Muddying the waters

Muddying the waters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a steep learning curve. The former tea-boy is being given a crash course on the Blue Economy, 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and classification of nuclear-powered submarines by diplomats and intelligence officers ahead of the PM’s state visit to three island nations of the Indian Ocean — Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles — from March 10 to 14.
But Modi’s first overseas visit in 2015 appears to be badly jinxed. The eleventh hour omission of the Maldives from his itinerary laid bare the problems plaguing New Delhi in its strategic backyard: Its propensity to get embroiled in the domestic politics of smaller countries invariably resulting in loss of face for India, and China’s rapidly lengthening shadow over what was once India’s impenetrable zone of influence.
Moreover, Pakistan — Beijing’s “irreplaceable all-weather friend” — is merrily chipping away at New Delhi’s waning influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOC) in league with China, further complicating relations between nuclear-armed neighbors who have fought three full-fledged wars over a festering territorial dispute in Kashmir. The first stop in Modi’s truncated IOC tour is Seychelles where he and President James Alexis Michel will explore how to jumpstart growth using the new “Blue Economy” model by partnering the island nation’s fisheries, maritime shipping, ecotourism and sustainable energy. On March 11-12, Anerood Jugnauth, Prime Minister of Mauritius, will host Modi who will be the chief guest at National Day celebrations. March 13-14 will be spent in Sri Lanka in the company of President Maithripala Sirisena and other political heavyweights.
But Modi’s island-hopping is not going to be hassle-free. Before the dust settled on the cancellation of Modi’s scheduled visit to the Maldives reducing the originally planned four-nation tour to a three-nation trip, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that his navy wouldn’t hesitate to shoot Indian fishermen if they intruded into Lankan territorial waters! The timing of the threat has set off alarm bells in New Delhi. India spies a covert Chinese hand in the new challenges it’s facing daily in the IOR today. It believes Beijing is deliberately undermining India’s position in the IOR so that it can build and operate its maritime trade corridor, called the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, unchallenged. The MSR linking China’s ports to Antwerp in Belgium runs through the IOR where Beijing is eyeing the Hambantota Harbor in Sri Lanka and Laamu Atoll in the Maldives. China says such facilities are absolutely necessary for the maintenance and servicing of the MSR but India regards the “string of pearls” China is assiduously building as a big threat to national security. China’s shipping goals, India insists, camouflage the military objectives of the People’s Liberation Army’s navy.
The unrest in the Maldives, which resulted in the cancellation of Modi’s planned visit to Male, erupted when a known friend of India, former President Mohammed Nasheed, was arrested by the current President Yameen Abdulla on terror charges. Nasheed was arrested soon after he disclosed that Abdullah was about to lease Laamu Atoll to China for 99 years for a $2 billion fee to set up a military base there.
New Delhi stood up for Nasheed but the Maldives retorted that it would not brook interference by any foreign power in its internal affairs. India warned that it would call off Modi’s visit to Male if the Maldives didn’t behave. Abdullah ignored the threat and flew off to Islamabad “to take his country’s strategic relationship with Pakistan to the next level.”
India’s security establishment saw red and the cancellation of Modi’s Male visit was a foregone conclusion.
Significantly, India is eyeing the Agalega islands in Mauritius for its defense needs and Modi is expected to lobby for outright lease of North and South Agalega islands to boost India’s surveillance capabilities in IOR.
Speaking at Galle Dialogue 2014, Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Adviser, said, “India has been a status-quoist power in the IOR for 5,000 years, with no aggressive design or strategic agenda for dominance detrimental to any other country.” But even a pro-establishment commentator like C. Raja Mohan, writes “Lanka and the Maldives are playing the China card as an insurance against hostile Indian policies.”
The sizeable number of ethnic Indians in IOR island nations obviously tempts New Delhi to meddle in their affairs. But it is high time India overcame such temptations for its own good. India should learn from China, the world’s fastest growing economy, which pours millions of dollars into impoverished countries but never gets enmeshed in their domestic politics, confining its interest to economics.
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