By Wendy Laursen
The Indian Ocean has been dominated by foreign powers for 300 years, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka last week demonstrates that he is now reclaiming the deeper cultural connection between Indian Ocean island states and “mother India.”
On his March 10 to 14 tour Modi made a plea for the peaceful resolution of maritime issues and respect for international maritime rules. He called for a strengthening of Indian Ocean relations while in Mauritius where he commissioned the island nation’s latest coastal patrol vessel.
The 1,300 ton Indian-built patrol boat Barracuda will be used to help Mauritius police its vast 2.3 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone. “She will be there to help in times of disasters and emergencies. But she will do more than that. She will also help make our Indian Ocean safer and more secure,” Modi said.
Rather than grouping regions by land masses, Modi told his host Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth that he wanted an Indian Ocean grouping. “We will pursue this with new vigour in the years ahead,” he said, adding that Mauritius would make an ideal host for the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA).
Modi out to impress China and U.S.
Modi’s island tour is expected to be seen as a move to re-affirm India’s central role in the region in the eyes of both China and the U.S. While acknowledging that China has a growing presence, and that there are other nations around the world with stakes in the region, Modi said those who live in the region have the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity. Around 20 countries border the Indian Ocean including South Africa, Iran, Indonesia and Australia, however India is geographically central.
Modi has made a string of Indian foreign policy firsts since he came to power in May 2014. He was the first to invite leaders from neighbouring nations to his swearing in, the first to host a U.S. president at the nation’s Republic Day celebrations and the first to articulate the need for India to step in on threats to global peace and security.
Two agreements signed during Modi’s tour reveal a distinctively Indian vision for a security umbrella in the Indian Ocean, reports the Economic Times of India. India has acquired infrastructure development rights for Assumption Island (Seychelles) and the Agalega Islands (Mauritius), two strategic Indian Ocean outposts. By operating and sharing surveillance systems on these islets, India is perceived as explicitly helping the island nations “assess the moves of unsavoury elements in the region.”
U.S. weak on piracy
Locally in India, the U.S. is perceived as being less interested in policing in the Indian Ocean since its historical establishment of power after the British lessened their role in the region last century. “The most startling evidence that the U.S. is out of the game was the spread of the Somali pirates between 2005 and 2011. Here was the sort of low-tech problem a superpower could handle with a flick of the wrist. Instead, it was Indian and other navies that had to beat the pirates back,” reports an analyst from The Hindustan Times.
Instead, the piracy problem has given China a valid reason for boosting its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and last year Chinese intelligence gathering ships began making regular forays into the Indian Ocean. Last year, China also held its first military exercise in the region.
Sri Lankan oil move
The Indian Ocean carries around 40 percent of China’s oil and gas imports. It also carriers 90 percent of India’s trade and oil imports. Recognition of the importance of oil led to another significant announcement during Modi’s tour – India will develop the oil storage facility near Trincomalee in Eastern Sri Lanka. The China Bay Tank farm is the largest depot between West Asia and Singapore and serves as a major fuel supply hub for ships sailing between the Persian Gulf and East Asia.
Modi’s island tour marks the first Sri Lankan visit by an Indian leader in over 25 years, and Modi said the security of the two nations is “indivisible”. A statement released by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit after three decades has proved to be a historic visit. Prime Minister’s visit to Jaffna has sent a very positive message to Tamils living in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. He also flagged the fishermen issue, and his address to the Sri Lankan Parliament was very grandly appreciated.”
The “fishermen issue” relates to a human rights concern. According to BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao, “there are reports that five fishermen have been attacked by the Sri Lankan Navy, I think this a long time problem. This is a humanitarian issue. Sri Lanka responded favourably when the Prime Minister went to Sri Lanka, Indian fishermen were released.”
The Indian Ocean region is at the top of our policy priorities, said Modi during the tour, but some are dubious about his ability to follow through on promises. “While Modi’s approach to the Indian Ocean region underlines its significance for India’s regional strategic interests and global ambitions and, doubtless, seeks to redress decades of neglect by India’s leadership, the initiative lacks clarity and the necessary capacity to succeed,” says W.P.S Sidhu, a senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University, on Livemint. For example, India is struggling to get financing and construction of Chabahar port in Iran underway and has only supplied Mauritius with one Indian-built coast guard vessel, says Sidhu, far less than what China is pouring in to infrastructure development in the region.
Modi around the world
Modi is off to Europe and Canada next month, with the EU hoping to restart stalled discussions on the Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) that has been under negotiation since 2007. Modi has made a strong impression globally for his economic reforms, as demonstrated by the EU-owned European Investment Bank which is planning to open its first office in the country this year.
Additionally, India’s position on the Ukraine crisis is viewed as more sympathetic to Russia than the EU’s position, and the EU thinks that India can play an important role in finding a peaceful solution, reports local Indian media.