Indian Ocean: The New Geopolitical Reality

Familiarisation visit to India

What are India’s interests in this part of the world? What are its intentions regarding Agalega and the Seychelles’Assumption Island? As could be expected these and other questions were raised during the interaction of journalists from Mauritius and Seychelles with officials of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), an independent think tank based in New Delhi, last week.

The ORF provides “potentially viable inputs” for policy and decision-makers in the Indian Government and to the political and business communities of India. It started out with an objective of dealing with internal issues of the economy in the wake of the 1990s reforms. However, today its mandate extends to security and strategy, governance, environment, energy and resources, economy and growth.

The familiarisation visit was sponsored by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs with the aim of allowing the visitors to gain an objective image of the New India that’s coming up gradually but surely through amazing achievements in different fields – technology, education, biotechnology, space exploration, etc – achievements driven in many cases by a generation of young and dedicated scientists, technologists and able administrators. One could presume that such relatively new and more frequent engagements of the Indian authorities with the foreign press lie in a more proactive strategy adopted by the Indians aimed at countering the propaganda directed against India’s internal affairs as well as its geopolitical interests and ambitions in certain regions of the world, including the Indian Ocean, As a matter of fact, such propaganda and misinformation/disinformation is fed in to some extent by part of the Indian media itself and projected to the rest of the world.

It is known that Indian foreign policy has been extremely agitated at the prospect of being surrounded by Chinese naval facilities and refuelling ports in the Indian Ocean region, ‘some of which are so unnervingly close to its frontiers (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan). They sense the naval and military escalade taking place through the Chinese strategic “string of pearls” initiatives, and it cannot be expected to be enthusiastic should Mauritius, a loyal friend and ally in the Indian Ocean, become part and parcel of the pearls’. This would explain its adoption in recent years by India , as highlighted by Abhishek Mishra in the context of the Raisina Debates, of an ‘expansive maritime strategy driven by its great power aspirations and by strategic rivalry with China, which continues to expand its own maritime capabilities as it engages in unilateral actions in the IOR. To counter China’s presence, India is seeking to expand its own and IOR littoral countries’ naval capabilities and security partnerships, especially with Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros, at, or near the key entry points into the Western Indian Ocean’.

That ‘expansive maritime strategy’ however does not mean that India entertains any intentions of setting up a military base either at Agalega or at Assumption Island, as emphatically pointed out by Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow who heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF and has edited two books on maritime security — ‘Indian Ocean Challenges: A Quest for Cooperative Solutions’ and ‘Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific’. ‘India has not had a transactional approach in its relationship with Mauritius and the Seychelles, we have adopted a benevolent approach; there has been no arm-twisting, and it’s up to Mauritius and the Seychelles to decide on going into a strategic partnership with India in the Indian Ocean and the form that that partnership would take’. What is however evident is that the longer Mauritius and Seychelles take to partner with India in the Indian Ocean, the higher the cost of China’s entry in the region, he stated, adding that ‘Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean is very hard to push back’.

He also added that India’s interests would be best served by the effectiveness of Mauritius and Seychelles in patrolling the Indian Ocean as against China’s “chequebook diplomacy” in the region – ‘one that astutely alloys trade and commerce with underpinning strategic ambitions of China for a joint world leadership role’ (as pointed out by our contributor S. Callikan in an earlier article in our columns), and which helps in ‘securing raw materials and oil for China’s hungry factories, securing sea lanes for transfer of those raw materials and providing a string of berthing ports for Chinese naval and surveillance forces in an ocean where, nominally, China has no geographical legitimacy. To those ends, China has been prepared to use a generous chequebook to buy into and entrench what has been dubbed a “string of pearls” strategy. Essentially, ensuring a series of berthing ports for naval, military and surveillance outposts stretching from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and the Maldives’.

In response to China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean, India’s maritime strategy has moved to a higher platform — SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). ‘SAGAR has both various distinct and inter-related elements – such as deepening economic and security cooperation in the littorals, enhancing capacities to safeguard land and maritime territories, working towards sustainable regional development, Blue Economy, and promoting collective action to deal with non-traditional threats like natural disasters, piracy, terrorism, etc.

Both from a geo-strategic and geo-economic point of view, the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) holds immense value and provides numerous opportunities for the countries in the region. Indian analysts and policymakers consider it as an imperative for India to exert greater influence in strengthening regional maritime security efforts, and at the same time, for Africa to expect increased commitment from its partner states. Therefore, India’s focus on enhancing its maritime cooperation with WIO littorals assumes greater significance due to the region’s geo-strategic location and abundant natural resources.

India has reached out to African states through offers of military aid, capacity building, and training assistance. A proactive re-orientation in India’s nautical outlook towards Africa is also reflected in India’s 2015 Maritime Strategy document. In the document, India declares that its policy towards the countries in the Western Indian Ocean region has expanded and diversified into a broad-based security approach, one which is supplemented by regular naval visits, sharing of best practices to build capacity through trainings, transfer of naval hardware and logistical support, naval intelligence, joint military exercises and patrolling of seas, etc.’

Additionally, India is partnering with Indian Ocean Rim countries for the development of monitoring stations. India Prime Minister Modi’s five-day Indian Ocean tour in March 2015, to Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka was an important outreach. During the visits, PM Modi signed MoUs to develop infrastructure on Agalega Island in Mauritius and Assumption Island of Seychelles. These two island nations are of immense strategic importance since two-thirds of the world’s energy supplies passes through the region. Agalega is more than 1000 km north of Mauritius and Assumption Island is 600 nautical miles southwest of Seychelles’ capital Mahe. These two islands will add to the Indian monitoring station in Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, commissioned in 2007 to monitor activities of foreign navies in the Indian Ocean Region.

This power game in the Indian Ocean is the new geopolitical reality that is largely beyond our control, but one we must reckon with as it impacts our own security and economy. Given our policy of being on friendly terms with all countries, we have to develop the strategic understanding of the complexities involved and take the decisions to safeguard both our interests and those of the region in a long term and broad perspective through engagement with these rival superpowers in the spirit of working out ‘cooperative solutions’.

* Published in print edition on 6 March 2020

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