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India and the Blue Seas – Breaking from the Past

Paper No. 5900                                 Dated 25-Mar-2015

By Bhaskar Roy

Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has succeeded in breaking the frozen mindset of the Indian foreign policy establishment which was used to sweeping challenges under the carpet.

One such officer once commented to this writer that India should somehow resolve the border issue with China because a delay would put India against a much stronger China. He forgot that India would also get stronger. There was a defeatist attitude even when meeting the arrogance of small neighbours.

Arrogance, assertiveness or a hegemonist attitude is not advocated. But India has certain rights and responsibilities given its size, geographic position and geopolitical role to secure its interests. 

Mr. Modi’s recent tour of Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, in that order, demonstrated a reversal of foreign policy. His talks were not overbearing, but correct in the overall scheme of things. India’s coffers are not overflowing, but there is enough to support maritime neighbours in their security and development. A secure and developing neighbourhood is an assurance for India’s own security and development. Also, a strong defence is a guarantor for peaceful development. The two are interdependent.

Finally, there is an open declaration of the importance of the Indian Ocean for India’s future. Can the Indian government continue to build on Modi’s initiative? The temptation to concentrate almost all energy on Pakistan will still be there. India must explore ways to deal with Islamabad through its mentors, especially China and the cold warriors in the USA.

While India’s immediate threat comes from the land borders, its long term security and development are dependent on the seas and oceans. India’s trade is mainly ocean dependent, as are the vital energy imports including coal at the moment. Around 90% of India’s energy requirements are imported.

In both Seychelles and Mauritius Mr. Modi’s approach was to assist security and economic development. Seychelles was invited to join the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives maritime security co-operation. A second Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft was gifted. Agreements signed included infrastructure development, especially in the Assumption Islands. Seychelles is already a recipient of Indian economic assistance.

In Mauritius, Mr. Modi emphasized security co-operation, the high point of which was the gift of a 1,300 tone India built (read made in India) maritime patrol boat, aimed at anti-piracy missions along the African coast. A US$ 500 million concessional credit line was extended, as well as building petroleum storage and bunking facility, and building a second cyber city. Perhaps most important in strategic context was recognition to and encouragement of Mauritius to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) with the secretariat of the body located in Mauritius.

A vision exposition that came out during the visit was India’s civilizational links with the Indian Ocean countries. These links are very strong even today, and built not on military conquest but through trade, cultural and political relations, and also through migrations in some form or the other. Mauritius hosts the World Hindi Secretariat. In the course of recent history some of these links received some battering as in the Maldives and in Sri Lanka. In some cases India has been remiss and its foreign policy not clear sighted. These can be repaired and regenerated.

Sri Lanka is the diamond pendant in the Indian Ocean separated from India by the Palk Strait – a bare 22 miles of water. It is also the hub in the Indian Ocean where all stake holders both within and outside the region are focused. It is of prime importance for India’s security and the security of the Indian Ocean – the two are not separate but flow into each other.

The political situation in Sri Lanka went through tumultuous times with the Tamil issue and the LTTE’s (Tamil Tigers) separatist war. The war and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue put India in a difficult situation in Sri Lanka. With the war over in 2009 it was expected that India – Sri Lanka relations would return to normalcy. But it did not.

Erstwhile Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa played a ridiculous game in domestic policy and foreign relations, introducing a family dictatorship. Till he was defeated in the January elections this year he tried to snub India and established Chinese strategic and military positions in the country.

This fitted in perfectly with China’s Indian Ocean strategy of building an empire of Chinese built ports, initially as economic projects. This would create the foundation of President Xi Jinping’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Rajapaksa signed on to both with alacrity, and Sri Lanka became China’s spring board for its Indian Ocean Empire.

Rajapaksa handed over most major infrastructure projects with strategic interest to Chinese government – owned companies, including a 99 year lease of 108 hectares of land in a US $ 1.5 billion arrangement, next to the main commercial port of Colombo. In fact, under the guise of common development, China was establishing a colony in Sri Lanka much in the way the British did with Hong Kong. Here, the Chinese could do anything they wanted. This would be the first Chinese colony in the island countries of the Indian Ocean. President Maithripala Sirisena has suspended this project and has moved to reverse the Rajapaksa strategy, to reestablish a sound relationship with India.     

Sirisena’s first foreign trip was to India, while he sent his foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera to China to reaffirm relationship with Beijing and explain why Colombo was reviewing some projects. The Sirisena government has set a 100-day deadline to probe corruption in large scale projects including the Colombo port city.

The Chinese are concerned of course, including with security questions raised by Sirisena’s ministers over the Colombo port city and over two visits of a Chinese submarine to Colombo port last year, under the Rajapaksa regime. Samaraweera, however, assured the Chinese that ongoing projects were safe, including commitment to the Maritime Silk Road. Sirisena is scheduled to visit China soon.

Mr. Modi’s concluding visit of the blue sea in Sri Lanka was almost all encompassing. He did not flinch from talking about the Tamil issue and the problem of Indian fishermen in, as they say in diplomatic parlance, a “free, frank and polite” manner. He has the Tamils in India breathing down his neck. He got an agreement of sorts from Sirisena to stick to the 13-A constitutional amendment and beyond for devolution of power to Sri Lankan Tamils.

Apart from economic agreement and support, the Indian prime minister’s two pronged thrust highlighted civilizational and religious connectivity. The concept of a Ramayana trail in Sri Lanka and a Buddhist circuit in India is an unique approach, given the importance of Buddhism to this overwhelming Sinhalese population.

So was the agreement to set up the Rabindranth Tagore auditorium in Rahana University. Tagore had influenced Sri Lanka’s national anthem – “Sri Lanka Matha” (we salute mother Sri Lanka).

Civilizational connection and Tagore should be taken to Bangladesh where the poet and Noble Laureate is deeply revered. Bangladesh adopted his song “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My golden Bengal) as their national anthem.

India’s civilizational connectivity extends far into South East Asia too, where Indian influence was absorbed by local polities (from around 200 BC to the 15th Century) in the Kingdoms of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. In Bali the “Ramayana” is still enacted as a play. And the temple of Angkor Vat in Kampuchea, depicting the influence of Hinduism, is a most lucrative tourist attraction.

Buddhism spread to South East Asia from India and this bond is very much alive as demonstrated by religious tourism from countries of this region to Bodh Gaya. India’s legitimate bond with South East Asia must be exploited in terms of today’s geo-politics.

Sri Lanka, and perhaps even the Maldives, may become centers of contention between China and India in the Indian Ocean, unless matters are handled carefully by all sides concerned.

The Chinese government has been repeatedly urging the Sri Lankan government to protect the interests of Chinese investors, following the suspension of the Colombo port project. Xinhua (March 17) the Chinese official news agency said the port project would have created 85,000 jobs but the Sirisena government decided to reexamine the project and reconsider the outright transfer of land to China under the deal.

This is a subtle caution to the Sirisena government. The government declared recently that its investigators had discovered US $ 2 billion secretly transferred to Dubai accounts by people close to the Rajapaksa government. The total amount of foreign exchange ferreted out by the Rajapaksa family and cronies are more than US $ 10 billion. Sri Lankan media had earlier reported bribes paid by Chinese companies to the Rajapaksa family members and their close associates. If these investigations unearth evidence of Chinese bribery, which the Chinese government would routinely deny, it will seriously upset the Chinese.

The Chinese would suspect an Indian influence in Sri Lanka and especially with the Sirisena government. They are unlikely to react openly but will very likely take up the Sri Lankan development with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visits China in May.

In fact, some signs of China attacking India and Mr. Modi on Sri Lanka is already visible. Liu Zhongyi, a researcher at Shanghai Institute of Internal Studies, a government backed think tank, wrote that Modi’s visit to Jaffna in Tamil majority northern Sri Lanka showed “Indian interference in the country’s internal affairs”. Modi’s visit to the three Indian Ocean island states demonstrated India’s determination to “gain a dominant position in the region by enhancing military and security cooperation with them”, Liu added.

Liu Zhongyi’s article in the English language official newspaper the Global Times obviously has official clearance, at least from the Chinese foreign ministry. Choice of the English language media is to ensure quick dissemination in South Asia and countries concerned, and raise anti-India sentiments. It may not be forgotten that till not so long ago the Chinese officially had unleashed a propaganda barrage accusing India of harboring hegemonistic desires over its neighbours.

The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily recently confirmed that a second aircraft carrier was well into construction. Admiral Yin Zhou, a member of the CPPCC’s National committee observed that China must continue to build aircraft carriers to maintain the security of its Indian Ocean routes. In his view China required at least five to six aircraft carriers.

A study by three researchers at the Beijing Naval Research Center published in a recent issue of Pacific Journal termed the Indian naval strategy as an expansionist maritime strategy constituting a threat to China’s far sea life lines. The authors viewed India’s ‘Look East’ strategy as challenge to China’s geopolitical security, and the possibility of India joining Japan’s ‘Down South’ strategy and the USA’s “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” as posing great harm to China’s maritime security and development of sea powers. Such a move would squeeze China’s strategic space and strategic interests in places like the South China Sea.

While saying that a China-India war was unthinkable, the study advocated the following 16- character policy platform for Beijing’s Indian Ocean plan: “meticulously choose points, develop a low key layout, choose cooperation and slowly permeate”.  This closely aligns with Deng Xiaoping’s theory of “build your strength, bide your time”. There is, however, a large and influential strategic thinkers’ community which has pushed the nation to almost discard Deng’s theory and aggressively pursue its interests.

President Xi Jinping has emphatically pushed his 21st Century Maritime Silk Road strategy. During his visit to South Asia in September 2014, Xi ensured that Sri Lanka and Maldives accede to this strategy. China has been working on the Maldives for a long time. In 2001, in a period of six months, three high level Chinese delegations visited Maldives. These included Premier Zhu Rongji and Chief of General staff of the PLA, Gen Fu Quanyu. There are reports that China has sought berthing facilities for its ships in the Maldives.

The onus is on Mr. Modi to do something in the Maldives, with the recent setback in bilateral relations over the 13 year jail sentence for ex-prime minister Nasheed by the Abdullah Yameen government for terrorism.

On the one hand India – China relations are improving especially on the economic sector with Xi Jinping declaring a US $ 20 billion investment in India in the next five years when he visited India last year.

On the other hand potential problems can come out as India expands its ‘Look East’ policy, and takes steps to protect its maritime interest. The Indian Ocean cannot be allowed to fall into an atmosphere of confrontation. China must exercise its responsibility and not push India.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail