Ports and isolated islands are the hottest real estate in the Indian Ocean region with both China and India looking to develop ports or bases along the Indian Ocean littoral. Flush with funds for infrastructure development, Beijing is busy wooing small island nations with big infrastructure projects in strategically located islands. It began by leveraging its port building capacity to push its early forays into the Indian Ocean, building brand new ports at Gwadar in Pakistan on the Arabian Sea and Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka till it formulated its Maritime Silk Route concept, which eventually became part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing set up its first overseas naval base in 2015 at Djibouti, the port on the Horn of Africa. It is also undertaking the huge Colombo port reclamation and expansion project while Sittwe port development in Myanmar’s Rakhine province on the Bay of Bengal is on the cards.
China has been busy courting the Indian Ocean island nations including Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India, as an Indian Ocean power, has been making efforts to strengthen its naval reach in the Indian Ocean through security cooperation with its traditional friends in the region. India had focused on Indian Ocean security for many years through negotiating defence and maritime agreements but has also ventured into building port and naval infrastructure as well. In 2015, India signed two agreements during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mauritius and Seychelles for constructing two military bases in Agalega island in Mauritius and Assumption island in Seychelles. India signed an agreement with Oman for naval access to Duqm, the Arabian Sea port that lies across from Pakistan’s Gwadar port and Iran’s Chabahar port. India is also considering building port infrastructure and a special economic zone at the deep-sea port of Sabang in Indonesia’s Aceh province just off the Malacca Straits.
All these projects would allow India to maintain a strong presence right across the Indian Ocean, along the main shipping routes. Both Mauritius and Seychelles are long-standing allies, with whom New Delhi has excellent relations, but India’s Indian Ocean plan has run into headwinds, with both projects arousing strong opposition from the local population.
India was to upgrade the airstrip and the jetty and build facilities on Assumption Island for joint operation of the base by India and the Seychelles Coast Guard. But the project drew strong criticism from the opposition parties in Seychelles, who charged that the agreement infringed Seychelles sovereignty. Opposition parties, peace activists and environmentalist groups joined hands to hold weekly protests in Victoria, the capital of Seychelles. The agreement was renegotiated twice; the first time when there was a change in government and the second time to rework some clauses before the agreement was sent to the National Assembly for ratification. But less than two weeks before Seychelles President Danny Faures’ visit to India, he stated that the Assumption island project would not move ahead.
In Mauritius, the opposition to the military base built up among the local residents of the island who feared displacement from their homes. The protests struck a chord in Mauritius because it is still contesting the American base at Deigo Garcia in the Chagos archipelago. The Chagos islanders were evicted and dumped in Port Louis when the British leased the islands to the United States to build the Diego Garcia base.
Aside from the troubles in Seychelles and Mauritius, India’s ties with the Maldives, another Indian Ocean island with whom India has close defence cooperation, have touched a new low. Political developments in Male, the capital of Maldives have strained the bilateral relations even as President Abdulla Yameen’s government has turned to China for greater cooperation. Bilateral relations deteriorated after India sharply criticised the imposition of an emergency by the Maldives government in February after senior opposition leaders, including former president Maumoon Gayoom were arrested. The Yameen government asked New Delhi to take back the second helicopter gifted to Maldives. Since then, Maldives declined the Indian invitation to attend biennial Milan naval exercises. It then asked New Delhi to withdraw its naval helicopters from Laamu island and did not extend work permits for the pilots and technicians.
India deported on arrival a senior Maldivian member of Parliament, Ahmed Nahin, who heads the ruling Progressive Party’s parliamentary wing. The Maldives government hit back by holding up work visas for Indian citizens; job vacancies were not open for Indian applicants. Maldives lost the election for the Asian seat in the UN Security Council to Indonesia amidst speculation that India reneged on assurances of support to Maldives.
The difficulties New Delhi is facing with the three traditionally friendly countries would indicate that India requires more cohesive policies and more careful implementation to make a success of its outreach in the Indian Ocean.