Indian Ocean on Modi’s mind

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to make the Maldives and Sri Lanka the destinations of his first official trip abroad in his second term. In doing so, he has reiterated the priority India accords its neighbourhood in its foreign policy. More importantly, he has signalled the enhanced attention his government will pay to the Indian Ocean region and its island-states. India and Maldives signed six agreements in the areas of defence, maritime security, health, tourism, etc. A coastal surveillance radar system and a composite training centre for the Maldives defence forces were jointly inaugurated by Modi and Maldivian President Ibrahim Solih. India has put in place initiatives to build bridges with the Maldivian people. It is supporting Maldives’ cricketing ambitions by building a stadium at Hulhumale and will also be training Maldivian cricketers. Ferry services between Kochi and Male will ease travel, tourism and interaction between the Indian and Maldivian people. India-Maldives relations have improved in the months since the Maldives’ pro-China President Abdulla Yameen was voted out of power. Several high-level visits have happened in recent months. Modi’s visit has added substance to this improving relationship.

Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka was primarily aimed at conveying to the Sri Lankan people and their leaders India’s sympathy over the large number of lives lost in the Easter Sunday terror attacks in the island. The intelligence agencies of the two countries have been exchanging information. They need to work together to dismantle the cross-Palk Straits jihadist network that threatens both countries.

During Modi’s first term, China’s clout in the Maldives and Sri Lanka surged. In his second term, Modi must ensure that India’s diplomacy, especially its economic diplomacy, reduces the dependence of these countries on China. The Maldives and Sri Lanka are not only close to India’s shores but also, they are situated near sea lanes of communication through which much of India’s sea-borne trade, including oil imports, passes. This makes these two Indian Ocean island-states important to India’s energy and economic security. In 2015, the Modi government announced the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) doctrine, which aims at keeping the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) peaceful and secure. More recently, the Modi government invited leaders from BIMSTEC states to the swearing-in, signalling India’s prioritisation of the ‘Act East’ and the Bay of Bengal neighbourhood in its foreign policy. China’s increasing military presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean being a concern to India, New Delhi hopes to woo IOR littorals more assiduously in the coming five years.

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