Modi's battle for the Indian Ocean
With his Indian Ocean
tour, Narendra Modi aims to counter Chinese influence among small island
As China continues to draw attention to the South China Sea with its
land reclamation and creation of artificial islands, it is also
important to look at Chinese activities in the not-so-contentious but
strategically important Indian Ocean Region.
Beijing, with the help of economic and commercial initiatives, is
mapping out a web of influence by increasing its presence in the Indian
Ocean. Access and control of the islands in the Indian Ocean is crucial
for Beijing to secure its strategic interests in the region.
There are two reasons for China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean.
First, some of these islands — such as Kyaukpyu — can prove to be
China’s answer to its Malacca Dilemma, strengthening its energy security
by reducing its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. Second, an
increasing presence in the Indian Ocean is crucial in strengthening
Beijing’s role as a key actor, in the emerging security architecture in
There is no doubt that China aspires to be a maritime power. Beijing
realises that to be considered as a great power, it must have a role and
stake beyond its region — beyond the Western Pacific and throughout the
Having attained a favourable status quo in the Western Pacific, China
is now engaging with the island nations of the Indian Ocean through its
investments and commercial initiatives. It is through its relationship
and investments with these nations that Beijing aims to project itself
as a resident power of the Indian Ocean, leading to a greater security
role throughout the Indo-Pacific.
However, unlike in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean is already
home to many resident middle powers, wary of China’s unilateral and
hostile maritime policies. As a result, the possibility of increased
Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is leading to competition for
geostrategic space, especially between India and China.
In this context, it becomes timely to look at the island nations of
Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles, against the backdrop
of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean tour.
The Republic of Maldives, though a small island nation, its strategic
importance can be relayed from the fact that instability in the waters
of Maldives can essentially affect critical global trading routes. While
Male is far from flexing any military muscle in the region, access to
and influence over this island can help another nation project power
through the region.
This is perhaps the reason why Male is comfortably sitting in the
middle of a geo-strategic tussle between India and China unfolding in
the Indian Ocean.
Though geographically closer to India and historically within its
sphere of strategic influence, the Maldives is increasingly
strengthening its relationship with Beijing. Chinese investments in the
Maldives have increased over the years, ranging from housing projects to
infrastructure projects such as building roads and airports.
China-Maldives economic cooperation has experienced a boost ever
since the Abdulla Yameen government came into power in November 2013.
The Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives, Wang Fukang, mentioned three
critical areas where Beijing and Male should increase their cooperation,
indicating an expansion of their economic and strategic ties.
The three areas mentioned by Wang are tourism, infrastructure
projects, and, finally, closer maritime cooperation between the two
Investing in infrastructure projects in the Indian Ocean appears to
be Beijing’s preferred approach for obtaining a strong foothold in the
region. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative (which still
lacks clear details or a clear intent) further boosts this policy.
Maldives is an important player in China’s Indian Ocean game and
hence infrastructure projects on this island nation are critical. When
President Xi Jinping travelled to the Maldives in September 2014,
agreement on infrastructure projects in the country was a key outcome.
It is equally important to note that this was the first-ever visit by a
Chinese leader to the Maldives.
Along with housing and road projects, the two leaders also agreed to
upgrade the main airport and to build a bridge connecting Male to
Hulhule — the island where the Male International Airport is located.
The Chinese presence in the Maldives is prominent through its housing
and development projects, so much so that their Ministry of Foreign
Affairs building was designed and constructed by Beijing. Increase in
Chinese investments in Maldives will provide Beijing with a legitimate
platform to increase its military presence in the area. China will have
every right to protect its commercial interests in the region during war
and peace times. These infrastructure investments also carry the
possibility of being turned into military installations. There is
palpable fear, especially in India, of China dominating the foreign
investment sector in the Maldives.
While the previous government tilted toward Indian influence in the
Indian Ocean, the current government seems to favor China. With the
arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives is descending
into political turmoil. While countries such as India and the US have
expressed concerns over the arrest and political dissent in the country,
Beijing refused to comment on the issue stating that “We are committed
to non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.” China’s
stance has been well appreciated by the Yameen government, while pro-Nasheed
supporters have expressed their concerns about anti democratic trends.
Speaking at a conference hosted by the Observer Research Foundation
in New Delhi, Ahmed Naseem (former foreign minister of Maldives) said,
“For the Maldives it is imperative to stand with India to balance Indian
Ocean security and protect the interests of the Maldives in a growing
gamble for power in the Indian Ocean.” The Maldivian delegation led by
the Naseem was in India to urge New Delhi to play its role in
stabilising the Maldives and in balancing Beijing’s presence in the
country. Thanks to growing investments joined with its “non-interference
in domestic affairs” policy, Beijing appears to be a favourite for the
current government in the Maldives.
Male’s reliance on China for an economic boost under the current
government is dangerous for the Maldives and India. China increasing its
presence in the Indian Ocean through the Maldives is no longer a distant
possibility and New Delhi must wake up to the strategic changes taking
place so close to home.
However, the Narendra Modi government is taking note of these
developments and seems to be willing to shoulder its responsibility as a
security actor in the Indo-Pacific. The Maldives was one of the
countries that Modi was supposed to visit during his travels beginning
March 11, in an attempt to revive India-Maldives ties and balance
increasing Chinese presence in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood.
Unfortunately due to the ongoing political turmoil, the Maldives was
dropped from Modi’s itinerary.
The Republic of Seychelles is another player in the emerging
geostrategic competition in the Indian Ocean. The 115-island nation in
the Indian Ocean constantly fights to keep its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
secure and safe from pirates. Seychelles’ location and proximity to the
coast of Africa make it a lucrative option for Beijing to set up a naval
base in the country. China is already participating in anti-piracy
operations in the Gulf of Aden and has growing economic interests in
In 2011, it was widely reported that Seychelles offered China
maritime bases for refueling purposes while conducting its anti piracy
operations in the Gulf of Aden. The reports created a significant amount
of unease in New Delhi; such a move would give Beijing the opportunity
to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean, facilitating Chinese naval
operations far beyond its shores. While China was quick to dismiss any
possibility of a military base overseas, the possibility of such a
development is higher today.
It is not news that Beijing aspires to extend its influence to the
Indian Ocean. What is alarming is the use of commercial and economic
initiatives to create a reason to maintain a permanent presence in the
Indian Ocean Region. China is quick to dismiss any plans of creating
military bases overseas, but Chinese maritime strategists such as Shen
Dingli advocate the need for China to set up overseas military bases. In
an article titled “Don’t shun the idea of setting up overseas bases,”
Shen asserts that “setting up overseas military bases is not an idea we
have to shun; on the contrary, it is our right.”
Encapsulating the reason behind China’s need to expand into the
Indian Ocean, Shen further argues, “The real threat to us is not posed
by the pirates but by the countries which block our trade route.” Shen
“The threats also include secessionism outside the Chinese mainland.
We should have the ability to hit the vulnerable points of our potential
opponents by restricting their international waterway. So we need to set
up our own blue-water navy and to rely on the overseas military bases to
cut the supply costs.”
China is gearing up to protect its energy imports that pass through
the Indian Ocean. Evidently, Beijing is not comfortable with Washington
and New Delhi being the security providers in the region.
Inability to sustain troops in the region would mean that China’s
energy imports will be highly vulnerable in the event of a military
standoff with either the United States or India. Currently, India and
Seychelles share close military ties as New Delhi helps the island
nation secure its EEZ by presenting surveillance aircrafts and
patrolling ships. By increasing its economic investments in the Indian
Ocean Region, Beijing is creating a legitimate reason to maintain a
military presence in the Indian Ocean. While New Delhi cannot stop China
from making inroads into the Indian Ocean, it must step up its game and
increase cooperation with these island nations to balance the situation.
This is why New Delhi is looking to increase its security cooperation
with Seychelles and hopes to balance the situation through Narendra
Modi’s ongoing Indian Ocean tour.
India’s ties with Sri Lanka date back to historical and cultural
links in ancient times. Geographically located at the tip of India, the
island nation is considered to be within New Delhi’s sphere of strategic
influence. However, strengthening ties with Beijing through
infrastructure projects are creating tension in the Indian Ocean
politics between China and India. An area of great discomfort for India
has been the frequent docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo.
The previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared fairly
China-friendly, awarding many infrastructure development projects to
Beijing. The Maithripala Sirisena government is now reviewing all
Chinese investments in the country, especially the US$1.5 billion Port
Explaining the reason for the re-assessment, Investment Promotion
Minister, Kabir Hashim said that “The port city project has to be
completely looked at. You cannot have land given on freehold basis to
another country in a high security zone.” According to reports, the
project would give China around 100 hectares of land “on outright basis
and the rest on a 99-year lease.”
The issue of Chinese submarines docking at Colombo is a perfect
example of Beijing using its commercial initiatives to gradually
increase and maintain its military presence in the Indian Ocean. It is
interesting to note that the submarine docked at the Colombo
International Container Terminals Ltd., (CICT), a terminal constructed
by China Merchants Holdings (International) Co., Ltd. (CMHI), much to
India’s surprise and concern. CMHI holds 85 percent ownership of the
The Sirisena government is now reassuring India that such “incidents,
from whatever quarter, do not take place under our tenure.”
In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka is
of great significance to reassert India’s ties with Colombo. While the
government in Colombo reviews its relationship with Beijing, New Delhi
must be available to assert its support and strengthen its ties with the
tear drop nation of the Indian Ocean.
Mauritius is another small but significant country in the Indian
Ocean. As the island nation looks to attract investments from China,
India is stepping up its game by providing a 1,300-tonne Indian-built
patrol vessel, the Barracuda, to Mauritius to help the island nation
protect its coastline. Modi also addressed the National Assembly and
attended the Mauritius National Day on March 12. Narendra Modi’s Indian
Ocean tour comes at a much needed time to re-assure the Indian Ocean
islands that New Delhi is present and willing to shoulder its
responsibility in maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean.
It is quite clear that China is engaging with the island nations in
the Indian Ocean Region through small but significant projects,
leveraging its strategic interests. What Beijing essentially aims to do
is create an atmosphere where Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean
becomes inevitable. While India may not indulge in any China containment
policy, there is a dire need for New Delhi to reengage with these
islands and secure its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific.
- The Diplomat
Darshana M. Baruah is a Fellow at the New Delhi based think, the
Observer Research Foundation.