The Battle For Indian Ocean

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just-concluded bilateral visit to Sri Lanka (March 13-14) was laden with strategic agenda. 
While there was heavy bilateral agenda too given the fact that this was the first trip to Sri Lanka by an Indian premier in 28 years, the visit had two major objectives in the multilateral context: China’s steady forays into the Indian Ocean and consultations with top Sri Lankan leadership over the situation in Maldives.

Modi’s foremost strategic agenda was to bolster India’s soft power in the Indian Ocean region and counter the Chinese rapid chess moves. Well, the Indians may not be aggressively pushing the “Indian Ocean is India’s Ocean” line for now but certainly New Delhi is trying to tell the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) states that the water body does not belong to China.

Geographically speaking, China is not an Indian Ocean power. Yet it is trying to project itself as one, even as Beijing goes about the task of strengthening its iron grip over the South China Sea and East China Sea and creating new reefs and islands in these international waters.

Modi’s visit incidentally was the final leg of his three-nation tour of Indian Ocean island nations, Seychelles and Mauritius being his earlier stops. Modi’s just-concluded three-nation tour must be seen in the larger context of India’s Ocean diplomacy.

Actually, India’s Ocean diplomacy kicked off from the land-locked New Delhi when the newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visited India last month. Incidentally, Sirisena chose India as the first destination of his foreign visit, thus sending a not-so-subtle message to all other major powers, particularly China.

Modi immediately built up further on Sirisena’s India trip and visited Sri Lanka within a month of Sirisena’s India tour. 

The reason behind this unusual bit of diplomacy is centered on China’s super ambitious Maritime Silk Route (MSR) project. The $40 billion MSR project is being viewed by many foreign powers, big or small, as a clever bit of checkbook diplomacy. China claims that over 50 nations in the Asia Pacific region have lent support to its MSR project. Many of the states in Asia Pacific are small economies like Maldives, which has an annual GDP of just $2.2 billion.

India has already given a tepid and cautious response to China’s MSR project. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had gone on record as saying from the Chinese soil last month that India could not give a blanket endorsement to the MSR project. Incidentally, Sri Lanka is an important lynchpin in the Chinese strategic maneuvers in Indian Ocean. Just last year when Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president of Sri Lanka, Chinese nuclear submarines and warships had docked in Sri Lankan harbors, triggering concern in India. The Sirisena government has assured India that it would ensure that this won’t be repeated.

The second major point in Modi’s Sri Lanka visit from the multilateral perspective was the volatile political situation in Maldives. India has serious concerns over the situation in Maldives following the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed on Feb. 22 on terror charges and his 13-year sentence on March 13.

India has immense geopolitical stakes in Maldives, a country, which does not happen to be on major western powers’ radar screens. The US and the EU do not maintain embassies in Male, the capital of Maldives. Instead their envoys in Colombo are additionally accredited to Maldives.

With regime change following presidential elections in January this year in Sri Lanka, India has a more favorable government in Colombo with Sirisena at the helm. As stated before, Sri Lanka enjoys lot of leverage over Maldives. One of the strategic objectives of Modi during his talks with Sri Lankan leadership in Colombo on March 13 was to understand the Maldivian conundrum from the Sri Lankan perspective. Ahmed Naseem, who was Maldives’ foreign minister during Nasheed’s presidency and is now in a self-imposed exile in Sri Lanka, told this writer that he was told by his Sri Lankan sources that Maldives figured prominently in the Modi-Sirisena talks.

But why Maldives alone as the same Indian dilemma is applicable to the entire Indian Ocean region! In contrast, China has no such inhibitions. That is why while India is seen largely as twiddling its thumbs, the Chinese juggernaut continues to race ahead in the Indian Ocean chess games.

(Rajeev Sharma)

© 2019 Asian Mirror (pvt) Ltd