India’s renewed push into the Indian Ocean

Author: Rupakjyoti Borah, India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka reflects New Delhi’s changed foreign policy priorities. It signals that India is no longer willing to be outmanoeuvred in the Indian Ocean region — its strategic backyard.

Modi’s visit was also part of the prime minister’s efforts to reach out to India’s neighbours. This started with his inauguration when he invited the heads of state of all the member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Modi was also scheduled to visit Maldives during this trip. But it was dropped from his itinerary in a not-so-gentle rebuke of the Maldivian government, which had arrested the former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed. New Delhi considers Nasheed to be pro-India. Nasheed has now been convicted on a terrorism charge and sentenced to 13 years in prison, showing the limits of India’s influence.

On the first leg of his trip to Seychelles, Modi unveiled the first Indian-built Coastal Surveillance Radar System. And, in a very significant move, Assumption Island in Seychelles was leased to India. In Mauritius, Modi commissioned an India-built offshore patrol vessel, Barracuda, into the Mauritian National Coast Guard. This will help Mauritius patrol its vast exclusive economic zone.

But it was on the last leg of his trip to Sri Lanka that Modi gained the most attention. It was no secret that under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka was titling towards Beijing. This has been exacerbated by the fact that no Indian prime minister had paid a visit to Sri Lanka in the last 28 years. But the India–Sri Lanka relationship has begun to change following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena made India his first foreign destination after taking office. During his visit India and Sri Lanka signed a civilian nuclear deal.

During Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, he announced that India would be providing a new US$318 million line of credit to Sri Lanka to upgrade its railway infrastructure. He also paid a historic visit to Jaffna city in Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland. During the Sri Lankan civil war, India sent troops — the Indian Peace Keeping Force — to Sri Lanka and the Tamil heartland had seen heavy fighting.

In the past, central governments in India have found it difficult to articulate a clear foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. Shaky coalition governments in New Delhi have relied on support from political parties in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu for their survival. They have therefore found it extremely difficult to take a strong stand on issues related to Sri Lanka, which is home to a significant Tamil minority. As Modi leads a majority government in New Delhi, he can afford to make strong decisions on Sri Lanka without succumbing to pressure from interest groups in Tamil Nadu.

One of the reasons why India has reached out to these Indian Ocean nations is China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative, which is seen by many in India as an attempt to undercut New Delhi’s influence in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing has aggressively courted countries like Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Seychelles in the past. The Maldives are viewed as having openly snubbed India. For example, the Maldivian government overturned a contract to expand its international airport in Male that had been awarded to an Indian infrastructure company and later gave the contract to a Chinese company.

While Modi’s visit has been successful, there is no denying that the Indian Ocean will be a new playground between New Delhi and Beijing. India will no longer have the luxury of being the unchallenged power in the region (with the sole exception of the United States). This will call for some nimble-footed diplomacy from New Delhi. Beijing has asked India to collaborate in the Maritime Silk Road initiative, a move that has put New Delhi on the diplomatic back foot.

But New Delhi’s problems do not seem to have ended. Many Indian Ocean nations are wary of aligning with either India or China and will therefore try to get the best out of both of these powers. India’s reticence in reaching out to these countries in the past led them to open up to Beijing. This trend will continue as Beijing, flush with both economic and military muscle, tries to secure sea-lanes to carry minerals and energy resources from the Middle East and Africa to China.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

A version of this article was first published here by Global Asia.