Modi’s neighbourhood first diplomacy paying rich dividends in Indian Ocean Region

Modi’s neighbourhood first diplomacy paying rich dividends in Indian Ocean Region
Sri Lanka government’s decision to call off Khan’s address to its Parliament points to Colombo’s need to protect its relationship with New Delhi.Courtesy: ANI

India’s vaccine diplomacy and defence outreach to its smaller maritime neighbours is winning it huge diplomatic credits. Jaishankar’s visits to Maldives and Mauritius and Colombo’s cancelling a speech by Pakistan PM Imran Khan to its Parliament bear testimony to that.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “neighbourhood first” diplomacy scored big wins in its maritime neighbourhood when two traditional allies, the Maldives and Mauritius, reiterated their commitment to broadening the deep ties between the nations and Sri Lanka cancelled a speech Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was scheduled to deliver in that nation’s Parliament.

The optics of Jaishankar handing over Covid-19 vaccines and Colombo’s decision to scrap Khan’s address will not go unnoticed in foreign capitals that keep tabs on the region.

Message is loud and clear

The optics of Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar handing over hundreds of thousands of vials of anti-Covid-19 vaccines to the first two nations amid shows of gushing bonhomie and Colombo’s unilateral decision to scrap Khan’s address will not have gone unnoticed in foreign capitals that are known to keep a close eye on developments in these countries.

Vaccine diplomacy

In keeping with it past actions of always extending a helping hand to the Maldives and Mauritius, Jaishankar, who is visiting the two Indian Ocean island nations, symbolically handed over 100,000 additional doses of commercially procured Covid-19 vaccines to each of the two countries.

"India's helping hand - always over the horizon. Symbolically handed over 100,000 additional doses of commercially procured Made in India Covid vaccines," he tweeted in Mauritius.

New Delhi provided $50-m and $100-m lines of credit to Maldives and Mauritius, respectively, to buy surveillance planes and patrol vessels from India.

In the Maldives, at a meeting with that country’s Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, the Indian FM said: “The ‘India First’ foreign policy of President Solih is reciprocated in full measure by Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, in which the Maldives enjoys a central position.”

"An extraordinarily deep partnership reaffirmed. Comprehensive talks with FM @abdulla_shahid. Deeply appreciate our close cooperation during Covid. Agreed to look beyond at post-pandemic economic recovery," he said in a tweet, adding: "From the people of India to the people of Maldives. Handed over 100,000 additional doses of Covid vaccine to FM @abdulla_shahid and Health Minister @KerafaNaseem.”

Defence line of credit to deepen military ties

Jaishankar signed five agreements the Maldives government, including one for a $25-million line of credit for the development of roads there.

Apart from these, the most important development, from a geo-political perspective – especially in the light of Chinese attempts to turn the country into a client state under its previous government – is the extension of a $50-million line of credit for defence projects.

There was also an agreement under which India will the island nation build a develop a naval facility for its military forces, which Maldives Defence Minister Mariya Didi said was “another significant milestone” in bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

India has, in the past, provided the Maldivian Coast Guard with patrol boats and surveillance aircraft to boost the capabilities of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).

It is learnt that India will also provide radar and communications services to the naval facility and also train MNDF personnel. It was not disclosed whether these projects were part of the line of credit. A joint statement issued by the two sides said the agreements followed repeated requests by Maldives to India since 2013 to help it develop and augment its defence capabilities.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Mauritius minister Alan Ganoo during his visit to Mauritius. India will provide a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft and a Dhruv helicopter to enhance Mauritius’s maritime monitoring capabilities.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar with Mauritius minister Alan Ganoo during his visit to Mauritius. India will provide a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft and a Dhruv helicopter to enhance Mauritius’s maritime monitoring capabilities.Courtesy: ANI

Comprehensive Economic Cooperation

Likewise, in Mauritius, the defence agreements were, arguably, the most important outcome of the visit – apart from the handing over of the Covid-19 vaccines and the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership Agreement following talks Jaishankar had with Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth.

"SAGAR policy reaffirmed. Pleased to witness, along with PM @JugnauthKumar, the exchange of USD 100 million Defence Line of Credit. Will facilitate procurement of defence assets, guided by the needs of Mauritius," the visiting Indian leader tweeted.

Here, too, the focus will be on enhancing Mauritius’s maritime monitoring capabilities. With this goal in mind, the Indian side will provide a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft and a Dhruv helicopter to the defence forces of this Indian Ocean island archipelago.

It is learnt that India will also provide radar and communications services to the naval facility and also train Maldives National Defence Force personnel.

Colombo denies Imran Khan

But icing on the cake was provided by the Sri Lanka government’s summary decision to call of Khan’s address to its Parliament to fissures in its ties with India, which have come under strain following its decision to cancel a strategically important project with India and Japan and a plan to lease oil storage facilities to Indian Oil Corporation (IOC).

This is particularly significant as China, which had been edged out of Colombo’s power corridors by the previous government, seems to be regaining its influence there following the election of the Rajapaksha brothers.

But a report published in the Colombo Gazette said the Lankan government does not want to risk its relationship with New Delhi at a time when it is falling deeper into the quagmire of China’s debt trap diplomacy even as India is emerging as a friend in need by donating half a million shots of the Made in India Covid-19 vaccine.

The report seemed to suggest that Khan would have used the platform of the Sri Lankan Parliament to launch a harangue against India.

Neighbourhood first policy paying off

Incidentally, Jaishankar’s first foreign visit after the outbreak of the pandemic was to Sri Lanka and he plans to visit Bangladesh on March 4 to prepare the ground for Modi’s visit later this year.

His successful visits to these countries, all of which are facing a thinly disguised Chinese onslaught on their economic and strategic autonomy, suggests that Modi’s vision of nurturing close bonds with neighbouring countries is paying off.

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