Prime Minister Narendra Modi will offer island nations in the Indian Ocean a broad range of military and civilian assistance next week in a bid to wrest back some of the influence China has gained by spending billions of dollars in the region.
Modi will make the pledges during a visit to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles after decades of neglect by successive Indian governments. His trip to Sri Lanka will be the first in 28 years by an Indian prime minister.
China has built seaports, power plants and highways across the small island nations. Its navy has also made forays into the Indian Ocean, including when submarines docked last year in Sri Lanka, rattling New Delhi, which has an uneasy relationship with Beijing.
New Delhi is hoping to tie the islands into a closer security embrace, Indian officials said.
“India has a role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region,” said a defence official involved in preparations for Modi’s trip, which begins on March 10. “We are providing patrol ships, surveillance radars and ocean mapping for the island states.”
At the top of Modi’s agenda is Sri Lanka, the tear-shaped island off the southern coast of India where a new government, concerned at Beijing’s growing influence, is reviewing infrastructure contracts the previous administration awarded to China. It has also ruled out additional Chinese submarine visits in the near future.
Modi is expected to tighten defence and security cooperation and push for final approval for a 500 MW power plant to be built by India’s state-run National Thermal Power Corporation under a 2012 agreement in Trincomalee, a strategic port in eastern Sri Lanka, Indian officials said.
The two sides were also in talks to upgrade military training, a Sri Lankan government official said.
During the past year, the Indian defence ministry carried out a survey to identify the maritime needs of the island nations and has begun addressing them, the Indian defence official said.
Modi will commission a 1,300-tonne Indian-built patrol vessel in Mauritius, the first of such sales which include fast attack craft under construction in Indian shipyards.
“We have practically given Mauritius a coastguard,” said Commodore Ranjit Rai, a former head of Indian naval intelligence and operations.
Other nations require similar maritime assistance, according to the Indian defence ministry assessment.
Sri Lanka also needs help with fisheries patrols while the Maldives needs assistance with surveillance against piracy as well as the threat of Islamic State supporters finding a sanctuary in the island chain.
Meanwhile, India and Seychelles are expected to sign an agreement on mapping of the waters around the archipelago during Modi’s visit.
At the same time, China is upgrading the Maldives’ international airport after authorities cancelled a deal with an Indian firm in 2012.
China has in the past also considered Seychelles as a potential resupply port for navy ships taking part in anti-piracy operations off Africa. Its submarines, one of them nuclear-powered, docked in Sri Lanka on their way to join the anti-piracy operations.
But Modi should not push the smaller states to choose between India and China, said Vijay Sakhuja, director of the government-funded National Maritime Foundation of India and a specialist on Indian Ocean security issues.
“China’s overt military support to the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius is an issue which has caused enormous anxiety in India. Notwithstanding that, it will be prudent for Modi to avoid raising the issue, which could result in an “India or China” dilemma.”