Making waves in Indian Ocean: Modi building bridges to island states

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 15, 2015 16:25 IST

As the British began pulling out of the Indian Ocean in the 1970s and the Americans began moving in, India tried to fill the vacuum. It announced plans to build a 200-ship navy and sought to rally other countries in the region. But India couldn't afford the navy plan.

Other countries ignored New Delhi. The US built a huge military base in Diego Garcia and emerged the military Big Daddy of the region. The Indian Ocean has been "Indian" only in name. More so than the other two major oceans, it has weak regional arrangements and fragmented into different geographical pockets. Strategist Ashley Tellis and others argue this is because this ocean has historically lacked a great power to organise it. This would be an obvious role for India but it has lacked capacity and will. India has maintained an interest in the islands that dominate the central section of the ocean, but even that has been sporadic and intermittent.

New Challenges

New Delhi accepts that India can less afford its past passivity regarding its maritime backyard. Tangible evidence is Narendra Modi's three-nation Indian Ocean tour.

One reason for this urgency is that the US is becoming less interested in policing the ocean. US warships are being transferred to the Pacific. The most startling evidence that the US is out of the game was the spread of the Somali pirates between 2005 and 2011. Here was the sort of low-tech problem a superpower could handle with a flick of the wrist. Instead, it was Indian and other navies that had to beat the pirates back.

New Delhi even contemplated leading a multinational military force against the pirates as disrupted coal supplies along the western Indian Ocean threatened its economy. The US has signalled that it wouldn't mind handing over much of its policing work to India. The latest evidence of this: the setting up of the joint working group on carrier technology.

The other reason is the rise of Chinese influence. The Somali pirates gave Beijing a valid reason to establish a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Since 2008, 19 Chinese naval task forces have rotated in and out of the ocean. Beijing clearly has greater ambitions. Since 2014, Chinese intelligence-gathering ships and submersibles have begun making regular forays into the Indian Ocean. To these have now been added submarines. None can have anything to do with pirates. Last year, China also held its first military exercise encompassing the eastern Indian Ocean - until now such exercises have been only in the Pacific.

India accepts China has genuine interests in the Indian Ocean. The sea lanes across the ocean carry 40 per cent of China's oil and gas imports, for example. Beijing has publicly fretted about its "Malacca dilemma" - that any navy that blocked the straits off Singapore could bring their economy to its knees.

But New Delhi's attempts to hold talks with Beijing on a cooperative solution to these security concerns have gone nowhere. "We offered a maritime dialogue to China two year's ago," said a former Indian diplomat. "They never got back." If China wants to secure its Indian Ocean shipping it can only do so by massively building up its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Chinese security analysts, when asked, don't deny these ambitions and argue "India is too weak to secure our ships."

The assumption is that the many ports and harbours being built by Chinese contractors along the Indian Ocean littoral, the famous "string of pearls", could become part of this strategy. Said a senior Indian military officer, "Unlike us, in our ocean the Chinese cannot do without bases."

But it is not an immediate concern. As a former national security advisor argued, "It doesn't matter if they build a port, it can matter if they manage some ports, but it is a matter of concern if they own the ports." So far, not even Pakistan has gone to level three. Given Beijing's huge financial resources and increasing economic presence, that time may not be far off. Even in Sri Lanka, Chinese FDI is roughly five times more than India's.

Island Hopping

India's de facto response, backed with a two-trillion dollar economy, has a number of strands. The core policy has been to bring the island countries that run through the central Indian Ocean into a tight security and political embrace. These island nations are composed of hundreds of islets, control vast maritime territories and sit astride the key commercial shipping lanes. The Maldives is made of nearly 1,200 islands and covers 90,000 sq km of ocean.

India has struggled to implement this policy the past few decades. The bloody fallout of the Sri Lankan civil war made it allergic to too much involvement in island geopolitics. Indian leaders avoided visiting these small dots on the map and bureaucrats squabbled over spending a few million rupees building docks and ships. Even expanding the Maldives-Lanka-India naval tie-up has been a slow boat.

"The importance of these islands has not been on our radar. We are only now seeing a re-awakening of things naval," says former navy chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta. In signing island leasing agreements with Mauritius and the Seychelles, Modi has ensured India has a full-time presence after decades of internal debate. "India has needed to establish a permanent legal presence on these islands," says Mehta. "The idea is to create dependencies: give them a ship, man the ship for them, build a dockyard to repair the ship." The point is that the islands have asked for an Indian presence. Modi has simply ended years of Indian squeamishness.

Littoral Truth

While Modi's visit has helped tie many loose ends to India's island strategy, there is much more that has to be done.

For a start, India still struggles to develop a relationship with many of the littoral countries of the region, many of whom remain doubtful of New Delhi's staying power. Some, like South Africa or Malaysia, see China as a more useful global partner. For these countries, India needs to coordinate its private sector, military, aid programmes and leverage its diaspora. It has found traction in places like Mozambique but struggled with, say, Indonesia.

The best recipe for institutionalising New Delhi's footprint across the Indian Ocean is to build up multilateral organisations that have India at their heart. Modi rightly spoke of a "collective, cooperative" vision for the region. So far, though, India's record has been poor. The Indian Ocean Rim Organisation is an unwieldy, fund-starved body - each government pays a paltry $ 20,000 membership fee and its secretariat has six people. India's Bay of Bengal trade grouping has been drifting. There has been more success on the naval side with the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the 16-nation Milan exercises. Modi's trip, believes David Brewster, naval strategist at Australia National University, "has been very successful in demonstrating India wants to commit resources to consolidate its leadership role among the Indian Ocean states."

The Indian Ocean has been dominated by a foreign power for 300 years. Today New Delhi likes to say that it wants to make its maritime backyard India's Ocean. The Indian leader's tour underlines that many countries are receptive to the idea. His visit, says foreign policy analyst Daniel Twining for the German Marshall Fund, shows that "old anxieties about Indian hegemony are giving way."

Seychelles Relations

India is Seychelles' unofficial security provider since the 1980s. Its then president complained that New Delhi's fear of being dubbed "imperialist" kept it from saying all this publicly. In 1986, India sent a destroyer and later Air India 001 to the Seychelles capital as a show of strength to successfully abort two coup attempts.

India trains the island country's security forces and security agreements in 2003 and 2010 strengthened defence relations. By leasing an entire island for surveillance purposes, Modi is making the security ties more open. However, economic and tourist relations remain weak. And it hasn't helped that Modi is the first Indian prime minister to have ever visited.


Like many of the island nations, Seychelles tries to play off all the major powers against each other to win more concessions. Its leaders have played footsie with Moscow, Washington and even Dubai in the past.

Seychelles' more recent attempts have been aimed at China. India has repeatedly had to intervene to try and stop the supply of Chinese ships and aircraft to Seychelles.

However, New Delhi accepts that Seychelles plays the "China card" only for leverage and to get attention. India remains its primary security partner, a position endorsed by the UK, France and the US - the historic defenders of Seychelles.

Mauritius Relations

Mauritius is called the region's "Little India". It is close to New Delhi for economic and security reasons, but also 70 per cent of its population is of Indian origin. This is one of the few countries that New Delhi plays a pivotal role in domestic politics, often influencing the island's three parties to ensure a government aligned with Indian interests. During a political crisis in 1983, Indira Gandhi nearly ordered a full-scale invasion.

Here's how close the two are: the Mauritian national security advisor is always an ex-Indian intelligence officer, its coast guard is wholly made of deputed Indian naval personnel. Mauritius and India have at last cemented a long-standing plan to lease the Agalega islets and provide a permanent Indian presence.


Mauritius politics is fractious, especially between the two Indian origin parties. India often finds it difficult to remain the honest broker in all this politicking. It is regularly accused of gross interference - and then asked by Mauritians to intervene more.

India provided the infamous tax treaty to Mauritius in 1982 to deliberately help boost its economy. That treaty has become a political problem in India because of the billions of dollars that now pour through this loophole in India's cross-border financial regulation.

It is safe to say that other than Bhutan, no country in the world has so willingly subordinated its external policy to India's diktat. But this also means New Delhi has to keep a close watch on its internal polity.

Maldives Relations

The best example of the troubled India-Maldives relationship is the dramatic 1988 military intervention by India to free the country from Lankan mercenaries. India saved the then dictator, Abdul Gayoom, but then had him removed and democracy introduced.

Democracy, however, has also proven a headache because of the vindictive and personal nature of civilian politics. "Every political leader is married to his opponent's ex-wife," half-joked a former Indian ambassador to Male. India has struggled to stabilize Maldivian politics, strikingly failed to save the pro-New Delhi president Mohammed Nasheed from a de facto coup in 2012.


Maldivian politics continues to trouble India. The most recent detention of Nasheed by the present Male government is one reason Modi dropped the island state from his Indian Ocean tour.

Maldives has a small but violent Islamic militant group whose members are close to Pakistani terror group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Militancy is a small but growing problem for India in this tropical paradise.

Maldives likes to play China off against India, but not in the security sphere. However, China is a big aid provider and more Chinese visit Maldives than visit India - 300,000 versus 200,000. Willy nilly Beijing is becoming a big player there.

Master Of Its Sea

Mauryan Empire:
India's navy was the dominant power in the Indian Ocean from the time of Chandragupta to Ashoka, 2400 years ago.

Chola Empire: The medieval Cholas were India's only maritime empire, with a sphere of influence that covered the entire Bay of Bengal coast. At its height it conquered Malaysia and Indonesia.

British Empire: The British Navy's 1934 spin-off is the precursor of India's Navy. Lord Curzon laid out an Indo-centric sea doctrine from the "Hormuz to Malacca" that is New Delhi's template today.

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