India's diplomatic efforts and steady financial and military assistance give it an advantage over China as both nations seek closer ties with the island nations in the Indian Ocean.
- The island nations of the Indian Ocean have emerged as a new theatre of competition between India and China.
- China's rising influence in the Indian Ocean has raised suspicions in New Delhi that Beijing is following a “String of Pearls” strategy to emasculate its sphere of influence.
- Prime Minister Modi has made it a point to visit these countries and develop good personal chemistry with their leaderships.
- India has also stepped up development assistance, military cooperation and strategic aid to these island states.
The small island nations of the Indian Ocean - Sri Lanka, Mauritius, the
and Seychelles - have emerged as a new theatre of competition between India and China.
All of them have large populations of Indian origin, share strong cultural, historical and economic bonds with India and were, till recently, considered India's backyard.
But a concerted
into this region - the China-built Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, China's first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, massive Chinese infrastructure investments in the Maldives, aggressive patrolling in the region by the Chinese navy and China's multi-billion-dollar investments on its ambitious
- have raised suspicions in New Delhi that Beijing is following a “String of Pearls” strategy to encircle it and emasculate its sphere of influence. This has added an edge to India's relations with these four countries.
However, after facing some initial setbacks, most notably in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, India upped its game and wrested back much of its
in these four countries and the larger region.
Former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa's infamous tilt towards China and his family's alleged financial links with Chinese state-owned infrastructure companies had soured India's traditionally warm ties with its immediate southern neighbour across the Palk Straits. They were strained further when his government allowed a Chinese submarine to dock at Colombo port in 2014.
Soon after coming to power in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a proactive diplomatic effort - some of it in collaboration with
- to win back the confidence of Sri Lanka and other littoral states such as the Maldives, which was being sucked into China's embrace under former President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Mauritius and Seychelles.
Accepting the economic asymmetry between India and China, Modi made it a point to visit these countries and develop good personal chemistry with their leaderships. Of course, it helped that pro-China leaders such as Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and Gayoom were democratically replaced with leaders who valued India's friendship and were wary of the debt trap China was pushing their countries into.
Modi has visited Colombo three times, Male, capital of Maldives twice and Mauritius and Seychelles once since 2015. He has also hosted the heads of these countries in New Delhi more than once each.
Aware that the large trade surpluses India runs with these island countries is a cause of worry in these islands, India has stepped up development assistance, military cooperation and strategic aid.
Since the fall of the Gayoom government, which had racked up huge debts from China, the Modi government has given the Maldives $1.4 billion, partly to repay its outstandings with Beijing. It has also provided $500 million in credit to Mauritius. Then, earlier this year, India's central bank, the Reserve Bank of India entered into a swap arrangement to provide Sri Lanka with half a billion dollars in hard currencies to help it tide over a temporary problem and maintain foreign investor confidence in its economy. India has also extended a $100-million line of credit to the government of Seychelles.
In the military sphere, India provides training to military and coast guard personnel from these countries and also provides radar coverage and shares information gathered by its US-built P-8i surveillance aircraft to help safeguard the large exclusive economic zones of these countries. The Indian Navy, which patrols these areas quite extensively, has also gifted these countries with defence equipment like helicopters and patrol boats and the government has provided loans to buy other equipment as well, thus, enhancing cooperation and interoperability between the forces.
And even though the opposition in Seychelles forced its government to scrap the plan for India to set up a naval base in Ascension Island, the bilateral relationship remains strong and robust.
A caveat will be in order here: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Lankan defence chief and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is widely expected to win the Sri Lankan presidential elections in mid-November. If he does, he is likely to take the country back into the Chinese sphere of influence and negate India's hard-won strategic gains in that country over the last four years.
Despite this, India's proactive diplomacy and judicious use of financial and military resources have enabled it to punch beyond its weight vis-à-vis China. This could become a template for India's engagement with other nations in the Indo-Pacific and in Africa.