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BW Businessworld

Anchor, With Prudence

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean visit has already inspired dramatic headlines, and generated acres of commentary. One news portal even proclaimed, “China out, Modi ensures ‘Indian Ocean is India’s Ocean’.” Media excitement about Modi’s visits to the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka is understandable, coming as it does after decades of Indian indifference to its own backyard, but one should not lose perspective. Modi’s initiative is indeed a first and long overdue push-back against the notion of China’s inexorable ascendancy in the Indian Ocean, but New Delhi is a long way from countering Beijing’s growing economic and military clout. Policy-makers in South Block would do well to remember that if they act in haste to gain a foothold in the island nations, this could provoke a reaction that would increase China’s attraction as a counter-balance.

Indeed, it was China’s overreach in Sri Lanka that has now given India an opportunity to redress its past neglect. During the years when India was consumed by domestic politics and its land borders, China made significant headway in forging ties with Colombo. Of course, Sri Lanka’s international isolation gave China a free hand and enabled it to finance the $306-million port of Hambantota, to which it secured a 35-year lease of more than half its container berths. In a similar vein, Chinese submarines and naval vessels recently berthed at the South Container Terminal in Colombo Port, which is operated by a Chinese company. Likewise, the $1.4-billion Beijing-funded Colombo Port City Project includes provisions whereby more than one-third of the land would have gone to China on a 99-year lease, even though Sri Lankan law prohibits foreign companies from owning real estate.

Suspicions of massive corruption surrounding these projects were an important factor in the defeat of incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was viewed as being in China’s pocket. In contrast, the newly elected government of Maithripala Sirisena has suspended the Port City project and launched an investigation into potential wrongdoing by the previous administration. The government has also expressed its desire to rebalance its relations with China, thus giving India an opening to regain lost ground. But Sri Lanka faces a considerable debt burden with China and 60 per cent of its military hardware is of Chinese origin. New Delhi can neither match Beijing’s deep pockets nor its appeal as a potential counter-balance to a large and occasionally meddlesome neighbour. Sri Lanka has a long and proud history of non-alignment, to which India should be sensitive in its dealings with the new leadership team in Colombo.

Modi is right, as he did in Mauritius, to express pride in the accomplishments of Indian immigrants and recall the “powerful links of heart that have endured time and distance”. But there is always a danger of over-emphasising ethnic and historical linkages and provoking backlash among young and globalised nations. The danger may be greater when a foreign country is viewed as domineering, as it happened to China in Sri Lanka. India has taken responsibility of infrastructure building in two islands — in Mauritius and Seychelles. How the projects are run would be scrutinised by the people and India should remember that Chinese use of their own labour in projects like those in Sri Lanka bred local discontent.

China’s aggressive promotion of its claims in the South China Sea and its growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean have made small nations wary and make favourable overtures towards India. New Delhi’s offer of help in protecting its exclusive economic zone would have to be accompanied by restraining Indian vessels from illegal fishing. The new Sri Lanka government’s threat to shoot Indian fishermen in their waters is a reminder of the sensitivities India needs to bear in mind. The countries of the Indian Ocean were indeed warm to Modi, but their goodwill will last if his government remembers that the ocean is not actually India’s.
The author is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by  the MacMillan Center, Yale University
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 06-04-2015)