PM Modi’s visit to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka and the slew of measures announced go a long way in improving bilateral ties. However, by excluding Maldives from the visit leaves a glaring hole in the Prime Minister’s vision of a consolidated Indian Ocean Region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi wound up his three nation tour of the Indian Ocean Region, departing from Colombo on March 14. Modi’s visit has been symbolic of India’s growing assertiveness in its neighbourhood, a move that was long overdue, to counter growing Chinese influences in the region.
The stress noticed in China’s Defence White Paper (2013) on “protecting national maritime rights and interests” and “armed forces providing reliable support for China’s interests overseas” makes clear the PRC’s intentions to expand the capabilities of its Navy, especially to operate abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit was aimed at correcting this trend and expanding India’s hard and soft power linkages in the region.
PM Modi’s visit to Seychelles on March 10-11 was the first visit by an Indian PM in 33 years. During the course of his visit, he announced that India would be handing over another Dornier Maritime Patrol aircraft, and also unveiled the Coastal Surveillance Radar Project to better equip the Seychelles in protecting its maritime interests. In a significant move, he signed an agreement on development of infrastructure on Assumption Island, making further inroads for India in the region. He also signed an agreement on Hydrographic Surveys to enable better monitoring of the marine ecology around the islands.
During the Mauritius leg of his visit, PM Modi announced a concessional line of credit of $500 million for civil infrastructure projects in Mauritius. India had helped Mauritius build Ébène City, the first ‘Cyber-City’ in Mauritius as an information-technology hub which also serves as a link between African and Asian financial markets. Modi offered assistance to build a second cyber city, to improve the information and communication technology in the country. He assured the Mauritian government that India would speed up the process of developing petroleum storage and bunkering facilities, taking forward the MoU that the two countries had inked last year.
The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL) are to set up oil storage terminals in the island nation to improve its energy security. Modi also commissioned the ‘Baracuda’, India’s first export warship to Mauritian authorities. The move is symbolic of India’s growing ability to become a net security provider in the region. Besides this, a number of MoUs were also signed with the island nation, including one on exploration of the various mineral resources and rare earth metals available in the Indian Ocean Region.
PM Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka was one that was highly anticipated by political observers in the region. Indo-Sri Lankan relations were at a significant low point under the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. Modi announced a number of initiatives that sought to reconcile the lost ground between the two nations. One of the most significant of these was the 1.5 billion dollar currency swap agreement between the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka that seeks to help stabilize the Sri Lankan Rupee.
Modi also announced the provision of a fresh line of credit of up to $318 million for development of the Sri Lankan railway sector. Another significant announcement was regarding Lanka Indian Oil Corporation and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation agreeing to jointly develop the Upper Tank Farm of the China Bay Installation in Trincomalee on mutually agreed terms. The two sides also agreed upon the development of the Sampur Coal power project as a joint venture project between the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. (NTPC) of India. Besides these, a number of initiatives were introduced to improve cultural ties between the two neighbours including easing of Visa norms and initiation of direct flights between Colombo and New Delhi.
These moves symbolize the growing importance that the Indian government is giving to the Indian Ocean region. However, the Indian government’s last minute decision to exclude the Maldives from the itinerary is an issue of concern. The arrest of the Maldives’ first democratically-elected President Mohamed Nasheed, and his sentencing to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges is a serious change in the political status quo. The blatant disregard for democratic values by President Abdulla Yameen has even led to calls for support from officials of the previous Maldivian government to India. The enduring political crisis in the nation also led to the resignation of Maldivian Defence Ministry Coordinator Mohamed Mushrif who resigned in protest of the government’s “brutality.”
These events symbolize a growing instability in the internal dynamics within the Maldives, which if not addressed could lead to further complications. The erosion of democratic ideals in the internal politics of the Maldives also increases the risk of fomenting extremism. This leaves a glaring hole in Modi’s vision of a consolidated Indian Ocean Region. However, the initiatives taken up during the course of this visit are a welcome change and a crucial step forward in ensuring India’s primacy in its immediate neighbourhood.