India Ocean diplomacy

The much awaited and desired maritime thrust to India’s foreign policy was witnessed during the three island nation’s whirlwind tour to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka taken by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the month of March 2015. Maldives was the significant omission from his latest splash in the Ocean and was noted by the international strategic community. Critics may say that Modi’s sojourn to the three island nations was in response to the success China achieved in making deep inroads in the Indian Ocean. Undoubtedly, a concerned India woke up late, but analysts say that it was never too late.

The Island nations are India’s maritime neighbors and sooner or later they will realize the importance of increasing their dependence and proximity to India for meeting their economic, defence and security needs. Over the years India remained a mute spectator to China’s successful moves to acquire contracts for mega infrastructure projects in the island nations of Indian Ocean.

Strengthening partnership

After the conclusion of the three nation tour India can also claim to have expanded its footprint on these island nations, which will go a long way in reducing the Chinese influence in the Ocean. Analysts say that India had over the years not been very proactive in promoting its security interests and almost ignored these island nations which is evident from the fact that last Prime Ministerial visit to Mahe, capital of Seychelles, was by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1981 and to Sri Lanka, where, the then Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi had visited Colombo in 1987. Perhaps domestic political developments in Sri Lanka forced Indian government to either interfere too much or withdraw totally from any interaction.

Thus India has been responsible for allowing a strategic vacuum in Sri Lanka to be created, which was taken advantage of by the Chinese government by arranging the visit of no less a leader than its President Xi Jinping last September, where he witnessed the signing of Colombo Port City project. This raised alarm bells in Indian security establishment and it is said that Indian security agencies played a key role in dethroning President Mahenda Rajpaksha who lost to Maitripala Sirisena. The new leader took a significant decision to review the Colombo port city project handed over to China. The Chinese government lost no time in expressing its indignation to the Sri Lankan government. In this backdrop the visit of an Indian Prime Minister, after 28 years to Sri Lanka assumed significance.

But the visit to Mauritius was also no less important. On the first stop of his three nation visit in Mahe, where India gifted another Dornier aircraft and dedicated a coastal radar surveillance facility, Modi said, “Our security partnership is strong. It has enabled us to fulfill our shared responsibility to advance maritime security in the region. It is a privilege to be a partner of Seychelles in the development of its security capabilities.”

Modi said that these steps will enable Seychelles to secure these beautiful islands and the vast expanse of waters around them. Seychelles will also continue to make an enormous contribution to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean Region.

India has also entered into a significant agreement with Seychelles on carrying out hydrographic survey, which according to Modi will add a new dimension to our maritime cooperation with Seychelles. During the talks Modi and President Michel also underlined the importance of comprehensive cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region and Indian PM thanked Seychelles for their confidence in India.

Countering Chinese presence

Interestingly India acquired one Island named Assumption in Seychelles and another Island Agalega in Mauritius in the name of developing infrastructural facilities, equaling China’s success in acquiring one island for maintaining Chinese naval ships roaming the area. Perhaps India’s success in acquiring one island each in Seychelles and Mauritius was in response to Chinese success in Seychelles and Maldives in recent years.

In Seychelles China has acquired one island for the explicit purpose of maintenance and replenishment of Chinese naval ships in Seychelles while China succeeded in signing a 99 year lease agreement for developing and maintaining the Colombo port city project, which the new government of Sirisena has promised to review. The decision by the Sri Lankan government to allow India to develop a Petroleum storage facility to Indian Oil was no less significant, which will be developed like the strategic petroleum reserve of the country.

Earlier China had acquired the support and participation of these two and other island nations in the Indian Ocean for the Maritime Silk Road project. These raised the concern levels in the Indian security establishment as these can give a permanent presence to the Chinese security personnel in the Indian forecourt. China has been contesting India’s natural claim for dominance in the Indian Ocean by saying that Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean. Though there is no geographical proximity to Chinese mainland with the maritime waters of Indian Ocean, China has been finding ways and means to gain access to and mark its permanent presence. For this China has been economically influencing the island nations of Indian Ocean with big infrastructure projects and even protecting and promoting the dictatorial regimes in the Indian Ocean island States.

Being a practicing democratic nation with a firm belief in democratic values India cannot support any authoritarian regimes, like Maldives, which  provokes the Maldivian leaders to maintain a distance with India and get closer to India’s rival China, which is leaving no stone unturned to influence them and further their strategic ambitions.

However with the change of regime in Sri Lanka, India has been to some extent successful in creating a wedge between Sri Lanka and China, but Maldives is still out of India’s political domain, which is creating roadblocks in setting up a chain of coastal radars between Seychelles, Maldives and Sri Lanka. But Prime Minister Modi hoped in Mahe that Seychelles will soon be a full partner in the maritime security cooperation between Indian, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The visit of Indian Prime Minister Modi to these island nations will go a long way in expanding Indian footprint in Indian Ocean, but much remains to be done. India needs to constantly engage with them. A Prime Ministerial level visits to these island nations once in a blue moon will not suffice. These island nations are tiny and prone to accepting lucrative offers from rival powers.

In this competitive strategic atmosphere Indian diplomats needs to be over cautious and alert to the moves of rival powers as these strategically located Indian Ocean island nations have been for long ignored by Indian leadership in the past.