PM Modi's Three Nation Tour: Reclaiming India's Position In The Indian Ocean

By all accounts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean sojourn--which took him to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka last week—has served to reclaim some of New Delhi’s lost footing in the area.

In the first two legs of his three-nation tour Modi secured agreements to develop islands in Mauritius and Seychelles. India and Mauritius signed an agreement to upgrade sea and air links on the remote Agalega islands, providing India a foothold in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The two sides have been discussing development of North and South Agalega islands for years but there were last-minute hiccups and reservations about actually clinching an agreement. Under the act, India will assist in improving infrastructure for air and sea connectivity to the two remote islands. And for once the Ministry of External Affairs statement wasn’t pulling any punches. It said the new facilities would also "enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests,” hinting at a military benefit at a later stage.

In Seychelles Prime Minister Modi announced an agreement to develop infrastructure on Assumption island. Of late, India has indirectly helped Seychelles with hydrography, map its exclusive economic zone, provided a Dornier aircraft for surveillance but this is the first time New Delhi is helping in building infrastructure. India’s proactive push is no doubt prompted by China’s aggressive foray in the Indian Ocean and especially its wish to use Seychelles as a resupply port for its ships taking part in anti-piracy operations.

India has long been a preeminent maritime power in the Indian Ocean but for the past decade, its primacy has been increasingly challenged by China. Apart from the strategic requirement of maintaining its supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region, there are commercial reasons that dictate New Delhi’s recalibration of Indian Ocean policy. As Modi said 90 percent of India's trade and oil imports moves by sea and as its economy becomes more globally integrated it would become more dependent on the ocean. "So, the Indian ocean region is at the top of our policy priorities," he said during his tour.

While Sychelles and Mauritius are important in New Delhi’s Indian Ocean dilomacy, Sri lanka remains the pivot around which India’s IOR policy revolves. And Since January, when Sri Lanka witnessed an unexpected change in government, India has made special efforts to re-engage with Colombo. The new regime in Sri Lanka, still somewhat on a shaky ground, has also seized the opportunity afforded by India’s active outreach. Modi received a red carpet welcome as the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka on a bilateral visit in 28 years.

While he made the right noises about India-Sri Lanka partnership while in Colombo, the highlight of Modi’s two-day was his historic visit to the Northern Province, a region once ravaged by strife. In Jaffna, the heart of Tamil-dominated Province, Modi called for an equitable development and respect for all citizens, in what is seen as a subtle signal to the government in Sri Lanka to reduce if not eliminate discrimination against minority Tamils. During his visit to Jaffna, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, Modi handed over 27,000 new homes to Tamils who became homeless during the civil war that ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The houses were built with Indian assistance as part of India's efforts to help in the reconciliation process.

In Colombo on Friday, Modi had reiterated India’s long-standing position that early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the country’s constitution done in 1987 relating to devolution of powers to Tamils must be done and if needed and to go beyond its provisions in finding a political solution. In re-emphasised the point in Jaffna while laying the foundation today for a Cultural Centre being built by India.

"Sri Lanka should also progress. Unity, peace and amity are essential ingredients for equitable development where there is respect for all citizens,” PM Modi said.

Modi flagged off a train service in the north-western town of Talaimannar, the closest point to India restored after decades of civil war, completing the reconstruction of the entire Northern Province Railway Line. Another small but significant breakthrough came in the form of the announcement that India will be developing the Oil tank Farm near Trincomalee in Eastern Sri Lanka.  The China Bay Tank farm is the largest one located between West Asia and Singapore and serves as a major fuel supply hub for ships traversing the busiest sea route between the Gulf and East Asia. For years, India wanted to run the facility jointly with Sri Lanka and retain a foothold in this crucial strategic facility but in 2013, Colombo had hardened its stance and refused to sign an agreement to lease the Trincomalee strategic oil storage to a unit of Indian Oil Corp (IOC) and had blocked the Indian firm's plans to set up a bitumen plant in the country.

But now the two governments have decided to move forward. Prime Minister Modi announced: "We are also focusing on new opportunities. Today Lanka IOC and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation have agreed to joint development of the upper tank farm of the China Bay installation in the Trincomalee on mutually agreed terms." Talking to the media after meeting President Maithripala Sirisena, Mr Modi said: "A joint task force will be constituted soon to work out the modalities. India stands ready to help Trincomalee become a regional petroleum hub."

Currently Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, operates 15 storage tanks out of 99 in Trincomalee. The Sri Lankan government had been considering developing the rest to increase its fuel storage capacity. Each of the storage tanks has a capacity of around 12,000 tonnes. Other steps like increasing people-to-people contacts, giving visa-on-arrival to Sri Lankans and starting more direct flights will further boost to the new-found New Delhi-Colombo bonhomie.

By Nitin Gokhale (DNA)

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