Whatever you may say about the slow pace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promises on the economic front, his stepping in the area of foreign policy has been faultless. The recent tour to the Indian Ocean region is a case in point.
He was the first PM to visit Seychelles in 33 years, the first to go to Sri Lanka in 28 years, and the first to Mauritius in a decade. Modi believes that India’s foreign policy must pivot on strong ties with its neighbours on the land or across the seas. But it is also a response to the strong surge of Chinese interest, which has manifested itself in substantial infrastructure investment, high-level visits and naval movement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Prime Minister Modi with former cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga. Events and actions of countries in the IOR littoral have security implications for India. Pic/PTI
It is not just that 90 per cent of our overseas trade passes through the IOR, that makes it important for us. Events and actions of countries in the IOR littoral have security implications for India. In addition, we have an interest in the welfare of significant chunks of the Indian diaspora who are scattered across the region from South Africa to Oman.
There was a time when naïve India sought to keep out foreign navies from the Indian Ocean. But today it realises that in a globalised world, others too have important reasons to be in the IOR, even the Chinese. Yet, we have a paramount responsibility to keep peace and promote stability in the region because of our location. The Chinese or the Americans can, if compelled, do without the IOR; we don’t have that option. Developments in the ocean and its littoral have a direct impact on our security and well being.
An important building block of our efforts are plans to establish coastal surveillance radars in a number of island states-8 in Mauritius, 8 in Seychelles, 6 in Sri Lanka, 10 in Maldives. These will be linked to the 50-odd sites on the Indian coast and, in turn, linked to the Gurgaon based Integrated Management Analysis Centre and be part of the Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness project.
India’s security ties with Mauritius gathered steam following the 1981 attempted coup in Seychelles by South African mercenaries, which nearly led to the hijack of an Air India aircraft at the Seychelles airport. To prevent such an action in Mauritius, India helped it create a Rapid Mobile Force, as well as strengthen its police force and coast guard.
India is now seeking to consolidate its relations with Mauritius, a key gateway for foreign investment in India. This involves plugging the loopholes in the Double Tax Avoidance Agreement and the deferment of the anti-avoidance tax rules till 2017, besides providing an additional $ 0.5 billion line of credit for infrastructure development in the island.
On the security front, the Indian built CGS Barracuda, launched by Prime Minister Modi, was only the latest manifestation of the long-standing security ties between the two countries going back to the mid-1970s when India gifted the INS Amar to the Mauritian Coast Guard. It is significant that during the Modi visit, the two sides signed an MOU to develop the aviation and port infrastructure of the strategic Agalega island.
In the case of the Seychelles, India has been involved in a security partnership since 2003, when the two sides agreed to have the Indian Navy patrol its territorial waters. In 2003, the Indian Navy presented the Seychelles coast guard the INS Tarmugli to do the job itself and also gifted some helicopters and Dornier surveillance aircraft to the island nation.
Modi announced the gift of another Dornier aircraft this time. The two countries also signed an agreement for a hydrographic survey of the islands, as well as one for developing the air and sea infrastructure on Assumption Islands. There was no offer of a Line of Credit, since an earlier one of $ 75 million remains to be fully utilised.
The most complex visit was to Sri Lanka because of its importance to India’s economic and security interests. Here, the effort was two-fold. First, to reinvigorate ties that had stalled during the presidency of Mahinda Rajpakse and, the second, to reconnect with the Tamil minority of the island, which has an important emotional connect with India. A $318 million Line of Credit will be used to modernise the Sri Lankan railway system and India has committed to develop the port of Trincomalee as a petroleum hub. In the early 1980s, the Sri Lankans baited India by offering the old petroleum tank farm there to a US company. Modi’s visit to Jaffna, the first by an Indian PM was an important signal that India would stand up for the rights of the Tamil minority which has been battered by the brutal civil war.
The IOR tour was not just about declarations and MOUs, proof of this is that New Delhi has put down money through Lines of Credit for infrastructure development in various island states. The challenge now is to ensure that it is effectively utilised. This is one area of weakness on our part which must be remedied by creating appropriate project management vehicles. 2014 marked just the beginning of Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean. In the coming years we can see a marked increase as its $40 billion Maritime Silk Route initiative gets underway. Countries of the IOR will not hesitate to play off New Delhi against Beijing, we would be naïve to think they won’t. They will seek to advance their national interests, just as we must serve our own.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi