Ocean diplomacy: Sirisena visit key for India to tackle China's Maritime Silk Route ambitions

India's Ocean Policy has already got off to a flying start from the landlocked New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-hour delegation level talks with the visiting Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in New Delhi on 16 February was the first big step in this direction and the next giant stride will be taken about three weeks later when Modi embarks on his four-nation tour of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.

PM’s upcoming four-nation trip in the second week of March should be seen as an effective counter to China's proposed Maritime Silk Route (MSR) in which all the four Indian Ocean countries figure prominently.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena giving media statement, during the Joint Press Interaction, in New Delhi on 16 February 2015. Image courtesy PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena giving media statement, during the Joint Press Interaction, in New Delhi on 16 February 2015. Image courtesy PIB

India is wary of China's MSR proposal as New Delhi sees in it a pernicious Chinese design aimed at strangulating India strategically. Much to India's chagrin China has been enlarging its strategic footprints in the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries even though China is not an Indian Ocean power.

India views MSR as yet another example of China playing cheque book diplomacy by the ear and enticing small nations with multi-billion dollar worth investment opportunities that the proposed project promises to bring about. Only last week China unveiled new details about the $100 billion which envisages building a network of ports and maritime infrastructure in Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean regions.

Of late China has gone on an overdrive to hard sell the MSR project. Some 50 countries in Asia and Europe have backed the project but India has desisted from doing so. Earlier this month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had given a sneak peek into India's stand on the MSR project during her maiden visit to China.

Swaraj said she had conveyed to her Chinese interlocutors that India would work with China where there is synergy, adding that the MSR project "has to be synergy based… and there cannot be a blanket endorsement (from the Indian side). We want our connectivity".

It clearly means that China should not take India's nod for granted. For their part, the Chinese have urged the Indians to shed their ambivalence about the project and promised to release more details in the coming months.

Chinese strategic forays into the Indian Ocean region have compelled India to pay China back in the same coin and increase Indian strategic presence in South China Sea and in China's backyard like Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar, apart from spiking up engagement with Japan.

But this alone is not enough. India needs to match China’s chess moves in the Indian Ocean region and not cede any strategic space in this region to China. Needless to say powers like the United States and Japan would be much too willing to lend a helping hand to India in this endeavour but India will have to redouble its own efforts on dealing with the Chinese strategic challenge in the region.

PM Modi’s upcoming tour to the four island nations is a major policy move in this direction. The exact dates of his trip are yet to be decided but the visit will take place in the second week of March. An indication to this effect comes from the fact that the Prime Minister will be in Mauritius on 12 March, the National Day of Mauritius. Other three countries will be slotted in either just before or after the Mauritius leg of the tour.

Mauritius also houses the headquarters of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the 18-year-old international organization consisting of 20 coastal states bordering the Indian Ocean.

Incidentally, India's first warship export was to Mauritius in December 2014 when a 1300-tonne offshore patrol vessel worth $58 million was handed over to that country by Indian defence shipbuilder GRSE or Garden Reach Shipyard & Engineers. The GRSE is building two bigger and more powerful frigates for the Philippines Navy, each costing about $175 milliion.

It is not without significance that PM Modi would be embarking on tour to four Indian Ocean island nations after US President Barack Obama’s India visit during which India and the US unveiled a Joint Strategic Vision aimed at responding "to diplomatic, economic and security challenges" in Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.

The Modi government is acutely aware of the fact that its dithering alone on the MSR project won’t prevent China from embarking on the super ambitious project which is nothing but strategic dagger cloaked in infrastructure velvet. India will have to come up with its own credible alternative in double quick time.

PM Modi's upcoming visit to the four island states is laden with this strategic agenda.

The writer is Firstpost consulting editor and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.

Updated Date: Feb 17, 2015 20:12 PM

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