Modi’s visit to Maldives, Sri Lanka an exercise in ocean diplomacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka on June 8-9. Much of the focus of his first overseas diplomatic engagement after assuming power for a second straight term was how the visit cemented New Delhi’s “neighbourhood first” policy first outlined more than five years ago when Modi took office for the first time.  A much less discussed but equally important dimension of Modi’s two-nation visit was India’s ocean diplomacy connected with two maritime neighbours strategically located in the Indian Ocean.

Both the Maldives and Sri Lanka are members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Sri Lanka is also a member of BIMSTEC. However, all the other countries (barring Afghanistan, a member of SAARC) of the two groupings share land border with India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are separated by the ocean. The significance of India’s maritime diplomacy in his visit to the two countries was highlighted by Modi himself in the last para of his statement on the eve of his departure for the Maldives on his full-fledged bilateral tour. Modi focused on the ocean diplomacy in greater detail in his address to the Maldivian parliament on June 8.

It was in 2015 that Modi had articulated his Indian Ocean diplomacy when he coined the acronym SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region).  In 2015, he visited Mauritius and Seychelles, two more key islands in the Indian Ocean, and the countries separate agreements for development of military infrastructure in the Assumption Island in Seychelles and in Agalega island in Mauritius. But the agreement with Seychelles had run into that country’s domestic political feud and was never implemented as it was not tabled in the National Assembly of the island nation for ratification despite the pact being signed during the term of President James Michel when the ruling party had the majority in parliament.

India put in place a coastal surveillance

 radar system in Seychelles in March, 2016

 and supplied three patrol ships and a 

Dornier aircraft to that country in securing

 its territorial waters and resource-rich

 exclusive economic zone

The Assumption Island is located about 1700km from the mainland of East Africa where China has set up a military base in Djibouti in July 2017. India put in place a coastal surveillance radar system in Seychelles in March, 2016 and supplied three patrol ships and a Dornier aircraft to that country in securing its territorial waters and resource-rich exclusive economic zone. India’s developmental cooperation with countries of the Indian Ocean region remains tied to its strategic interests as China made a base in Djibouti, acquired the Hambantota sea port in Sri Lanka on lease for 99 years. Sri Lanka and the Maldives have signed on China’s BRI.

In the Maldives, Modi expanded on the theme of SAGAR and unveiled his vision for Indo-Pacific area combining the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean area first articulated in his speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. In his speech at the Maldivian parliament, the Indian Prime Minister termed SAGAR as the “blueprint for us for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, a region that houses half the world’s population. “It is also a region with many unanswered questions and unresolved disputes,” said Modi in the Maldives. 

There is no mistaking in it the unstated reference to China which has disputes over territorial waters with a number of South East Asian countries. This is also an area where there is China’s growing military assertiveness. That China loomed on Modi’s speech in the Maldivian parliament was clear when he said the aim of “India’s development partnerships are to empower the people, and not to weaken them. Nor to enhance their dependence on us. Nor indeed to impose the impossible burden of debt on the shoulders of generations yet to come.”This was a clear allusion to the controversy about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which had put a number of countries in Asia and Africa in a debt trap because of the huge cost of the huge loans.

With Modi’s visit, India seems to be getting back its heft in the Maldives. This has been facilitated by the voting out of five years of President Abdulla Yameen’s government from 2013 which had pushed the country closer to China and away from India. Yameen surreptitiously pushed through in parliament a bilateral free trade accord with China, much to the annoyance of India. As in Seychelles three years ago,  Modi, along with the Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, remotely inaugurated, the island nation’s first coastal radar surveillance system whose application goes beyond protection of the Maldives exclusive economic zone.

 The question is how does India counter China which has much more financial muscle in expanding its footprints in South Asia? Well, it may lie in cooperation with the US, Europe, Australia and Japan. A case in point is the India and Japan’s joint bidding for developing the East Container terminal of Colombo port recently.    

The security and prosperity of both the Maldives and Sri Lanka are linked to the Indian Ocean and it is here that India’s ocean diplomacy will be tested. India, as C Raja Mohan, says in a newspaper article, “India needs to develop its own national capabilities—especially in the delivery of strategic economic and security assistance to the island states. Without that, the ambitious goals identified under the SAGAR vision will remain elusive.”

Arunabha Bhattacharya is a Foreign Policy Researcher based in New Delhi.