India’s concern about China’s attempt, to change maritime dynamics in the Indian Ocean and planned maritime silk route that will crisscross upto Europe, is sinking deep in the strategic planners’ bone. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the issue at the UN in a subtle but determined manner when he said, “an integrating Asia-Pacific region is still concerned about maritime security that is fundamental to its future.” Also, it was the priority area where Prime Minister Modi and President Barack Obama dwelled a long time in discussing the planned Chinese move during the Indian Prime Minister’s five-day US visit.
It was then left to Ajit Doval, the National Security Adviser, who is said to have held a series of meetings with US authorities to discuss ISIS problem, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and China’s planned maritime silk route issues – indicating clearly that India is serious about planned strategic challenge that it is going to face from China in the Indian Ocean. Although, New Delhi began seeing change in the Chinese attitude towards the Indian Ocean from the day, the latter started building new ports at Pakistan’s Gwadar, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu.
Getting wind of China’s new strategy
But India got really suspicious of Beijing’s move when the then Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Seychelles, an Indian Ocean nation in 2003 and Mauritius, yet another Indian Ocean country in 2013. This suspicion got further confirmed when Chinese President Xi Jinping made trips to Maldives and Sri Lanka before arriving in India on September 17. Indian officials feel that Beijing’s planned ‘Silk Route’ that will connect China to Europe, is nothing but a trick to position Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean, through which more than 80 per cent shipments cross.
This is the reason why the government, casting off its lassitude, has pushed for ‘Project Mausam’, a transnational project that will help India revive its ancient maritime routes along the Indian Ocean. Wrapped in two-dimensional package filled with strategic and cultural fundamentals, the project is being given a shape in close coordination with the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Culture. Starting with the Indian subcontinent, it will take into account Southeast Asian region, the Arabian Peninsula and East African nations.
Already New Delhi’s diplomatic relations with countries falling in Indian Ocean are very good. But thrust now is being made to revive cultural ties before process of developing strategic engagements with them starts. In that view, it wants to deepen cultural footprints in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and of course with Myanmar, the country where India-led Kaladan Transport Project that will be connected with Sitwe Port, is on the verge of completion. Developed by Essar group, the multi-million project will serve economic as well as strategic interests of India.
India ready to explore new contours
With Southeast Asia, India once enjoyed abiding cultural and historical linkages through Buddhism and Hinduism. Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were ethos of South Asia. These were the crux on which foundation of ‘Look East’ was laid in 1991, yet bond between India and nations of Southeast Asia is limited largely to economic periphery. Strategic association, if any is there with these Southeast Asian nations, they are confined within the architecture of the 1993 established Asean Regional Forum (ARF) where maritime security is one of the dominant issues. However, New Delhi is ready to add new contour to its relations with each of these Southeast Asian nations.
And, it is by building a mix of cultural and strategic infrastructure with each country of the region. In this regard, a brief has already been given to Indian ambassadors posted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar. But plans are afoot to vigorously pursue the issue, since China has started aggressively wooing the Indian Ocean countries by giving them huge money for their infrastructure and other non-military programme. Sources say even as India lacks China’s money power, it has unalloyed goodwill across the countries that border China.
Paying China back in the same coin
In that background, while through ‘Project Mausam’ New Delhi seeks cultural and business bonding with nations lying along the Indian Ocean, it is also taking help from like-minded nations such as the US, Japan and Thailand to accelerate infrastructure connectivity. Plans are also afoot to regularly hold joint naval exercises with all littoral states. Given this, bandwidth of Malabar series of India-US exercise is being increased to accommodate Japan, Singapore, Australia and Vietnam. Yet, as South Block officials hint, New Delhi is relooking its decision to remain away from America’s controversial “Asia pivot” strategy. The Indo-US joint statement issued during Modi’s America visit takes this issue on board when it said, “(Indian-American) leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia-Pacific countries through consultations, dialogue and joint exercises.”
A major turnaround in India’s strategic consideration, it saw Modi government giving China a run for its money when for the first time, a joint statement issued after bilateral talks between India and America expressed concern about “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” in South China Sea. It was for the first time specific reference to the South China Sea was made in an India-US joint statement. Like a wounded dragon, China roared, “our position is that the dispute in the South China Sea should be resolved by countries directly concerned through negotiation and consultation, and any third party should not be involved in the dispute.”
In fact, New Delhi doesn’t want to take any chance vis-à-vis China; it wants to pay China in the same coin. Keen to increase the level of engagement, including giving them space to augment their investments in India, yet there would be no more reticence on New Delhi’s part when Beijing hits Indian interests hard. The expected visit of high ranking officials to Perth to discuss about maritime development in the Indian Ocean area and the Pacific, hints clearly that New Delhi has no reason to put under carpet emerging scenario in South and Southeast Asia.