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India’s growing relationship with the United States will most influence the region, writes Indian Ocean Research Programme Analyst LINDSAY HUGHES
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, firmly believed in remaining non-aligned in a bipolar world. He believed that India could forge its own way in the international system without adhering to either the US- or USSR-led camps. He was also determined to make India self-sufficient, an undertaking that never was feasible given India’s history and the international situation. It was little surprise then that when his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was elected to office, she called for the major powers to withdraw from the Indian Ocean. She too adhered to the concepts of non-alignment, even if only in name given the country’s increasingly close ties to the Soviet Union, and self-sufficiency.
In the early 1990s, when India’s foreign exchange reserves sank to dangerous lows, the country was forced to re-engage with the world. India’s acumen for business rose to the challenge and its economy grew, just as another Asian power, China, did before it. India, having fought a border war with China, in 1962, viewed China’s growth with a degree of apprehension and envy. That apprehension was undoubtedly enhanced when China, ostensibly wishing to securitise the sea lanes along which its energy imports from Africa and the Middle East were shipped, began to create deeper relationships with some countries that lined the Indian Ocean and establish facilities in them. This soon gave rise to the idea of a “String of Pearls”, which some Indian analysts perceived as a threat to their country as those bases were seen to be an attempt to contain India. New Delhi had to develop its maritime defences.
As its own economy grew, India began to modernise its own armed forces. While its forces may not prevail over China’s, it is more than likely that any conflict between the two countries would end in a stalemate or grow into a protracted one, alternatives neither country wants nor can afford. India traditionally had a “continentalist” perception of threats to its security as it had been invaded by foreign powers via land routes to its north-west. China held the same view of the threats to its own security. As India watched Chinese attempts to securitise its Indian Ocean sea routes, however, it soon realised that, given the more-or-less balanced situation with China along their common border, any future battles with that country would likely take place at sea. If India could, moreover, disrupt China’s energy imports in the Indian Ocean, it would place the latter at a decided disadvantage. India could make use of its geographic location to obtain this advantage. It could enhance it, moreover, by striking agreements with other geographically strategic countries in the Indian Ocean, including the island states. Establishing bases in these countries would give India the same advantages China obtained, in the Indian view, by establishing its own “string of pearls”.
The previous United Progressive Alliance coalition, headed by the Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh, initiated measures designed to revive institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which was established to promote regional co-operation, and created the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, an institution that sought to bring together the heads of navies of littoral states with a view to discussing their common concerns, thus enhancing regional security. Given its own internal political concerns, however, the Singh coalition did not place any meaningful emphasis on the benefits that these institutions could have optimally provided. That task fell to his successor, Narendra Modi.
Mr Modi heads the Bharatiya Janata Party but he is also very much a product of the hard-right Rashtriya Sevak Sangh organisation, which wants to see India take what it sees as its rightful place among the most powerful and developed countries in the international system. It came as little surprise then that when Modi set out on a tour of the countries in the Indian Ocean in March 2015, together with Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and, interestingly, National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, a noted hawk, he announced a five-pronged plan of action for India’s interests in the region.
Travelling first to the Seychelles, Modi referred to the bilateral co-operation between the two countries in health, education, defence and maritime security and underlined the need for comprehensive co-operation in the Indian Ocean Region. He signed four agreements for co-operation in hydrography, renewable energy, infrastructure development and hydrographic surveys. It was the fifth, however, that is most pertinent. This pertained to the lease of Assumption Island, one of the 115 that constitute the Seychelles, for “infrastructure development”. To be used, ostensibly, for the development of tourist facilities, it is far more likely that the island will also host a military listening and surveillance post to keep track of Chinese warships that refuel and dock there on their way to conduct anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. While there, Modi also inaugurated the first of the eight Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems being built by India, purportedly to strengthen capacity and capability enhancement and to strengthen the maritime domain awareness capabilities of the island states. This eight-radar network would be combined with eight more in Mauritius, six in Sri Lanka, and ten in the Maldives. (Modi’s plans to travel to the Maldives were cancelled due to the political unrest at the time there.) These networks are to be linked to over fifty receiving sites in India and connected to an integrated analysis centre close to New Delhi. This widespread network, effectively a multi-lateral consensus, was the second of Modi’s five points of action and is predicated upon his first, India’s security, upon which issue he elaborated during the second leg of his tour, Mauritius.
In Mauritius, after handing over a patrol boat that India built for the Mauritian Coast Guard, Modi first emphasised the importance of the Indian Ocean, saying:
‘[T]he Indian Ocean is critical to the future of the world. This Ocean bears two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of its bulk cargo and half of its container traffic. Over three-fourths of its traffic goes to other regions of the world. The vast Indian Ocean Region hosts over 40 states and nearly 40 [per cent] of the world’s population. It touches Australia, South-East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and the eastern seaboard of Africa [and] the … island states. Think of the civilisational links, yet great diversity in this vast region! Consider the vast opportunities that it holds! Today, the world speaks of a twenty-first century driven by the dynamism and the energy of Asia and the Pacific. But, its course will be determined by the tides of the Indian Ocean.’
He added that:
‘Today, 90 [per cent] of our trade by volume and 90 [per cent] of our oil imports take place through sea. We have [a] coastline of 7,500 km, 1,200 islands and 2.4 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone. India is becoming more integrated globally. We will be more dependent than before on the ocean and the surrounding regions.’
His reference to India’s dependence on “the surrounding regions” provided a hint of India’s recognition of the importance of its need to develop strong relationships with the island states of the Indian Ocean.
He next moved to the issue of terrorist strikes against India perpetrated by groups who travel to its shores by boats, a clear reference to the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, saying, ‘Terror has visited us from sea.’ Modi was essentially indicating India’s determination to protect its homeland and its own maritime territories from further attacks. This would, however, logically extend past just terrorist attacks and include attacks of any kind, including state-initiated ones. This was Modi’s primary point of action. It would appear from this that he was signalling India’s need for an even stronger relationship with Mauritius and the Seychelles, with which states India already has healthy ties. The deepening security relationship with countries that already had close security ties to India constituted the third of his five points of action.
Modi signed five agreements with his Mauritian counterpart, Anerood Jugnauth, including a Memorandum of Understanding to develop the “ocean economy”, which is designed to provide an extensive framework for co-operation in sustainable development, and, perhaps more interestingly, one to upgrade sea and air links to the Agaléga Islands, which would provide India with a strategic foothold close to China’s energy and other shipping routes in the Indian Ocean. India will assist in improving infrastructure for air and sea connectivity to the North and South Agaléga Islands. Modi also welcomed the decision of Port Louis to make India its preferred partner in developing its security infrastructure. It is, however, his call for collaborative action as enunciated through the various economic agreements he concluded that constitutes the fourth of his five-pronged plan of action for the island states. His visit to Mauritius complete, Modi travelled to Sri Lanka and to the concluding stage of his trip.
While the Seychelles and Mauritius were (and remain) important strategic foci for Modi, Sri Lanka is the pivot of his five-pronged plan of action, even if solely by virtue of its geographical location. India has historical links with Sri Lanka that stretch back to antiquity. Sri Lanka is the land to which Rama, an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu and the hero of the Ramayana, travelled to bring back his wife, Sita. In more modern times, Sri Lanka is the land to which British colonialists transported labourers from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu to work on the tea plantations there, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that has reverberated until today. The Tamil labourers, after generations no longer Indian by birth, and deemed not fully Sri Lankan by other Sri Lankans, eventually came together to demand a homeland of their own in Sri Lanka. This led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and prolonged civil war, with Sri Lankan forces fighting the Tamil fighters. Under pressure from the Tamil leaders in India, New Delhi eventually sent its troops into Sri Lanka. This led, ultimately, to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Finally, in 2009, then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa eliminated the Tamil fighters, allegedly with Chinese assistance.
India’s concerns over Sri Lanka were, however, far from over. Rajapaksa turned increasingly towards China, favouring Chinese investments above others and going so far as to speak of a Chinese military or quasi-military presence in Sri Lanka. More concrete, however, were the ports that China began constructing at Hambantota and Colombo, which re-ignited Indian perceptions of the String of Pearls. New Delhi grew increasingly concerned over China’s construction of a satellite station. The final straw was, however, the visit of a Chinese submarine to Colombo just prior to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to New Delhi in September 2014. When Rajapaksa sanctioned a return visit of the submarine in November, it was seen by New Delhi as an act of defiance. Soon after, Maithripala Sirisena announced that he would stand as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. When Sirisena won, Rajapaksa claimed that India had engineered his loss, a view his followers shared. As if to demonstrate his thanks, Sirisena made New Delhi his first port of call after winning office. He also called a halt to the Chinese construction of the Hambantota port. It would appear that Modi had reason to hope for a favourable outcome from his visit to Sri Lanka.
In the event, he met with President Sirisena and also his predecessors, Rajapaksa and Kumaratunga. He addressed the Sri Lankan Parliament and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and signed four agreements, including two on customs co-operation and visa exemptions for diplomatic and official passport holders. He visited the Tamil north and, in Jaffna, called for the equal development and respect for all citizens. On a more prosaic front, Sri Lanka found it difficult, however, to service its debt to China and in March this year, Chinese state-media reported that CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd was informed by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Ports and Shipping that construction could restart immediately after a Cabinet meeting last week at which the project was reapproved. Work was also re-started on phase two of the Hambantota deep sea port, another of China’s so-called “pearls”, in May this year. India’s diplomacy clearly has its limits.
The fifth prong to Modi’s Indian Ocean aspirations is clearly his growing relationship with the United States. Defence Minister Mohan Parrikar is scheduled to visit Washington this week where he is expected to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which India had earlier agreed to in principle. Also this week, Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will travel to New Delhi for the second Strategic and Commercial dialogue between the two countries, accompanied by senior officials from twelve different agencies. In this respect, Modi is following the example set by the US and seeks to develop alliances in the Indian Ocean just as Washington is doing in Asia against their common competitor, China. It appears increasingly likely that India will shed more aspects of its non-aligned stance in order to retain its influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
This article originally appeared at Future Directions International