India has for a long time had a “continental outlook,” with insufficient attention paid to maritime aspects of security. But this has begun to change over the last two decades, a reflection of India’s growing economy and the resultant need for secure trade routes and the growing security competition in the maritime space as a consequence of China’s naval expansion.
One aspect of this shift has been India’s efforts to build security partnerships in the Indian Ocean region. On this score, the record of India’s strategic shift is at best mixed. Indeed, while there are often headlines about India’s successes, with an example being India’s outreach to Indonesia with India gaining access to a strategically vital Sabang port earlier this month, in fact, India’s efforts to partner with other states have actually been less than successful, be it an agreement with Seychelles or the Maldives.
The India-Indonesia agreement to jointly develop a strategic Indian Ocean port, Sabang, which lies at the tip of the Sumatra Island and close to the Malacca Strait, has been a clear success. During the recent visit of Modi to Indonesia in May, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the press, “India is a strategic defence partner… and we will continue to advance our cooperation in developing infrastructure, including at Sabang Island and the Andaman Islands.” Earlier, Indonesia’s maritime coordinating minister, Luhut Pandjaitan is reported to have told the media that the Sabang port can be developed to handle commercial vessels as well as warships including submarines. Clearly, Modi’s Indonesia maritime gambit worked out in India’s favor, though it is important to emphasize as well that Indonesia’s own concerns with China’s expansion has been an important factor here.
Less successful has been India’s venture in Seychelles, where India had signed an agreement for developing a naval base on Assumption Island focusing on “development, management, operation and maintenance of facilities.” This was to be a joint initiative that India was to execute per the request from the Seychelles government. India was to upgrade the jetty, renovate the airstrip, and construct housing for the National Coast Guard of Seychelles. The goal was to help Seychelles step up its capacity to patrol the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (1.3 million square kilometers) including near the Mozambique Channel, from poaching, illegal fishing, and drug and human trafficking.
However, the agreement, which was signed originally in March 2015, was renegotiated at the request of the Seychelles government because of concerns expressed by the Opposition in the National Assembly. The current government does not enjoy a majority in the National Assembly and the opposition was not entirely convinced of the agreement with India. In an Indian Parliament question and answer session, Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. (Dr.) VK Singh stated, “As per the terms of the agreement, the facilities on Assumption Island will be funded by India, owned by Seychelles and jointly managed by both sides.”
The revised agreement signed on January 27, 2018 attempted to clarify many aspects relating to ownership and conditions for Indian use. The revised agreement says that the sovereignty over the Assumption Island will still be with the Seychelles and that New Delhi cannot use the facility during war times or let vessels with nuclear materials use these facilities.
The opposition leader, Wavel Ramkalawan of Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) party, has raised several objections to the agreement including that stationing of Indian military and presence of Indian technical workers in the small island could lead to an Indian dominance of the local economy. Among other things, he was also concerned that an Indian facility could spark a regional competition between India and China because a deal with India for a base could force Seychelles to take sides.
This is a setback for India. Seychelles and India have traditionally been close defense partners. round 70 percent of the Seychelles’ military is trained by India, and in 2017, 11 Indian naval ships visited Seychelles, and eight so far this year. India established a coastal radar surveillance radar system in Seychelles in 2016 and India has also given Mahe three patrol ships and a Dornier aircraft.
In a possible effort to soften up and win over the opposition, India is reported to be donating another Dornier to the Seychelles this month. New Delhi is also exploring a trilateral cooperation involving France which could go a long way in protecting India’s maritime security interests while restricting China’s larger footprint in the region. France, for its part, has also been seeking to improve bilateral maritime ties with the island nation.
Gaining access to a facility in the Indian Ocean island nation would have been significant for India in the backdrop of China’s recently developed naval base in Djibouti. But India failed in reaching out to the Seychelles’ opposition parties, especially considering the fact that the Seychelles President Danny Faure had briefed Modi on the difficulties in implementing the agreement when the two met at the Commonwealth meeting in April this year. The visit of the Seychelles President to India this week offers New Delhi some additional opportunities to make up for lost ground in this regard.
By comparison, India’s efforts in the Maldives has turned ugly. The recent crisis in Maldives began with the imposition of Emergency by President Abdulla Yameen, openly disregarding calls from India to respect rule of law and democratic institutions. But for India, more pertinently, the bigger concern has been Maldives’ growing strategic proximity to China. Male’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative and its maritime component, the Maritime Silk Road and the signing of the free trade agreement with China have infuriated the Indian leadership.
The relationship had already been spiraling downward for several months. But recent reports, such as those about job advertisements which categorically state “Indians need not apply” and reports of visa denial to Indians, will likely only further exacerbate tensions. Further, it is believed that India voted against and even campaigned against Maldives in its recent bid to secure a non-permanent seat to the UN Security Council for a period of two years.
India’s successes and failures are at least partly the consequence of the proximity of the threat. Both Seychelles and Maldives may see India as a bigger problem than China simply because of proximity, with the situation reversed to some extent in the Indonesian case. But this cannot become an excuse either. India’s diplomacy needs to get more nimble-footed to influence other countries if it wants to compete effectively with China.