India: Building a Sphere of Influence in the Indian Ocean?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just completed a ground-breaking tour of the Indian Ocean, aiming to consolidate India's leading role among the island states and counter China's growing presence in the region.
Modi is now breaking some long-standing taboos in Indian foreign policy.
Enhanced security cooperation was very much at the forefront of Modi's visits last week to Seychelles and Mauritius. India has long acted as a security provider to these islands, including fending off feared coups on several occasions. The relationship is bolstered by their large Indian ethnic populations (some 70% of Mauritians are of Indian origin and there is a substantial Indian community in Seychelles). For decades, India has been the major contributor of military equipment and training to both countries.
The head of Mauritius' navy and the Mauritian national security advisor are Indian officers, while the Seychelles maritime security advisor is also an Indian naval officer. Modi used last week's visits to promise additional Indian surveillance aircraft to Seychelles as well as handing over an Indian-built patrol vessel to Mauritius.
Modi's visit to Sri Lanka – the first Indian prime ministerial visit for almost 30 years – focused on rebuilding the political links between the two countries that have often been frayed and irritated by the Tamil issue. Modipledged India's commitment to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka, but also pressed Colombo to implement its promises of devolving power to the Tamil community. In doing so, Modi managed to avoid the antagonism that has previously surrounded the issue, raising hopes that India might play a constructive role in helping to facilitate lasting national reconciliation.
But Modi's visit to the region also had considerable strategic significance.
India is now in the process of building a maritime security grouping among the Indian Ocean island states as part of its aspirations to be a "net security provider" to the region.
For several years, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have been parties to a trilateral arrangement involving training and capacity building of maritime forces, regular joint exercises and meetings of national security advisors. Last year, Delhi proposed that this arrangement should be expanded to include Mauritius and Seychelles, and potentially even other states. The proposal was blocked by Sri Lanka's former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was concerned about the dilution of India's contributions to Sri Lanka (particularly in defence training). Rajapaksa was also unhappy with Mauritius, which had boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November 2013.
This policy may have now changed under Sri Lanka's new President, Maithripala Sirisena, who has pledged to "correct" Sri Lanka's perceived tilt towards Beijing.
An expansion of the trilateral maritime security arrangement to include Mauritius and Seychelles is now on the cards. The initial focus of the "IO-5" will be on capacity building, training and information sharing, and perhaps joint exercises. Delhi is also focused on building a cooperative system of "maritime domain awareness" for tracking and identifying ships and aircraft throughout the western and central Indian Ocean. Delhi has already installed coastal radar systems in the Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius, which all feed information back through the Indian Navy's National Command Control Communication Intelligence network.
India also plans to build military facilities on the islands. Modi's visit to Mauritius included an announcement that India will upgrade airfield and port facilities at North Agalega Island, located some 1000km northeast of Madagascar, for use by the Indian military. This has long been discussed, but never acted upon. Using Agalega as a staging point will substantially help India's maritime reconnaissance efforts throughout the western Indian Ocean.
Just as interesting is India's agreement with Seychelles to develop 'infrastructure' on the uninhabited Assumption Island near the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. Along with the Suez Canal, the Channel is the main route for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Control over this and other so-called Indian Ocean 'choke points' has long been a key objective of the Indian Navy. The deals giving the Indian military access to these facilities will represent a major departure from Indian policy that has long derided 'foreign military bases' in the region. (Interestingly in the 1960s the US also planned to build a base on an island near Assumption before it settled on Diego Garcia.)
The immediate explanation for these moves is India's growing strategic competition with China.
Delhi is seeking to preempt China's perceived attempts to build its own strategic relationships in the region. China has longstanding security relationships with Pakistan and several other Indian Ocean countries. Some highly unusual port visits by a Chinese submarine to Colombo last year prompted significant concerns in Delhi that Sri Lanka may be moving to align itself with Beijing and provide access to the Chinese military. In recent months there have also been curious reports emanating from Namibia that the Chinese navy may have sought access arrangements to a port being upgraded by China at Walvis Bay. Denials by the Namibian Government were not entirely convincing. Whether true or not, such arrangements would be extremely valuable to China in helping to secure its huge energy imports from West Africa.
As nascent and aspirational as India's initiatives in the Indian Ocean may be, they represent important steps in giving substance to its claims to be a "net security provider" to the region. A grouping with the island states may represent the beginnings of a new multilateral alignment in the Indian Ocean, with India at the center. For India it would represent an important psychological step beyond its traditional adherence to nonalignment, which could have much broader implications.
India's moves also reflect an instinctive view among many in Delhi that if the Indian Ocean is not actually India's Ocean, then in an ideal world it ought to be.