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How India is stepping up its outreach in the Indian Ocean

India needs to step up its game in the Indian Ocean. India aspires to play the role of a ‘net security provider’ in the region and has consistently assisted Indian Ocean states in their time of need

Indian Ocean, FTA, China, trade, Sri Lanka, / March 02, 2021 / 05:34 PM IST

From February 20 to 23 India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited the Maldives and Mauritius. The visit was marked by the signing of important agreements to boost defence, economic and developmental co-operation between India and these two Indian Ocean island nations. These two countries are at the receiving end of the geopolitical rivalries being played out in the Indian Ocean, and hence India’s engagement with these countries matters.

Since 2018, the Maldives has been following an ‘India First’ policy and the two countries have built a strong partnership. Building on it, India and the Maldives signed an agreement to 'develop, support and maintain' a coast guard harbour at Sifvaru. It is expected to enhance the capability of the Maldivian defence forces to patrol and monitor the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as well as other islands of this tiny nation. India also extended a $50 million line of credit (LOC) to the Maldives for defence projects.

In Mauritius, an agreement was signed for a $100 million LOC for the purchase of defence assets from India. India also offered a Dornier aircraft and an Advanced Light Helicopter for two years. It is expected to strengthen the capabilities of Mauritius to monitor its maritime domain effectively. In his press statement, Jaishankar said that the “security of Mauritius is the security of India”. Framing Mauritian security with India’s own security underscores the key role of Mauritius for India in the Indian Ocean.

India signed a Comprehensive Economic Co-operation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) with Mauritius. For India, it is the first such agreement with an African country. As per the CECPA, India will provide preferential trade access to a bulk of Mauritian products, including sugar. Mauritius is considered as a gateway for Africa and through this partnership, Indian investors will be able to ‘use Mauritius as a launch-pad for business expansion into continental Africa’. Additionally, owing to its bilingual prowess, Mauritius can also help Indian companies to enter francophone Africa.

This visit is crucial in the context of India’s evolving maritime strategy towards the Indian Ocean. India enjoys primacy in the Indian Ocean and seeks to ensure a favourable balance of power in the region. However, growing engagement by China with Indian Ocean states is presenting a difficult challenge for India. For example, in January, China’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Mauritius came into effect. With bilateral trade of $192 billion between China and Africa (in 2019), it is already the largest trading partner of Africa. The FTA with Mauritius is expected to boost China’s trade ties with Africa even further.

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China also enjoys considerable influence in Sri Lanka. Despite the professed policy of ‘India First’, Sri Lanka cannot shake off Chinese influence. In the last 15 years, China has made deep inroads into Sri Lanka including the control of a Hambantota port. China is a major economic as well as a defence partner of strategically located countries such as the Seychelles and Madagascar. China’s growing influence and engagement in the Indian Ocean is supported by its military base at Djibouti and regular naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

In this context, India needs to step up its game in the Indian Ocean. India aspires to play the role of a ‘net security provider’ in the region and has consistently assisted Indian Ocean states in their time of need. In 2020, at the height of COVID-19, Indian naval ships had sent medical assistance to several smaller states in the Indian Ocean. India has taken lead in supplying COVID-19 vaccines to these countries as well. However, these actions need to be backed by a strong defence and economic partnership between these countries and India. Jaishankar’s visit assumes significance in this context.

India is developing military infrastructure on the Agalega island of Mauritius and seeks to develop naval infrastructure on the Assumption island of Seychelles. With the naval infrastructure in the Maldives and growing defence ties with Mauritius, the Indian Navy’s operational capabilities would be enhanced. Mauritius and the Maldives are part of India’s security perimeter and greater outreach to these Indian Ocean states is vital from the perspective of India’s security interests. Robust trade and economic relationship with Indian Ocean states are in India’s interest and the CECPA is a step in that direction.

In the context of these steps and counter steps between India and China, it will be interesting to watch how the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean evolves.
Sankalp Gurjar is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal.
first published: Mar 2, 2021 02:58 pm

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