India's firm step in Indian Ocean

India's firm step in Indian Ocean

The first leg of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean diplomacy has gone well. Agreements signed with Seychelles and Mauritius are expected to strengthen bilateral ties via economic and other co-operation and also boost India’s profile and security preparedness through an enhanced presence in the western Indian Ocean. Anchoring this are landmark pacts that Delhi has signed for development of infrastructure in the Agalega Island in Mauritius and the Assumption Island in Seychelles. These could emerge as strategic assets for India, thousands of kilometers from its own coastal waters. India has won these deals after many years of negotiations. This is a triumph for Indian diplomacy. Besides, India will work with Seychelles in the fields of hydrography, renewable energy, etc and help it build capacity in coastal surveillance. India’s relations with Mauritius have hinged traditionally on ties with the ethnic Indian population there.

Signaling the priority it accords to Mauritius in its Indian Ocean strategy, Delhi gifted Mahe with ‘Barracuda’, the first naval ship India has built for a foreign country. Modi’s visit to Mauritius will boost ocean economic co-operation as well.

A country with a continental mindset, which was preoccupied with securing its land borders, India neglected maritime and naval issues for several decades post-Independence. It is only over the last couple of decades that India has turned its gaze to the oceans. Several developments fuelled this focus on the seas. One was that in the context of globalisation and India’s economic rise, the Indian Ocean’s role in fuelling our economic growth became apparent. With around 90 per cent of India’s oil imports coming via the seas, securing sea lanes of communication (SLOC), which have emerged veritable lifelines of the Indian economy, assumed importance. It contributed to India co-operating with other Indian Ocean countries to tackle piracy and terrorism which threaten the Indian Ocean SLOCs. Besides, China’s rising interest and presence in the Indian Ocean, evident from its assiduous courting of governments of Indian Ocean littorals and port building activity here, has triggered alarm in Delhi as it has implications for India’s security. India’s outreach to Indian Ocean littorals must be seen in this context.

India’s successful diplomacy in Seychelles and Mauritius must be followed up with timely completion of infrastructure projects. India cannot counter China’s influence if Delhi’s promises are not taken seriously in other capitals. Importantly, Delhi must breathe fresh life into the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). A cooperative approach to achieving comprehensive security in the Indian Ocean is likely to be more fruitful in the long run.

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