Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be on a three-nation trip this week which will take him to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka – three key Indian Ocean island nations. There were suggestions that the prime minister will be visiting Maldives as well but it was dropped from the itinerary after the arrest and incarceration of the country’s first democratically elected president and current opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed in an expression of India’s disapproval of these moves. Indian Prime Minister is likely to step up his nation’s military and civilian assistance to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka during his visit in an effort to balance China’s growing imprint in the region, which has built highways, power plants, and seaports in these small island nations. India envisages its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region and towards that end it is providing patrol ships, surveillance radars and ocean mapping for the island states.
The visit of the Indian Prime Minister to the nation’s maritime neighbors is reflective of India’s desire to shore up its profile in the Indian Ocean region, a region long considered India’s backyard but where New Delhi’s influence has been eroding slowly but steadily. China has extended a quiet challenge to India’s preeminence in South Asia through diplomatic and aid efforts directed at the small island nations dotting the Indian Ocean. While China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian nations fight over specks of islands and reefs in East and South China Sea, mainly because of undersea resources, islands in the Indian Ocean are emerging as a new focus for struggle between China and India.
China has also been busy forging special ties with island nations on India’s periphery including Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius. China’s attempt to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean came into view in 2012 when reports emerged of an offer from Seychelles – a strategically located island nation in the Indian Ocean – to China for a base to provide relief and resupply facilities to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Though promptly denied by Beijing, 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 its Peoples’ Defense Forces, or SPDF. India extended a $50 million line of credit and $25 million grant to Seychelles in 2012 in an attempt to cement strategic ties. The Indian Navy has also been making regular forays into the island nation’s surrounding waters.
During Modi’s visit, the two states will be signing a pact on mapping of the waters around the archipelago and further cementing their defense ties. In Mauritius, the Indian Prime Minister will be the chief guest at Mauritius’s National Day celebrations and will commission a 1300-tonne Indian-built patrol vessel, the Barracuda — India’s first ever export warship. New Delhi plans to supply 13 more warships to Mauritius.
Modi’s trip to Sri Lanka will be the first in 28 years by an Indian Prime Minister and it comes at a time when China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka has suffered a setback with the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the victory of Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential elections earlier this year in January. The Sirisena government has made its desire public to correct Rajapaksa’s tilt towards China and has already made some significant overtures towards India. The new President has visited India as his first trip abroad which resulted in a civil nuclear energy cooperation pact. The Sirisena government has also underlined that it would have a “different approach” than the previous Rajapaksa government which allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo in September 2014, raising heckles in New Delhi. In a move that risks diplomatic row with is largest trading partner, Sri Lanka has suspended a $1.5 billion Chinese luxury real estate project in Colombo, the biggest of several Chinese investments in Sri Lankan ports and infrastructure. Though the Sri Lankan government has suggested that the deal lacked transparency and did not meet environmental standards, India too had expressed its concerns about the project. During his visit, Modi will be addressing the Sri Lankan parliament and will be visiting several Sri Lankan cities, including Jaffna which was the de-facto capital of the LTTE till their defeat in 2009.
With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two are increasingly rubbing against each other as China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region and India makes its presence felt in East and Southeast Asia. Though Indian policymakers are now ready to acknowledge that both the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions are rapidly being shaped by the Chinese presence, the Modi government wants to push back by enhancing its diplomatic and defense presence in the regional states.
The great game of the 21st century is likely to be played out on the waters of the Indian Ocean. China has 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. India is only now beginning to take this challenge seriously. The Modi government is gearing up to tackle the China challenge in India’s backyard. It remains to be seen if it will be successful in this endeavor. Modi’s trip this week will provide some important pointers.