That sinking feeling in Indian Ocean

Seychelles’ announcement that an agreement it signed with New Delhi in January to let India built military facilities on its Assumption Island “will not move forward” is the latest in a series of setbacks that India has suffered in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) lately. That the announcement was made just days before Seychelles President Danny Faure set out on a six-day visit to India is particularly galling. This is the second time that Seychelles has had second thoughts on this agreement. In 2015, India and Seychelles reached agreement in principle on the matter. Protests erupted, forcing the Seychelles government to put the deal on the backburner. India’s persistence and willingness to rework the deal resulted in the agreement being signed in January. However, the Seychelles’ opposition parties refused to endorse the agreement, arguing that it is an affront to their territorial sovereignty and national pride. Had the agreement been ratified, it would have given already robust India-Seychelles co-operation a huge boost. Not only would it have given India a major foothold in the southern Indian Ocean but Seychelles, too, would have benefitted from India’s expertise in anti-piracy and other operations. It was a mutually beneficial agreement. President Faure began his India visit on Friday. Delhi must use its time with him to find out what it can do to revive the agreement. How can India assure the people of Seychelles that its intentions are benign and that it harbours no offensive ambitions on their land? 

The setback in Seychelles is particularly painful given the steady losses India has incurred in another Indian Ocean archipelago, the Maldives. Not only has India lost major infrastructure projects in Maldives to China, but its relations with its government are at an all-time low. Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has gone out of his way to thumb his nose at India, even insulting Delhi by returning Indian military hardware. Besides, his government has made it clear that Indian nationals are not welcome to the archipelago. Advertisements for jobs in the Maldives now clearly state, “Indians need not apply”. 

Is India losing the Indian Ocean Region, thanks to a failure of diplomacy? Delhi’s relations with ours neighbours are fraying even as China is investing heavily in their infrastructure sectors. Beijing has built new ports and upgraded old ones in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, it is running strategically located ports. As China’s footprint in the Indian Ocean expands, India’s is diminishing. The Indian Ocean is vital for India’s economy and national security. Delhi cannot allow other countries to reduce it to a minor player in what we pride ourselves in calling “India’s Lake”, our strategic backyard. India must proactively begin to retrieve the situation, starting with President Faure and Seychelles.

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That sinking feeling in Indian Ocean

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