Higher levels of cooperation would result in a significant increase in soft power internationally
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka on June 8-9 with the aim to strengthen the 'Neighbourhood First' policy. This policy is an integral plank of India's foreign policy strategy to improve ties with immediate neighbours in South Asia; countries including Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Strong relations with Sri Lanka and the Maldives are not the only reasons why PM Modi is making his visit. The two countries are critical to India's long term maritime strategy. Here's how.
A bit of vital history first. India-Sri Lanka relations degraded over the years due to China's influence in Sri Lanka along with a civil war in the northern part of the country which is Tamil dominated. In order to re-invigorate stronger ties and to overcome tensions from Tamil Nadu political parties, PM Modi sent an invite to the Sri Lankan president for his inauguration. India is most concerned with heavy Chinese investment and military presence in Sri Lanka. The island country is very strategically situated on the Indian Ocean with a full-frontal view of the South Indian coastline - just what pesky neighbour China wants. In fact, in 2014, a Chinese submarine with nuclear capability docked in Colombo. Although China claimed that the submarine was there solely for re-fuelling and crew refreshment, India was unsurprisingly displeased.
In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election in Sri Lanka. PM Modi was strategically the first leader to call and congratulate him. Why is this important? The new president marked a regime change where Sri Lanka would reduce the island's slant towards China. This was because Sirisena had earlier presented foreign policy in favour of strengthening relations with India. This came into fruition in 2015 when the two countries signed a civil nuclear agreement in New Delhi. Inevitably, this sent a loud and clear message to China. Furthermore, Sirisena and Modi signed other agreements which drove the message home; and one involved a cooperative maritime pact between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Continued strong relations are required with Sri Lanka for several key reasons. Strengthening relations with the island country is critical on a security front. Despite solidifying ties with India, Sri Lanka agreed to let China develop a billion dollar port city in Colombo. This potentially destabilises India's security. Further-improved relations with Sri Lanka will also allow India to harness its hard power maritime capabilities over the next five years (ships, aircraft, submarines). Additionally, with strong relations, India can also update maritime operational technology over the next five years with Artificial Intelligence and big data analytics (the future of warfare). A cooperative and strong partnership with Sri Lanka will expand both India's naval presence and regional maritime strategy.
The Maldives is also an Indian Ocean country. In the past, Modi has come to the Maldives' aid in the wake of their drinking water crisis in Male (2014) which helped strengthen bilateral ties significantly. Both India and Maldives are members of the South Asian Economic Union and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Furthermore, they are also parties to the South Asia Free Trade Agreement.
India is most interested in the Maldives because of its geopolitical location. With its Eight Degree Channel, Maldives carries one of the major maritime lanes on planet earth. A substantial amount of world trade happens through this lane; for example, energy supplies from Gulf Nations pass through this area. Maldives is thus a key country vital to peace in the Indian Ocean. Over the next five years, Maldives will provide numerous policies that will benefit India's blue economy. PM Modi will undoubtedly focus on key development projects, in particular, hydro-power and renewable energy. And as for maritime security, Modi will focus on working with the Maldives on trans-national crimes and terrorism.
Besides building international relations with our oceanic partners, PM Modi must also take additional steps to establish both a beneficial maritime strategy and long-lasting alliances. First, he must take advantage of India's coastlines and ocean to kick-start a strong domestic blue economy (wind power, solar power, hydro-power, etc). This will help stabilise the economy and also create massive employment. Additionally, the environmentalist in all of us would love an India powered by renewable energy.
Second, PM Modi must quickly aid the Navy to meet the goals of the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) without letting delays and bureaucracy get in the way. Part of the plan involves completing a 200-ship fleet by 2027 along with helicopters, torpedoes and submarines. A completed fleet will help guard the interests and assets of the nation. More importantly, India will gain considerable hard power capital on the global stage.
Finally, India must focus on making its SAGAR scheme robust. SAGAR, or 'Security and Growth for All in the Region', is a maritime initiative coined by PM Modi in 2015. SAGAR aims to ensure stability, peace and prosperity for India and also creates a 'climate of trust and transparency' with regional nations. If PM Modi establishes SAGAR as a major ocean strategy, overall foreign policy can be greatly propelled with increased maritime cooperation. Higher levels of cooperation would result in a significant increase in soft power internationally. New India would be an entity that anybody would think twice before reckoning with.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)