Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 27, 2020
Delhi needs to work with its Indian Ocean neighbours to deny strategic foothold to China

The recent border clashes with China on the land frontier may have spiked the stakes for India on the sea-front, too, more than anticipated and acknowledged. While the multiple security agreements with the US and the rest over the past years may be an expression of the nation’s resolve to check Chinese ‘expansionism’ through the ‘String of Pearls’, more needs to be done to ensure that China is unable to use its ‘land acquisitions’ in Maldives and Sri Lanka, among others, against India, in times of military adversity.

Through a December 2019 decision, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) expanded the relatively recent IOR (Indian Ocean Region) Division to include Comoros, French Reunion and Madagascar to the existing quartet of Maldives and Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles. Looked at from Delhi, the seven-island combo has made the Indian Ocean, an ‘Indian Lake’ from New Delhi’s diplomatic perspective.

In the post-Cold War era, for the larger ‘Indo-Pacific’, a geo-strategic space that India has since adopted from the US creator of the term, New Delhi has signed multiple inter-operable agreements with different nations. The main aim is to keep China off the nearby seas, or at least make the costs dearer for Beijing, to undertake an adventure of the northern land-border kind.

India has signed multiple security/Inter-operable military agreements with the US, Japan and Australia, and also has the Quad of all four. New Delhi also has similar pacts with Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. There are now reports of India signing similar pacts with the UK, the erstwhile colonial ruler of South Asia, and possibly with Russia, too. Independent of the Rafale fighter deal, India has also signed a security pact with France. The two nations conducted joint patrolling of the seas from French Reunion, in February 2020/

Territorial possessions

In India’s immediate Ocean neighbourhood, however, China already has ‘territorial possessions’ in the form of Feydhoo Finolhu resort-island in Maldives and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Apart from Hambantota, Chinese investments in Sri Lanka have gone into building the Mattara ‘international’ airport, Colombo Port City and expressway projects criss-crossing the island-nation.

China obtained the former through a direct, 50-year-lease, purportedly against a payment of $4 million under the controversial regime of erstwhile President Abdulla Yameen. Beijing obtained a 99-year-old lease for the Hambantota Port area after Sri Lanka agreed to a ‘debt-for-equity’ swap-deal under a regime different from that of the one that had signed a construction-cum-concession contract.

Independent of regime-change in either country, there is nothing to suggest that two by themselves pose security threat of any kind to the larger Indian neighbour. However, with China in possession of their land-holdings on a long-term lease, it is anybody’s guess how Beijing may operationalise what Sri Lanka’s current president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has since described as a ‘commercial agreement’ involving his predecessor dispensation, and has moved away from his intermediate commitment of ‘re-negotiating’ the same.

India’s experience with China in the tri-junction corridor with Bhutan at Doklam in 2017 should be educative. That should have prepared New Delhi to expect a strategic, security situation of the kind in the immediate waters, now or later. While the adjoining waters may be secure than otherwise, following the multiplicity of security pacts, the same cannot be said of China’s land holdings in these two nations.

Freedom of navigation

If push comes to the shove, and China feels ‘choked’ by India and its pact-partners in the Indo-Pacific, especially the immediate Indian Ocean waters adjoining the Indian shores, Beijing can seek ‘freedom of navigation’ to its possessions in Maldives and Sri Lanka. China could insist on transporting only ‘civilian material’ by sea to these countries, and make the host-governments legitimate partners in pressing its demands in international water.

It is one thing for the international community, including India, to read the rule-book to China, and point out how it had violated the very norms that it wanted enforced, when it came to the South China and East China Seas. However, it will be another if the two smaller neighbours of India were made to cite those norms and rules, and submit that their economic subsistence and sustenance were being challenged for no fault of theirs. It would be a situation India could do without.

Even without such a politico-legal showdown, India cannot hope to feel secure as long as there are Chinese installations even of a civilian kind in its immediate waters. Both Hambantota and Feydhoo Finolhu face the Indian Ocean sea-lanes of communications (SLOCs) and also the US military-base in Diego Garcia.

India’s EEZ is not far away from these two Chinese possessions. The nation’s shorelines, starting with the Andaman-Nicobar Command too with be at an ear-short from either of them. Without these two Chinese posts, India used to feel secure and confident that the Andamans Nicobar Command would watch out into the ocean, day and night, for signs of adventurous adversarial movements, be it of China or Pakistan. Now guard-watching may become mutual, though China’s PLA or PLA-N or the air force may have a visible presence in either Hambantota or Feydhoo Finolhu.

Public diplomacy

New Delhi seems confident with the existing and new security pacts with such other users of Indian Ocean trade-routes, it can hope to ensure rules-based navigation in these waters. However, this would not suffice when it comes to ensuring India’s national security and territorial integrity, which it cannot compromise, New Delhi then will have to engage its Ocean neighbours, pro-actively.

At present, India is engaged with Japan and Singapore to develop the eastern Trincomalee port and town, as if it were a parallel to the real-time Chinese possession of Hambantota. India is also set to develop the Colombo Port’s East Terminal. In Maldives, the two nations have agreed on India funding the Male-Thilafushi sea-bridge, on the lines of the China-funded, Male-Hulhumale’ sea-bridge, connecting the national capital and island-airport.

Departing from the traditional mode of ‘budgetary support’ in the case of Maldives, India is engaging these two countries in infrastructure and developmental funding in multiple ways. Over the past decade or so, and more so with incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, New Delhi has made developmental funding a part of its ‘public diplomacy’ in the host-countries, reaching out to their people, though only through the medium of their respective national governments.

India began with a massive housing scheme for Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged ethnic Tamils, and has since extended the facility to cover Upcountry Tamils or ‘estate Tamils’, and majority Sinhalas, too. In Maldives, it has funded municipal schemes, which is a major concern in the archipelago-nation. These have become popular with the local population, whose sympathy and support cannot be overlooked in the formulation of India’s neighbourhood policy, especially.

Pro-active measures

To gain a greater sense of security than already, India needs to revisit the Neighbourhood Policy, which has mostly remained a diplomatic initiative with economic initiatives thrown in for effect. New Delhi needs to engage all neighbours, especially Ocean neighbours starting with Maldives and Sri Lanka in the immediate waters, to deny traditional adversaries a toe-hold on their territory.

India needs to work even more with its international partners to help its neighbours to find ways of clearing China’s dues, which has acknowledged to be a ‘debt-trap’ of unmitigated proportions for Sri Lanka, and promises to be so for Maldives, too. This, and such other funding of developmental projects in the neighbourhood, as different from India’s reported bid to take over the management of the unused and under-utilised Mattara airport, another white elephant of a China-funded project in Sri Lanka.

On the security front, New Delhi can begin by re-activating the biennial India-Maldives ‘Dhosti’ Coast Guard exercises, to which they brought in Sri Lanka after the end of the ethnic war in that country, a decade ago. India then needs to extend the scope of the effort to rope in other nations now coming under MEA’s IOR Division, and also expand the operations, by bringing in the Indian Navy and IAF.

India may be able to achieve this goal only in phases and stages, and through a time-consuming process. But without such arrangements with the immediate neighbours, India can never really feel secure in the company of its pact-based strategic allies in and for the Indian Ocean Region on the one hand, and the Indo-Pacific on the other. After Doklam and Galwan along the land borders, time may not be on India’s side just now. New Delhi should still play for the medium and long terms, and should not let the need and opportunity lapse for want of trying.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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