India and the Indian Ocean
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By B Raman
Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 Feb , 2011

The main security threats to Indian interests in the Indian Ocean area arise from three factors—firstly, the gradual erosion of the Indian political influence in the area; secondly, the increase in the Chinese presence in the area; and thirdly, the uncontrolled activities of the Somali pirates.

Nowhere is the erosion of the Indian political influence more evident than in Sri Lanka where despite our assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka in its successful counter-insurgency operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) we have not been able to protect either the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils or the lives and livelihood of Indian Tamil fishermen, who have been repeatedly at the mercy of the Sri Lankan Navy.

Having seen the gradual erosion of the Indian political influence in Sri Lanka, we are now seeing a similar erosion in Mauritius

Our repeated pleas for finding an early political solution to the grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils and for stopping attacks—some of them brutal and fatal— on Indian Tamil fishermen have had no impact on the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, while pretending to be sensitive to Indian interests, has been ignoring them without any fear of the likely consequences. He has no fear because he is confident that there will be no consequences. India’s core interests in the region to the south of India have been repeatedly ignored by Rajapaksa.

Our dilemma in Sri Lanka underlines the hard reality that having a strong Navy alone would not be sufficient to make our core interests prevail in the Indian Ocean region. There has to be a political courage and will to use our naval strength in support of our core interests. In the absence of such courage and will, the ships of our Navy will remain not a powerful arm of the Indian State ready to go into action if our core interests are threatened, but mere oceanic curios, exhibited in public and admired, but not feared.

The negative state of affairs that we are confronted with in Sri Lanka today could be repeated in the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles in the years-if not months– to come if the Indian political leadership is not more assertive in protecting Indian interests in these Island countries.

Also read: Catalyzing the Defence Industry

Fortunately, in the Maldives, the Indian interests still prevail despite an increase in political and economic contacts between China and the Maldives. The Government of Maldives continues to look up to India for strengthening its capacity for meeting threats to its security, which presently mostly arise from non-State actors such as Pakistan-based jihadi elements and the Somali pirates. It is still attentive to Indian interests in the area.

So is the case in Seychelles. Despite the Chinese offer of help to Seychelles for strengthening its anti-piracy capabilities, which its has accepted, the Government of Seychelles continues to be as receptive to Indian offers of assistance and co-operation as it was before.

The entry of Chinese naval ships on anti-piracy patrols into the Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden has not created any adverse reactions in the region or in the West.

However, one has reasons to be concerned over recent developments in Mauritius since the visit of President Hu Jintao of China to Port Louis in February,2009. During his visit, China announced a credit at low interest of US $ 260 million to Mauritius to modernize and expand its airport. He said that trade between the two countries had increased by 11.7 per cent during 2008 to reach US $ 323 million. He also announced an interest-free loan of US $ 5.9 million and a grant of 30 million yuan ( about US $ 5 million ). Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam said that the two countries had discussed possible further assistance to improve transport in and out of the island’s congested capital.

Hu pledged to speed up the construction of the China-funded $730 million Economic and Trade Zone north of the capital. The Tianli project, as it is called, will be the largest single foreign-funded project in Mauritius creating about 40,000 jobs. Between the recognition of China by Mauritius in 1972 and Hu’s visit in February 2009, the total value of the Chinese assistance to Mauritius amounted to US $ 117 million. The fresh assistance extended since then has crossed US $ one billion— an almost ten-fold increase. Thirteen Chinese companies operate in Mauritius in the textiles, construction and IT sectors.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

B Raman

Former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of The Kaoboys of R&AW, A Terrorist State as a Frontline Ally,  INTELLIGENCE, PAST, PRESENT & FUTUREMumbai 26/11: A Day of Infamy and Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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