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Opinion

March 23, 2015

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India’s string of pearls

From March 10 to 14, Indian Prime Minister Modi made a much-publicised trip to three island states of the Indian Ocean – Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka – in a move designed to further India’s long-held desire to convert the Indian Ocean into its sphere of influence, an ambition it sees jeopardised by China’s growing presence in the region. A visit to the Maldives, another Indian Ocean state originally included in the trip, was called off because of political turmoil in that country, in the instigation of which Indian agencies themselves are believed to have a hand.
To the applause of India’s foreign policy and security analysts, Modi made a series of speeches during his swing through the Indian Ocean to signal a bolder and more aggressive approach to bolster his country’s aspiration to dominate the Indian Ocean. Modi backed up his words with promises of economic and other assistance to the host countries as well as help in building infrastructure.
In both Seychelles and Mauritius, Modi won agreements to develop infrastructure in two islands that could serve also as military outposts at a future date. India obtained lease of the Assumption Island in Seychelles for ‘tourism purposes’ but the Indian press noted that the facility could be used as a listening and surveillance post. In Mauritius, India signed an agreement to upgrade sea and air links to the Agalega islands.
The islands India will now be developing in Seychelles and Mauritius will give it a foothold in the Indian Ocean hundreds of miles from its coast, an Indian version of the ‘string of pearls’. One Indian newspaper gleefully quoted Indian officials as saying somewhat over-optimistically that the “infrastructure development rights” India had won was a sign that the “Indian Ocean was going to be India’s Ocean”.
It was no coincidence that each of the three countries Modi chose for his swing through the Indian Ocean has significant Indian or Indian-origin

populations hat have retained strong sentimental, cultural and family links with the land of their ancestors. In Mauritius, they form more than 70 percent of the population. Many of the overseas Indians look upon India as a kind of protector and identify themselves with their parent country’s fortunes. India, for its part, sees them as useful tools in gaining influence in their countries of adoption and pursuing its global ambitions.
A statement issued by the Indian government before Modi began his trip characterised the visit as a reflection of his government’s foreign policy priorities in “India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood” – the Indian term for its “near abroad” which it would like to see become its strategic backyard –and the “paramount importance” India attaches to “strengthening relations with this region, which is vital for India’s security and progress”. This policy was further articulated in several speeches by the Indian prime minister during his visit, in particular one delivered at a ceremony commissioning the launching of an Indian-built patrol vessel, the Barracuda, in Mauritius on March 12.
In that speech, Modi claimed a central place for India in “shaping [the] future” of the Indian Ocean. He noted, largely correctly, that about two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of its bulk cargo, and half of its container traffic passes through the Indian Ocean and that three-fourths of this traffic goes to other regions of the world. But Modi glossed over the fact that India’s share in it is quite insignificant. India, he also said, was at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean. That too is an exaggerated claim because most of this trade bypasses India.
Another dubious assertion Modi made in his Mauritius speech is that India has had a long maritime tradition “since [the Indus Valley civilisation city of] Lothal in Gujarat became one of the earliest seaports in the world”. There is about as much truth is this statement as in the claim Modi made last October that references in Hindu mythology to the Hindu god Ganesh were proof that plastic surgery and genetic science existed in ancient India.
The truth is that Indians were not a sea-faring people. The Indian Ocean was so named by ancient and medieval geographers not because it was dominated by Indian sailors but because it provided a pathway to sailors from the Arabian peninsula and from other countries to the coasts of India and to its riches. India’s current aspirations to be a dominant power in the Indian Ocean in fact can be dated back to the US decision in 2005 during the Bush presidency to “make India a global power” as a counterweight to the rise of China.
India has since then been watching with unease as China expands its political and economic ties with Indian Ocean countries and builds seaports, airports and other infrastructure in the region to improve shipping links and connectivity.
Delhi is also suspicious of China’s Maritime Silk Road project and was particularly irked at the docking of a Chinese submarine twice at a Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka last year while Rajapaksa was still the president of the country.
With US blessing, the Modi government has now picked up the courage to challenge what it sees as China’s inroads into India’s backyard and to correct years of pussyfooting by previous Indian governments. Nevertheless, Modi carefully avoided naming China during his tour of the Indian Ocean states.
Pakistan, in particular the Gwadar Port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, also cannot have been absent from Modi’s thoughts during this tour but the only allusion he made to Pakistan was in a remark on the Mumbai terrorist attack.
In a five-point plan to promote co-operation in the Indian Ocean region, Modi called for strengthening the Indian Ocean Rim Association, a 20-member grouping from which Pakistan has been excluded through India’s machinations. Not that it matters very much. In fact the only tangible achievement of the grouping in its 18-year history is that it has kept Pakistan out under a rule devised by India which denies admission to countries that do not grant MFN status to existing members.
In seeking to dominate the Indian Ocean and limit the influence of China, India has not only geared up its diplomacy in the region, it has also followed three other tacks.
First, it has an ambitious naval expansion and modernisation programme which includes the acquisition of aircraft carriers and nuclear-propelled submarines. Last month India increased its defence budget by 11 percent to $40 billion and approved the building of six nuclear-powered submarines as well as seven new frigates.
Second, India is acting in partnership with the US, Japan and Australia in enhancing its political, diplomatic, economic and military profile in the region. These countries also have their own naval build-up programmes.
Third, India has always sought to destabilise governments in its neighbourhood that it considers to be unfriendly to it or too friendly to its rivals. Two recent examples are the Rajapaksa government of Sri Lanka and the Yameen government of Maldives.
In newspaper interviews, Rajapaksa has publicly accused RAW of having conspired to rally the opposition led by Sirisena against his presidency but has generously exonerated Modi of personal responsibility. India is also suspected of being behind the current campaign to destabilise the government of Maldives President Yameen who came to power in November 2013 after victory in a run-off election over former President Nasheed, who was favoured by India. The Maldives foreign minister has now politely asked India not to give any “directions” to her country.
Pakistan has not commented so far on Modi’s Indian Ocean odyssey or the events in Maldives. It is to be hoped that this is not a sign of acquiescence in India’s forays and that the government will soon give its views on Delhi’s latest moves to dominate the Indian Ocean. The government should also come up with its own vision for peace and security in the Indian Ocean region. It should also consider launching a multilateral initiative to forestall any move for foreign intervention in the Maldives against the constitutionally elected government of President Yameen such as one that India is thought to be contemplating, possibly with US blessing.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]

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