China and India compete for influence, nation by nation, throughout the Indian Ocean region.
By Harsh V Pant*
As Sino-Indian competition for influence in the Indian Ocean region heats up, India suffered a setback in the Seychelles, due mostly to local politics rather than Chinese resistance. Still, India will seek other avenues in the region to bolster its position.
In January, India signed a 20-year pact with the nation to build an airstrip and a jetty for its navy on Assumption Island, due north of Madagascar – pursuant to deal made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a 2015 visit to the Seychelles. New Delhi agreed to invest $550 million in building the base to secure its vessels and others in the southern Indian Ocean. The government of the Seychelles, an archipelago nation of 115 islands, had justified this pact by underlining that the base would help the country’s coastguard patrol its exclusive economic zone off the African coast for illegal fishing, drug trafficking and piracy.
The agreement proved easier signed than implemented. Local politics in the Seychelles, which depends on agriculture and tourism, played spoilsport. Critics of the Indian presence in the island nation galvanized with the political opposition to derail the project. President Danny Faure of the Seychelles informed parliament in March that he would not take up the Assumption Island project with India for ratification after an opposition leader rejected the deal.
India’s attempt to gain a foothold in the western Indian Ocean may have suffered a temporary setback, but it won’t be the last of such attempts. In the Seychelles back- channel negotiations are happening that could still deliver the project to India. New Delhi’s resolve to expand influence in the region has only strengthened since summer of 2017 when China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti, increasing India’s anxiety about China’s growing profile in western Indian Ocean. Competition for regional influence is heating up with China and India both mapping out respective strategies by building facilities across the Indian Ocean littoral.
While China has been building ports, roads, bridges and power stations across Asia, countries express growing concern about the terms for such infrastructure investment. China’s acquisition of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka in a debt-to-equity swap deal underlined problems with what has been called China’s “debt trap diplomacy.” Opaque terms and predatory loan practices without social or environmental assessments have entangled some nations in Chinese strategic objectives. India has tried to differentiate its approach with outreach that is more partnership in approach.
The Indian Ocean littoral has the potential to become the leading source of new global growth over the next 20 years. Indian Ocean channels carry two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, a third of the bulk cargo and half of all container traffic. China’s rise adds another dimension with traditional power equations in flux. India sits astride the Indian Ocean as the preeminent power, and China’s encroachment is motivating India’s evolution of thinking about the region. India’s centrality influenced how commercial and cultural ties evolved throughout the region and along the ocean’s periphery. As historian K.M. Panikkar has written in his seminal work, India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History, “Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become an active thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic.” Today India wants to restore its status in the region but faces strong headwinds.
The Modi government has made the Indian Ocean a priority, and former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has argued in favor of “reviving the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical concept.” Modi has also highlighted the value of the “Indian Ocean region,” visiting not only Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka but also several East African nations along the Indian Ocean littoral. Inviting Seychelles and Mauritius to join the existing maritime security cooperation arrangement among India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka in 2015, Modi had underlined that New Delhi seeks “a future for Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR — Security and Growth for All in the Region.” He outlined a set of goals that included seeking “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 security issues; and increase in maritime cooperation.”
In November 2017, India signed a deal with Singapore to expand existing Indian access to Changi naval base. India contributes to the development of Agaléga in Mauritius with dual-use logistical facilities. India and France, eying the Indian Ocean, have signed the “reciprocal logistics support” agreement as part of which warships of both the nations would have access to each other’s naval bases. India and the United States signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016, giving both countries access to designated military facilities for refueling and supplies.
Modi visited Oman in February and secured access for India to the Port of Duqm for military use and logistical support. The port in southeast Oman is about 400 kilometers to Iran’s Chabahar Port, directly across the Gulf of Oman, and offers the potential to enhance India’s regional footprint. The Chabahar port being developed by India – 72 kilometers from the Chinese-backed Pakistani port of Gwadar – is viewed as a strategic play to limit China’s influence in that area through its Belt and Road Initiative.
India’s Indian Ocean outreach coincides with its efforts to make a case about its role in the wider Indo-Pacific. India is relaying the message that it is not merely an Indian Ocean and South Asian power, but one with capacity and intent to shape the wider Indo-Pacific, stretching from its established presence in the Indian Ocean to interests in the South China Sea, the Middle East and Africa and into the Pacific. And this understanding of Indian strategic reach is widely accepted. The United States has welcomed this growing footprint and other major powers have also responded positively. The re-emergence of the Quad, involving the United States, Japan, Australia and India on developing regional security strategies, reflect this growing consensus.
China challenges India’s status in the Indian Ocean in unprecedented ways as demonstrated by the crisis in the Maldives. A power struggle is underway with the current president embracing China’s Belt and Road infrastructure, land grabs and increasing debt while a former president reached out to India for support. A state of emergency was declared in February and India’s advice was pointedly shunned by the President Abdulla Yameen. China’s growing profile in the Maldives has been dramatic from 2011, when it did not even have an embassy in the island nation, to today where it has become central to domestic developments. Even in the Seychelles which has a strong longstanding defense relationship with India, Chinese military is making its presence felt and the two nations are exploring options to expand their military engagement. Such a rapidly shifting strategic landscape puts India’s credibility as a regional power on the line as the country can no longer engage in diffident posturing, but must live up to the expectations it has generated. As of now it is not readily evident if New Delhi can effectively navigate these tricky waters in the Indian Ocean.
*Harsh V Pant is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and professor of international relations, King’s College London.
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