In 2009, around a year after China Merchant Port started construction of the strategic Hambantota Port on the crucial Malacca Straits-Persian Gulf trade route, a former foreign secretary of India dismissed the view that Beijing was trying to encircle India through military bases in the Indian Ocean, famously saying that a “string of pearls” was a “pretty ineffective murder weapon”.
That may be the case, but the Chinese used the string of pearls to effectively choke Indian foreign policy in the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. This was a region where India was once the pre-eminent power.
The rise of Maoists in Nepal, which India itself facilitated, the ascent to power of a pro-Chinese regime in the Maldives in 2012, the massive Chinese investment in Sri Lankan infrastructure through high-interest loans, and the dalliance between the Bangladesh army and radical parties in the country with Beijing before 2014, all sent a message that India was willing to adjust to a growing Chinese presence in the Indian sub-continent and, indeed, live with it.
When Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi took over in May 2014, he came up with the “Neighbourhood First” policy and then expanded it to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by enunciating the “Security and Growth for all in the Region” (SAGAR) policy at Port Louis in Mauritius on March 12, 2015, while commissioning Kora class corvette Barracuda, the first India-made warship to be exported.
Since then, the Modi government has tried to regain India’s space in the subcontinent and the IOR by enhancing the security of the region, holding the hands of countries and regimes in trouble, usually economically, and adopting a non-reciprocal and non-intrusive diplomatic mindset.
That India’s interests in the Indian Ocean and beyond are a priority is evident from the fact that last year, the charge of handling Australia, a maritime neighbour, and a strategic ally, was given to the foreign secretary and, more recently, the charge of handling two other very close allies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel, were brought under the purview of the top civil servant in the ministry of external affairs. A number of India’s envoys to the neighbourhood, including the IOR, have the experience of working in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) — the envoys to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the UAE, and Israel are cases in point.
Despite India being seriously hit by Covid-19 infections over the past two years, the president, the PM, external affairs minister, national security adviser (NSA) and foreign secretary, all travelled to Bangladesh last year. Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar, and NSA Ajit Doval have travelled to the Maldives at least thrice, and a couple of times to all countries in the neighbourhood and the IOR. While Doval has been in constant touch with countries such as the UAE, Israel, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Mauritius on handling religious radicalisation, Jaishankar handed over the elaborate coastal radar system to the Maldives on March 27.
And, rather than extract a pound of flesh from a neighbour hit by high debt and rampaging inflation, India has provided economically hit Sri Lanka with nearly $2.5 billion support between January and March. While the total Indian development portfolio in Sri Lanka is more than $5 billion out of which $570 million is an outright grant, India has also extended a $400 million swap facility, deferred loans of $515 million, and offered $500 million line of credit for fuel and a $1 billion credit facility for procurement of food and essential items. Since January, Indian Oil Corp has sold 40,000 metric tonnes of fuel on credit to the cash-strapped island nation.
In the Maldives, India’s development partnership ranges upwards of $2.6 billion in grants, concessional loans, budgetary support, capacity building and training assistance. This includes the $500 million Greater Male Connectivity Project, four lines of credit worth $800 million, buyer’s credit of $240 million and financial support including budgetary support of $800 million.
In Mauritius, India helped build the new Supreme Court and is involved in the country’s iconic Metro Express project and the construction of a new ENT hospital. In January, Modi and Mauritius PM, Pravind Jugnath, inaugurated a social housing project and launched the construction of a Civil Services College and an 8MW photovoltaic cell farm project.
Given its proximity to India and Modi’s close relationship with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, New Delhi has given developmental assistance to the tune of $8 billion to Dhaka to promote larger connectivity through land and sea.
Nepal has proved trickier because the country’s political leaders have, time and again, played New Delhi against Beijing to get double the benefit. Rather than acting as a big brother and dictating terms to Kathmandu, India has simply ensured round the clock power to Nepal as well as fuel through a dedicated pipeline. Since 2014-2015, India has given ₹5155.27 crore of aid to Kathmandu despite Nepal becoming increasingly subservient to Chinese diktats.
India’s support to the neighbourhood and IOR is not only through developmental assistance but also taken the form of providing Covid-19 vaccines and humanitarian support to the entire region.
It has taken time, but India is now closer to its once pre-eminent position in the IOR than it has ever been in the past two decades. It helps that many Asian and Southeast Asian nations, and also the West, are concerned about Beijing’s growing footprint in the region — through trade, military bases, and infrastructure projects (funded through debt that usually comes back to bite as Sri Lanka discovered).
With India looking at its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific with its Quad partners as well as key allies such as France, the UAE, and Israel, a new chapter has been added with New Delhi trying to forge close cooperation with Indonesia. The visit of NSA Ajit Doval to Indonesia on March 17 for the second security dialogue was to engage Djakarta in mutual security and cooperation as all the ingress routes to the South China Sea are under its jurisdiction. While Indonesia wants to maintain a balance between India and China, the dramatic economic fall of Sri Lanka (and the growing tenor of protests against the regime there) has made it evident to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries that fence-sitting is no longer an option in the present global turmoil. But India, as the signs show, is back in the game.
The views expressed are personal