From: Sanjay Kadia
In the wake of Beijing's Indian Ocean charm offensive, New Delhi looks to reassert influence over various island states.
This week, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit the Indian Ocean island nations of Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. New Delhi's influence in the region has been eroding in the face of a quiet challenge from Beijing—Chinese-built highways, power plants and seaports have appeared in all three countries. With promises of increased civilian and military assistance, Mr. Modi will likely try to reassert India's influence.
China's attempt to gain a foothold in the region gained attention in 2012 when reports emerged that Seychelles—a strategically located island nation in the western Indian Ocean—offered China a base for military relief and resupply facilities. Beijing rejected the offer, confirming only that Seychelles would be used as a refuelling port for its navy. But the offer underscored the changing balance of power in the region.
India has traditionally been the main defense provider for Seychelles—providing armaments and training to the Seychelles Peoples' Defence Forces. It extended a $50 million line of credit and $25 million grant to Seychelles in 2012 in an attempt to cement strategic ties. Its navy has been making regular forays into the island nation's surrounding waters. During Mr. Modi's visit, the two states will be signing a pact on mapping the waters around the archipelago and further establishing defense ties.
In Mauritius, where India has enjoyed long-standing historical and defence ties, China's aggressive economic diplomacy has put India on its back foot. Mr. Modi now wants to rekindle India's primacy in the country. He will be the chief guest at Mauritius's National Day celebrations and will commission a 1,300-tonne, Indian-built patrol vessel, the Barracuda—India's first ever export warship. New Delhi plans to supply 13 more warships to Mauritius.
Meanwhile, Mr. Modi's trip to Sri Lanka will be the first in 28 years by an Indian prime minister. China's growing presence in the country recently suffered a setback following Maithripala Sirisena's victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa in this year's presidential elections. The Sirisena government has publicly expressed a desire to correct Mr. Rajapaksa's tilt toward Beijing and has already made some significant overtures toward New Delhi. For his first trip abroad, the new president visited India and signed a civil nuclear-energy cooperation pact.
The Sirisena government has also stated that it will have a "different approach" regarding Chinese submarines. Last year the previous government allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, raising hackles in New Delhi.
Sri Lanka has also suspended a $1.5 billion Chinese luxury real-estate project in Colombo, in a move that risks a diplomatic row with the country's largest trading partner. The project was to have been the biggest of several Chinese investments in Sri Lankan ports and infrastructure. But the Sri Lankan government has suggested that the deal lacked transparency and did not meet environmental standards. India has also expressed its concerns about the project.
During his visit, Mr. Modi will address the Sri Lankan parliament. He will stop in several Sri Lankan cities, including Jaffna, the de facto capital of the Tamil Tigers until their defeat in 2009. Mr. Modi is hoping to cement his personal ties with the new government in Colombo as well as re-establishing India's credibility as a regional power. By visiting Jaffna, he will underscore his government's concern about Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and will be working with the Sirisena government to ameliorate their situation.
With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two countries are increasingly rubbing against each other. Tensions have only increased as China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region and India makes its presence felt in East and Southeast Asia. With Indian policy makers finally acknowledging that both the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions are rapidly being shaped by the Chinese presence, the Modi government is pushing back by enhancing its diplomatic and defence presence in the area.
Yet China has also upped the ante with its ambitious $40 billion Maritime Silk Road project, aimed at connecting China with communication lines in the Indian Ocean and the larger Asia-Pacific region, setting the stage for the great game of the 21st century. India is only now beginning to take this challenge seriously. Mr. Modi's trip this week will provide some important pointers as to how New Delhi will proceed.
By Harsh V. Pant
Overseas Friends Of BJP UK
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