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South Africa and the Indian Ocean: assessing strategic interests and roles

- Associate Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk

Is South Africa geared to lead and extract maximum benefit for the country, the continent, and the Indian Ocean region?

In 2017, South Africa assumed the prestigious chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for two years.  

At the opening of the 17th meeting of the IORA Council of Ministers, the former Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane identified South Africa’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

In her view, South Africa’s vision was to promote the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, stability and development. In doing so she noted three priorities: maritime safety and security, enhanced disaster risk management, and sustainable and responsible fisheries management.  She identified a range of supplementary objectives and projects to be carried out during SA’s term as chair of IORA and announced a contribution of US $250 000.

  • What are the overriding global and regional trends and dynamics that our strategic thinkers ought to keep in mind as they ponder the alignment of the African Union’s Vision 2063, the African Integrated Maritime Strategy, the common agenda and maritime security strategy of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the country’s foreign, defence, economic and trade policy frameworks?
  • Can the Indian Ocean’s strategic value find expression in a revised National Development Plan and strengthened national interest policy frameworks?

In international relations terms, the spotlight is on the Indian Ocean region (IOR) as it connects the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and the Americas thus emerging as the theatre of 21st century geopolitics.

Movement across these waters is both facilitated and potentially constrained by several key choke points– the Mozambique Channel, the Bab el Mandeb (‘gate of grief’), the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Straits, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait.

Stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, the IOR acts as a vital channel for Western military supplies and the Persian Gulf hydrocarbon resources. Most international commerce flows through this route.

The volatile socio-political environment in the region and the rise of India and China as major powers has made this an area of crucial geo-strategic importance. High rates of population growth and youth unemployment coupled with extremism and weak governance add to instability and migration issues. The region, already prone to natural disasters, is predicted to suffer most from climate change when compared globally.

There are many challenges as well as opportunities facing the IOR, stemming from the interests of regional and extra-regional players. The IOR which is presently a pivot for contemporary geopolitics and geo-economics should be on the priority list of South Africa’s foreign policy. Given that a high percentage of our trade and imports are transported by sea, forging regional partnerships is very vital to ensure the security of the sea lanes of communication and to attain the larger strategic interests.

Strategic interests

Trade, investment and economic growth

As noted the Indian Ocean provides critical sea trade routes that connect the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with the broader Asian continent to the east and Europe to the west. It transports one-half of world’s container shipments, one-third of the bulk cargo traffic, two-thirds of the oil shipments and more than 50 percent of the world's maritime oil trade. The Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) represents a large market with around a two-billion population (one-third of the world) and producing goods and services worth US $1 trillion (around eight percent of world's production).

The shift of global economic gravity towards Asia over the past decade has resulted in significant growth for regional and global trade as well as cross-border investment flows in the IOR which experiences a high degree of trade complementarity among the economies. While reforms in economic policies along with infrastructure development have driven FDI inflows to the region, some of the IOR countries have also emerged as potential sources of outward investment flows.

Our strategic thinkers should consider that existing trade potential can be further tapped through sectoral cooperation initiatives in areas such as tourism, fisheries, food processing, information and communication technologies, small and medium enterprises, and the regional value chain.  

In doing so they should align policy frameworks with what Professor Vishvas Attri (the Chair of Indian Ocean Studies at the University of Mauritius) calls “the new emerging development paradigm of the Blue Economy”. 

This concept, inclusive of the ocean economy, green economy, coastal economy and marine economy, focuses on the long-term sustainability of oceans and has the potential for higher and faster GDP growth in the IOR.  The Blue economy advocates the same outcome as the Green economy, namely improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Attri analysed South Africa’s 2014 "operation Phakisa" and noted four challenges:

  • Yet to obtain a license from international seabed authority (ISA) for deep sea mining
  • Delimitation of maritime and transnational aquatic boundaries to remove tensions among states
  • Managing complex dynamics of rapid population growth, coastal urbanisation, climate change and licensed use of aquatic and maritime resources
  • The need to develop a holistic and integrated approach.

Defence and Security

The maritime strategic outlook of several IOR nations is influenced by the presence of extra-regional players and unresolved border issues. Unlike the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean has a so-called "roof above its head" that only allows entrance via straits or choke points. Therefore, any nation that wants to economically engage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean has to transit through the choke points in the Indian Ocean that are increasingly becoming points of vulnerability. The extraordinary expansion of global trade with the advent of globalisation has prioritised the concerns with regard to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Today, maritime security branches out to include human security, climate change, and security of livelihoods.

Furthermore, the arms race that is responsible for the transfer of sophisticated armaments to the countries in the Indo-Pacific is a matter of much concern in an already uncertain and volatile region.

In recent years, the US and China have adopted positions with regard to the whole region. On one hand, the US is strengthening its hold on the region via its "rebalancing" or "pivot" strategy while on the other hand, China is asserting its claims on the islands in the South China Sea via reclamation of the sea or through movement of oil rigs near the islands. Moreover, traditional and non-traditional threats such as natural disasters, piracy, and terrorism also pose a challenge.

Themes to consider:

  • Global and regional power dynamics. This requires them to understand the strategy and role of extra-regional/ regional powers in the Indian Ocean region such as China, France, Germany, Australia, US and South Korea; as well as the role of small littoral states such as Malaysia, Maldives, Seychelles, Singapore, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
  • Traditional and non-traditional threats to maritime security such as disruptions of energy supplies, cyber- security, piracy and terrorism etc.
  • Governing the seas, including Sea Lanes of Communication and Freedom of Navigation as well as Maritime disputes and intergovernmental negotiations.
  • The Indian Ocean Zone of Peace Declaration (IOZP) proposal and outcomes for SA (for example, piracy, arms flows, nuclear weapons).
  • The emerging security architecture of the Indian Ocean region in the context of the rise of the Indian Navy as the net security provider, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
  • The growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean Region, and the One Belt and One Road (OBOR) and Maritime Silk Road Initiatives.

Soft Power Diplomacy

Africa’s historic and ethnic ties via the littoral states of the Indian Ocean region are a big asset that has shaped present cultural and civilizational linkages in the region. However, Africa has not been able to fully leverage these ties for its own interests. The commonalities of shared culture such as art, literature, music and cuisine is a strength and should be nurtured in order to counter-balance the growing powers of other regional players in the IOR.

  • People-to-people contact, including the diaspora, citizen diplomacy, and partnerships in higher education; and
  • Cultural diplomacy, including gastronomy, cultural centres, and the media and cinema.

Development Cooperation

While the majority of the IOR countries depend on foreign assistance for supplementing their social and economic needs, a few of them have also come to offer development support to other countries within and outside the region. The volume of resources flowing from the regional donors in IOR is on a steady rise over the past decade. Our strategic thinkers should consider giving the fledgeling South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA) the political and economic muscles it requires to further influence the IORA agenda.


Finally, a cautionary note in terms of my earlier recommendation for our strategic thinkers to consider harmonising and aligning several wide-ranging policy frameworks and strategies in the interest of extracting maximum value from the IO and IORA.  It is seductive to think that South Africa has extra influence by virtue of the fact that it chairs the SADC, the IORA, and has a seat at the Group of 20, the African Union Peace and Security Council, various United Nations bodies, not to mention the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa  alliance, the India-Brazil-South Africa alliance, the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, and others.  This reality must be anchored on realistic understandings of our capacity to exercise power and influence.