Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Maldives, Mauritius Seychelles and Sri Lanka during this month to reinforce India’s foreign policy objectives. A number of political, economic, social and security issues would constitute the agenda and several agreements and memorandums of understanding are expected to be signed with the Indian Ocean States. At least three maritime issues merit attention.
Capacity-Building for Maritime Security
First, capacity-building for maritime security is a recurring theme in bilateral discussions between India and the Indian Ocean island States. The 2014 trilateral meeting (India, Maldives and Sri Lanka) held in New Delhi supported the idea of expanding the trilateral engagements to include Seychelles and Mauritius as observers. It was decided to build the capacity of the partners to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), provide Search and Rescue (SAR) support, oil pollution response exercises, and cooperation in legal matters. The Indian Navy has supported hydrographic surveys in Seychelles, provided training to the Mauritius Coast Guard, undertaken surveillance for Maldives and worked closely with Sri Lanka in counter-terrorism against the LTTE. It has provided warships and aircraft to these countries to augment maritime security capabilities. These engagements have catapulted India to emerge as a ‘net security provider’ and be seen as a compassionate power in the Indian Ocean.
Before identifying what the Indian Prime Minister can offer during his visits to the four island States, it is useful to understand that these countries have similar security requirements which can be clubbed under MDA, a critical element of maritime security. For instance, Sri Lanka requires platforms, systems and technologies for fisheries patrol and to prevent transgressions that have been the bane of bilateral relations; Maldives requires surveillance assistance; Mauritius requires aircraft and ships for EEZ patrols; and Seychelles requires hydrographic support.
India can offer an institutionalised information and intelligence-sharing mechanism, and it will also be useful to explore if officials from these countries are co-located in the Indian Navy’s National Command Control Communication Intelligence (NC3I) network or the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC). This is a practice in the Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre (IFC) established at Changi Command and Control Centre (CC2C), where an Indian Navy officer has been positioned. Significantly, the IFC has received much acclaim for its multilateral approach to maritime security.
‘India or China’ Dilemma
Second, China’s overt military support to Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius is an issue, which has caused enormous anxiety in India. Notwithstanding that, it will be prudent for Modi to avoid raising the issue, which could result in an ‘India or China’ dilemma. These island countries are recipients of generous financial and material support (preferential loans for military/commercial infrastructure projects, sale of military hardware at friendly prices and military training and education) from China and may not be willing to address India’s concerns. The docking of the Chinese submarine in Colombo port invited sharp reactions in New Delhi and apparently, under pressure, Sri Lanka decided to review the project but quickly backtracked to state that any decision on the future of the project would be taken in consultation with the Chinese. Further, these countries are keen to participate and partake in China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, and build infrastructure to support economic growth. These drivers shape their India policy and these States would like to avoid any pressure from New Delhi.
Third, Blue Economy is the current ‘mantra’ of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the respective leaderships have championed it at national and international forums. In the Indian Ocean, Seychelles and Mauritius have been spearheading the discourse on Blue Economy and the concept has found favour across the globe including the United Nations. A number of countries and regional groupings have agreed to support the SIDS in their vision of sustainable development of oceanic resources for economic growth.
India’s ability to harness the seas is noteworthy and it has developed sophisticated mechanisms for the sustainable development of living and non-living oceanic resources. A number of scientific institutions for oceanic research, environment studies, offshore exploration and development of fisheries have been set up to harness the seas in a sustainable manner. India is working closely with its maritime neighbours and has endorsed Bangladesh’s call for the Bay of Bengal Partnership for Blue Economy. Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius are natural partners for India towards developing the Blue Economy.