Despite a rich maritime past and a 7,500-km-long coastline, seas have not received the importance it should have in India’s foreign policy. But exigencies often lead to policy changes, and some of them leave a trail of unintended consequences. Among other factors, the possibility of the United States making Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee a listening post was a compelling reason for India to hasten the process of a peace accord with the island nation.
Today, a determined and decisive China, which is playing a strategic game in the Indian Ocean, and its own economic compulsions have left India with little options but to get its act together and cooperate with the island nations that dot the Indian Ocean.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s succinct speech at the commissioning of Barracuda in Mauritius on Thursday was high on intent and pertinent. Underlying economic and geopolitical imperatives should bind the littoral states together, the PM said: “Our goal is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime issues; and increase in maritime cooperation.”
India has often not lived up to its declared intent of fulfilling promises made to the Indian Ocean countries. Take, for example, the Maldives. Despite a long-standing engagement, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the India-Maldives relationship, which is often a product of New Delhi’s wrong reading of political signals emanating from that country. Modi had to drop the plan of visiting the Maldives, which his predecessor Manmohan Singh described as the ‘pearl of Indian Ocean’ when he addressed their parliament in 2011.
“Our vision for [the] Indian Ocean Region is rooted in advancing cooperation in our region; and, to use our capabilities for the benefit of all in our common maritime home,” Modi reminded. But actions are the yardstick by which intent is measured.
India will have to peel away from its old Sri Lanka policy. Yet there is no doubt that New Delhi must also stand up for the political rights of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka, which by all means is the pivot of New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy.
But for too long India’s Sri Lanka policy has been India’s Sri Lankan Tamil policy, as successive central governments failed to strike a delicate balance between the foreign policy objectives and domestic political compulsions. Often big ideas are introduced in India-Lanka ties, but little happens. For example, the India-Sri Lanka underwater power transmission lines.
India has remained for long at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean and it cannot afford to be there forever. It should take the lead to change the way its maritime neighbours judge the country. That intent must be backed up with prompt time-bound action.