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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

A string without pearls

Narendra Modi's approach to the Indian Ocean region lacks clarity and the necessary capacity to succeed

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has notched up an impressive series of ‘firsts’ in foreign policy: the first to invite leaders from neighbouring nations to his swearing in; the first to host a US president at the Republic Day celebrations and have two summits within six months; and the first to articulate the need for India to lead the fight against climate change and responsibility to help counter new threats to global peace and security. All of these have deservedly received international accolades.

However, Modi is now in peril of scoring a dubious first: taking bold foreign policy initiatives without having the ability to follow through on them. This has become apparent in his ongoing Indian Ocean enterprise.

While Modi’s approach to the Indian Ocean region underlines its significance for India’s regional strategic interests and global ambitions and, doubtless, seeks to redress decades of neglect by India’s leadership, the initiative lacks clarity and the necessary capacity to succeed.

Though his penchant for catchy acronyms, colour codes and ‘twitter-able’ phases is understandable in today’s instant message age, Modi’s India appears to have gone overboard to describe India’s maritime initiative on the Indian Ocean; it has been variously presented as “Project Mausam", “Spice Route", “Sagar Mala" and, Modi’s favourites, Blue Revolution (from the Ashoka chakra on the Indian flag) and SAGAR—Security and Growth for All in the Region. This sounds like a reactive and confused cacophony, especially compared to the simple and catchy Chinese vision of the “maritime silk route" or the US articulation of a “pivot" or “rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific. India needs to come up with a similar simple and evocative phrase and brand it consistently.

However, branding India’s strategy is only the start of a long process for New Delhi to secure its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean; for talking the talk without being able to walk it will not get India very far, especially given the economic, political and military inroads that China has already made into this region.

Consider the following: apart from Gwadar (in Pakistan), Hambantota (in Sri Lanka), Chittagong (in Bangladesh) and Sittwe (in Myanmar) China has offered $500 million in soft loans for infrastructure and housing projects to the Maldives, and over $700 million to Mauritius for expansion of its airport and special economic zone. Additionally, in Sudan, China has invested over $10 billion in infrastructure projects, including a railway line between Khartoum and the crucial Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and is financing and building a $10 billion port at Bagamoy in Tanzania. Key Indian Ocean countries, like Indonesia, have also wholly bought into China’s maritime silk route project.

In contrast, India is struggling to get financing and construction of Chabahar port (in Iran) underway and has only just offered $500 million to the Maldives for infrastructure projects and handed over a single Indian-built coast guard vessel to Mauritius. While India should be the primary economic and security provider in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) countries, it is likely to be outmatched by China, which is only an observer.

Even on the security front, apart from the trilateral situation awareness cooperation with Sri Lanka and the Maldives, India has done very little either to build up its own capacity (despite recent decisions by the Modi government) or that of the IORA littoral states, which would help to secure India’s interests in the region. Worse, there has been little or no effort to even coordinate counter-piracy operations with other IORA nations, even though this is in everyone’s interest.

Clearly, Modi’s Indian Ocean initiative is long overdue. However, for it to succeed the initiative must be built upon and sustained. Otherwise it will remain a worthless string without pearls.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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