The future is small: the island states shaping the Indo-Pacific’s next 10 years

By Dr Kate O’Shaughnessy

Our news cycle is dominated by issues like US-China competition, the war in Ukraine, the rise of India, the threat of climate change, the economic transformation underway in ASEAN.  These are big developments, involving big powers, and big trends.
But as the world grapples with these challenges and opportunities, one thing we might need to do is think small.
For the decade ahead in the Indo-Pacific, thinking small will include better understanding and engaging with the region’s small island states. 
The island states of the Indian and Pacific Oceans have, combined, a population of little more than 70 million people.  But what they lack in population they make up for in ocean territories, which dwarf those of even major powers. The tiny archipelagic nation of Seychelles for example (population 100,000) is responsible for almost 1.4 million square kilometres of ocean.  Near neighbour India oversees double that – 2.4 million square kilometres – but with enormous human and economic resources to help it do so.

Indo-Pacific island states will play an outsize role in shaping the strategic balance of the whole region.

Because of their vast ocean territories and their geographic spread, Indo-Pacific island states will play an outsize role in shaping the strategic balance of the whole region. Major players like India, the US, China and others rely on the region’s sea lines of communication (i.e. the maritime routes between ports) for trade, the transport of energy, and the projection of power. In using those routes, they’ll need access to island states’ ports and logistical support facilities.
But island states aren’t passive – they’ll have agency in deciding who gets access to what.  And we shouldn’t assume those decisions will always align with western views.  That’s already evident in the Solomon Islands’ decision to sign a security agreement with China, in Seychelles’ refusal to allow India to use its Assumption Island as a naval base, and in Comoros’ agreement (since rescinded) for China to build a deep water port in its capital Moroni.

Indo-Pacific island states will also – increasingly – hold us to account in the multilateral system.

Indo-Pacific island states will also – increasingly – hold us to account in the multilateral system. Island states’ persistent and vocal activism on climate change has been part of the reason international agreements on this issue have been possible at all.
If anyone is in any doubt about the capacity of a small state to use the international system to advance its interests, one need only look at Mauritius’ pursuit of sovereignty over the tiny island of Diego Garcia.  Formerly part of British-ruled Mauritius, the UK excised Diego Garcia during decolonization in the late 1960s and leased it to the US to use as a military base.  Mauritius has been asking for it back ever since. In recent years, it’s been making headway – securing an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice in 2019 in favour of its claims, along with overwhelming support from UN organisations ranging from the Universal Postal Union to the UN General Assembly.
Much is often made about the diversity that characterises small island states, especially those in the Indian Ocean. But focussing on that diversity distracts us from the bigger picture, which is this: geostrategic competition over the next decade will be directly influenced by smaller players, and the choices they make. 
Those players include ones with which Australia has deep relationships (in the Pacific), and those we know less well (like in the western Indian Ocean). To get the best of those relationships both individually and as a collective, we might want to think about developing an integrated Indo-Pacific small island states strategy.  Longer term, we should look to partner with others (like India and France), especially in the furthest reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Whatever we decide, the time to do it is now, because our region is not getting any less complicated, any time soon.

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