across the Indo-Pacific, islands will become key to securing their maritime strategic interests. Creating a coherent development road map for islands will be a step toward utilizing their strategic advantages across the Indian Ocean.
Darshana M. Baruah is an associate director and senior research analyst with Carnegie India. Her primary research focus is on maritime security in Asia, particularly the Indian Navy and its role in a new security architecture. Her current projects focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, strategic islands in the Indian Ocean region, and strategic connectivity projects in the Indo-Pacific.
Image: Aravindan Ganesan