Modi's Indian Ocean Tour Shows That India's Watching China

03/11/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

NEW DELHI -- India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on a tour across the Indian Ocean this week that is noteworthy both for where he's going and where he's not.

He's already arrived in the Seychelles, a strategically important island off the African coast that has become increasingly close to India in its geopolitical orientation, though it is 3,800 kilometers from the Indian coast. He then moves on to Mauritius, another Indian Ocean island country whose single largest ethnic group is Indians, where he will be the chief guest at the Independence Day celebrations on March 12 and address the National Assembly. Finally, he ends up in Sri Lanka for talks with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took charge of the government in January with the election defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As Modi pointed out before leaving, his meeting with Sirisena would be their second summit in a month, since the new president's first foreign destination after taking office in Colombo was India.

"My visit to the three Indian Ocean Island countries reflects our foreign policy priorities in India's immediate and extended neighbourhood," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said upon his departure, stressing his determination to intensify engagement, and close relations, with countries in the strategically important Indian Ocean region. This will be the first bilateral visit by an Indian prime minister since 1981 to the Seychelles, and the first since 1981 to Sri Lanka, though Mauritius has featured more frequently on Indian prime ministerial itineraries.

But Modi pointedly dropped from his plans the Maldives, once a close and reliable Indian partner and a country to which New Delhi had just rushed millions of gallons of bottled water when the tiny country's main water treatment plant broke down. The new Maldives regime's crackdown on democracy and its refusal to heed India's requests to stop persecuting former President Nasheed have not gone down well in New Delhi, and the long-planned prime ministerial visit has been scuttled in a clear signal of Indian displeasure.

"New Delhi has now woken up to the danger of being outrun in its own neighborhood."

At the same time, the message of the visit is evident: India is waking up to the importance and potential of its own position in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contesting proprietary notions in New Delhi about the Indian Ocean, had once trenchantly remarked that it was a mere whimsy of nomenclature that the ocean had been named Indian; "it could just as well have been called the Madagascar Sea." Moynihan loved being provocative, of course, but in its obsession with its troubled land borders with Pakistan and China, India had indeed overlooked its maritime interests, often acting as if the ocean was an accident of geography rather than a vital strategic setting. In recent years, under Modi's immediate predecessor Manmohan Singh, this had begun to change. His trip now sets the seal on a dramatic reorientation of Indian strategic thinking.

The strong ties with Mauritius, for instance, had long been based on ethnic sentiment, ever since Indian indentured laborers had been transported there 175 years ago. But now there is a distinct security dimension to the relationship, as the importance of securing the sea lanes across the Indian Ocean has dawned on New Delhi. The previous government had given Mauritius Indian-made helicopters; Modi will conduct the joint commissioning of an India-built offshore patrol vessel being gifted to Mauritius. Sentiment, of course, is never wholly absent, and Modi will also launch the beginning of construction work for the building of a World Hindi Secretariat in Port Louis.

Similarly, the repeated affirmations of friendship with Sri Lanka followed a period under President Rajapaksa when Colombo had seemed distinctly warmer to China and Pakistan than to its closest neighbor. India was evidently not displeased with the change of government, and President Rajapaksa even darkly hinted at an Indian hand in his defeat, an accusation New Delhi strenuously denies. At the same time, it is clear that Sri Lanka is inescapably important for India; domestic troubles there involving the country's Tamil minority inevitably spill across the straits to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, while a hostile government in Colombo exposes India's soft underbelly to exploitation by its strategic rivals, notably China and Pakistan. In addition, more Indian goods are transshipped through Colombo than Indian ports, and trade and investment between the two countries has been burgeoning. With New Delhi rightly emphasizing the cultivation of friendly relations with all its neighbors, Sri Lanka is a poster child for the new approach.

India has also been noticeably more willing to embrace its security responsibilities in the Indian Ocean, sending its ships regularly across the waters, patrolling off Mozambique's coast at the request of Maputo during a time of tension, and involving itself in the region's anti-piracy efforts. The highly competent Indian Navy is, however, saddled with an aging, under-equipped fleet and remains some way short of becoming a true blue-water navy. While it works to build up its maritime capacity, New Delhi has conducted naval exercises with several bilateral and multilateral partners in the Indian Ocean and brought together interested naval chiefs in an Indian Ocean Naval Symposium that has established itself as a "must attend" on the military seminar calendar.

India has also been an animating spirit behind efforts to revive the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which brings together 20 countries straddling three continents thousands of miles apart, united solely by their sharing of a common body of water. The association manages to unite Australia and Iran, Singapore and India, Madagascar and the United Arab Emirates and some dozen other states large and small -- unlikely partners brought together by the fact that the Indian Ocean washes their shores. The Indian Ocean serves as both a sea separating them and a bridge linking them together.

"The brotherhood of man is a tired cliché; the neighborhood of an ocean is a refreshing new idea."

This has arguably never been more needed, since India needs multipliers for its strategic efforts if it is to keep up with China -- which has been assiduous in cultivating Indian Ocean countries through Beijing's unrivaled talent for building major infrastructure projects across the region, especially ports, from Sri Lanka's Hambantota to Pakistan's Gwadar. China's talk of a new "Maritime Silk Road" is anchored in history: the ancient Maritime Silk Road of the 15th century started from Southeast China and traversed the South China Sea, through the Straits of Malacca, to Sri Lanka and India, then crossing the Arabian Sea to reach the Gulf countries and East Africa.

But its revival is very much a facet of contemporary Chinese foreign policy: President Xi Jinping addressed the Indonesian Parliament and called for the re-establishment of the old sea networks -- a 21st century "Maritime Silk Road" to jointly foster maritime cooperation, international connectivity, scientific and environmental research, and fishery activities. China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang repeated this call at the APEC and East Asian summits. But there are historically well-founded apprehensions in the region that the new silk routes will also mark a major step towards recreating the Chinese world order of the ancient times known as tianxia, which referred to all regions of the known world that acknowledged the suzerainty of the Chinese Son of Heaven.

China's ambitions in the South China Sea have extended well into the Indian Ocean, and the prospect of an emerging superpower casting its shadow has roused anxiety in a number of littoral states, which look to India as an alternative security provider. So far India -- which has long been known for being better at projecting soft power in the region than exercising hard power -- has been found wanting, leading some observers to suggest that the country was gradually being strangled by a Chinese "string of pearls" around its oceanic neck. New Delhi has now woken up to the danger of being outrun in its own neighborhood, and Prime Minister Modi's trip is evidence that its awakening is being translated into action.

The brotherhood of man is a tired cliché; the neighborhood of an ocean is a refreshing new idea. India is genuinely paying attention now to all its neighbors, and Modi's travels lead to the hope that its voice will be heard above the roar of a mighty ocean.

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