Event ReportsPublished on May 05, 2015
Former Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Mr. M Ganapathi, has emphasised the importance of the Indian Ocean in global developments in the 21st Century and the importance now given to the region by the government.
Bilateral needs should dictate IOR neighbourhood policy, says ex-diplomat

Former Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Mr. M Ganapathi, has emphasised the importance of the Indian Ocean in global developments in the 21st Century and the importance now given to the region by the government.

Initiating a discussion on "Prime Minister’s visit to Indian Ocean countries" at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on March 21, Mr Ganapathi quoted India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to emphasise on the region. Nehru had said "We cannot afford to be weak at sea ... history has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at her mercy, and in the second, India’s very independence itself."

He said while the importance of the Indian Ocean was recognised early on, however, enough prominence was not given to it in terms of structured attention in the Government of India.

Mr. Ganapathy felt that this shortfall had been somewhat redressed by giving a higher visibility to the Indian Ocean Region under the Sri Lanka & Maldives Division renamed as the Sri Lanka, Maldives & Indian Ocean Region Division in the MEA. This would, however, not correct an anomalous situation, as the focus of the Division will continue to be Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Turning to the Prime Minister’s visit to the three southern neighbours in the Indian Ocean, the speaker said that too much was being read into the fact that the PM was not visiting Maldives, and that only Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka were on his itinerary. The Foreign Secretary has clarified this issue by recalling the announcement relating to the visit. While there would have been disappointment, a visit to Maldives would take place at an appropriate time when circumstances were right.

Mr. Ganapathi pointed out that PM Modi’s visit to Seychelles and Mauritius had two important connotations - one was from an Indian Ocean perspective and secondly, it was the PM’s first visit to two members of the Africa Union. And visiting Sri Lanka besides Seychelles and Mauritius provided an added significance. In the context of PM’s visits, he recalled former National Security Adviser Mr Shiv Shankar Menon’s recent remarks that the NDA foreign policy was vigorous.

The speaker noted that the visit could be seen from the prism of some important determinants - the political relationship from a bilateral perspective, the geostrategic imperative, the economic factor and the community point of view. The Prime Minister’s discussions, public speeches and agreements focussed on these determinants besides emphasising cooperation in areas relating to the environment, ocean economy, infrastructure, energy cooperation and defence and security.

Seychelles, ’rock of dependability’

Mr. Ganapathi said that the first port of call during the visit was Seychelles, an important partner. He recalled President James Michel emphasising to President Prathiba Patil in 2012, that "Seychelles had positioned itself as a rock of dependability for India in the Indian Ocean". India’s security related support was deeply appreciated. India provides for EEZ Surveillance and anti-piracy patrolling in Seychelles. PM inaugurated the first of five Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems (CSRS) being set up by India in Seychelles and announced the gift of a second Dornier aircraft. Agreements signed during the visit included those on development of Infrastructure facilities on the Assumption Island; renewable energy cooperation; assistance to Seychelles on hydrography; and the ’blue economy’. India would look at addressing Seychelles petroleum requirements. PM also addressed members of the Diaspora announcing gratis visa for Seychellois for a period of three months and to include Seychelles in the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) Scheme. Overall, the visit was a great success and corrected a lacuna wherein a Prime Ministerial visit to Seychelles was taking place after 34 years - Smt Indira Gandhi had last visited Seychelles in 1981.

Mauritius, ’strategically important at the cross-lanes’

Mr. Ganapathi gave a brief overview of recent internal developments in Mauritius noting that over 68% of the country’s population was of Indian origin. Relations between the two countries have been extremely close, unique and special. PM was the Chief Guest at Mauritius’ Independence Day celebrations. PM saw Mauritius as one of India’s strongest strategic partners. PM’s programme was comprehensive including meetings with leaders, an address to the National Assembly, visiting heritage and cultural sites, addressing members of the Diaspora, laying the foundation stone of the World Hindi Secretariat building and commissioning the Mauritius Coast Guard Ship MCGS Barracuda.

Mauritius had benefited extensively from Indian development assistance. During the visit five agreements were signed. These related to cooperation in the Ocean economy; a Cultural Cooperation Programme; development of sea and air transportation facilities at Agalega island; importation of mangoes; and cooperation in traditional systems of medicine and homeopathy. PM announced a $ 500 million concessional line of credit for infrastructure projects, said that India will support the development of a second Cyber City (having constructed the first such City), and move quickly towards building the petroleum storage and bunkering facility to not only benefit Mauritius but also reinforce its role as a regional hub. The entire petroleum needs of Mauritius are currently met from the Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd.

The speaker highlighted the geostrategic location of Mauritius situated as it was at the "cross-lanes" of the Indian Ocean. India’s defence and security cooperation was significant, seen as the cornerstone of our partnership. India was actively engaged in providing EEZ Surveillance and anti-piracy patrolling; and assisting in hydrography (enabling Mauritius to gain more continental shelf territory in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Indian service personnel were associated with the Mauritius Police Force and its Coast Guard. India had provided an Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv to Mauritius and set up eight Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems in the main and Outer Islands of Mauritius.

Mr. Ganapathi said that the commissioning of ’MCGS Barracuda’ should be seen in this context. Barracuda will significantly bolster Mauritius’ defence and security capabilities. The Ship had been designed and built at the Garden Reach Shipyard Ltd, was provided through a mix of grant and an easy LOC and delivered exactly on time. Barracuda was the first naval ship specifically built for another country and held potential for more such commercial operations for India’s shipbuilding yards.

India had been concerned over the misuse of the India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Convention (DTAC) and had sought its revision. Mauritius has recognised India’s serious intent. There has been some movement forward in this direction. The next steps would be discussed within the Joint Working Group set up for this purpose. PM reassured Mauritius that India would do nothing to harm this critical sector in Mauritius. PM also sought a resumption of discussion on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. PM announced fee waiver for Electronic travel Authorisation for Mauritians.

PM’s visit to Mauritius had been eagerly awaited by Mauritians and was a tremendous success.

Sri Lanka, ’a visit high on content’

On Prime Minister Modi’s third leg of the visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Ganapathi began by saying that former PM Manmohan Singh should have visited the country for the CHOGM Summit in 2013. He noted that Sri Lanka now had greater receptivity within the Commonwealth - seen during President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to the UK a week before PM Modi’s visit to his country.

The speaker observed that PM Modi’s Sri Lanka visit was full of content, singling out the Jaffna phase of the visit for particular mention. Alluding to some in media calling the four agreements signed in Sri Lanka as insignificant he said that the success of any visit should be gauged in its totality, not just by the number of agreements signed.

As the first Indian Prime Minister visiting Sri Lanka since 1987, the visit had a lot going for it. On arrival, the PM addressed the nation’s Parliament, which was a significant step in itself. The visit to the Tamil-majority Northern Province was the first by an Indian PM. At the provincial capital of Jaffna, PM Modi said that reconstruction and rehabilitation should proceed without hindrance. Noting that for India, Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity were paramount, PM called on the Sri Lankan leadership to accommodate the aspirations of all sections of society, including the Tamil community. He emphasised the need for the country going beyond the 13th Amendment. He also called for a long-term solution to the fishermen’s issue.

The speaker highlighted some of the announcements during the visit including the $ 318 million Line of Credit for the railways sector, assistance in culture related projects, the Currency Swap Agreement, among others. Other important elements of the visit were PM’s visit to the Buddhist holy place of Anuradhapura, his flagging off of the train service at Talaimannar after India had re-laid the war-destroyed rail track, his handing over of the houses built by India to the Tamil victims of the war and the agreement to jointly develop the Upper Oil Tank Farm in Trincomalee.

As a first bilateral visit in nearly 30 years, with a first ever visit to the North, PM’s visit to Sri Lanka was warmly welcomed and a major success.

Greater IOR cooperation

Mr. Ganapathi mentioned the importance of the Indian Ocean during the interaction and highlighted PM’s reference to SAGAR - Security and Growth for All in the Region, the intrinsic link between security and prosperity in the Indian Ocean Region and PM’s call for expanding maritime security cooperation between Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and India. He reiterated the significance of the IORA as an organisation. Discussions in Mauritius centred on further strengthening the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which has its Headquarters in Mauritius. Cooperation in the area of the Ocean Economy (Green and Blue Economy) was an important theme which PM touched upon in his interactions.

The speaker felt that there was a greater need to focus on developments in the Indian Ocean Region. He noted the absence of a dedicated Institution focussing on the Indian Ocean and called for the setting up of an exclusive Centre for Indian Ocean Studies with headquarters possibly in Chennai. During the discussions, it was also suggested that the potential for cooperation between Indian Ocean Naval Symposium and the IORA should be explored.

The China factor

Mr. Ganapathi underlined that visits to a slate of countries, which had a strategic intersect with our interests, should not be seen as a response to covert or overt Chinese presence or as a measure to compete with China. Such visits and results thereto should reflect our own inherent strengths, requirements and interests and entirely guided by what we can do, not what others would or would not do. He noted that there were enough opportunities for India and China without either of them competing with each other. He also touched upon the problems faced by Chinese iconic projects, particularly in Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

Mr. Ganapathi concluded by saying that PM’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka was highly successful. It allowed us to project our interest in a region of vital interest to us viz. the Indian Ocean neighbourhood. We not only reiterated our close political cooperation with the countries visited but also underlined the economic choices available and buttressed these clearly with geo-strategic considerations. We were also able to convey to our hosts that India shall not be found wanting and that our relations, close as they were, stood out on their own merits.

(This report is prepared by M Adharsh, Chennai)

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