Indian PM Narendra Modi is traveling around the Indian Ocean on a diplomatic mission to win favor with some of the smaller nations of the region. The FT reports:
Narendra Modi is due to arrive in Mauritius on Tuesday at the start of visits to three Indian Ocean island nations, as part of a charm offensive aimed at repairing long-neglected regional alliances and grappling with China’s rising influence in India’s backyard.The Indian prime minister’s five-day trip, which will include stops in the Seychelles and Sri Lanka this week, marks his latest attempt to craft a more muscular foreign policy since taking power last May, notably by offering greater financial and military aid to smaller neighbours.
The stakes here are high because the island nations of the Indian Ocean have another suitor, China. Beijing is already hard at work trying to establish itself as the dominant player in the region, the FT continues:
China’s growing clout around South Asia has vexed New Delhi over recent years, with Beijing providing billions of dollars to fund prominent infrastructure projects around the region and winning plenty of political goodwill along the way.But Indian security analysts acknowledge their country is partially at fault for its shrinking influence in countries such as Sri Lanka, where Mr Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to visit in nearly three decades.“A lot of blame falls on India’s shoulders for not paying attention to its own neighbourhood,” says Brahma Chellaney, of the Centre for Policy Research think-tank in New Delhi. “It isn’t a surprise that China took advantage of India’s weakness.”
China is trying to establish a “string of pearls” (that is, a chain of friendly military bases at which it can refuel and resupply, thereby projecting power further from home) throughout the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. It would also like to ensure the security of its own trade routes with the rest of the world by itself, instead of relying on U.S. naval power to keep the seas safe. To do so, however, it must win and keep the favor of small neighbors who are wary of its large ambitions—as we’ve written, a string of pearls, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. That’s why China will be eyeing Modi’s Indian Ocean charm offensive nervously.India, like China’s neighbors in the South China Sea, relies on and thrives under the current global system of trade whose safety is underwritten by America’s naval power. Beijing can also thrive under the present set-up, and it is in America’s best interest that China does better rather than worse so long as it acts within that world order—thus staying as dependent upon it as possible. But China seeks to undo U.S. naval supremacy in the Pacific precisely because Beijing hopes to overturn that order eventually.Whether India wins the day in the Indian Ocean will have major repercussions for Beijing’s revisionist agenda. This is a courtship dance to watch closely.