INS Kesari returned to India on 28June, 2020 after travelling 7,500 nautical miles over 55 days for ‘Mission Sagar’. Mission Sagar was launched on 10 May, 2020 to provide Covid-19 related assistance to the island nations of Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles. While on the mission, INS Kesari delivered essential food items, medicines, Ayurvedic medicines and also deployed Medical Assistance Teams (MAT) to Mauritius and Comoros.
During the Covid-19 emergency, the Indian Ocean island nations were adversely affected due to their main source of economy- tourism, falling flat. Two of the Indian Ocean Island Nations, Maldives and Seychelles are within the top five countries whose GDP is dependent on tourism and travel, being 32.5% and 26.4%, respectively and the rest of the nations are in double digits. These islands, already facing the brunt of climate change-rising sea levels, had to face this new unprecedented reality. The growth outlook according to United Nations Economic Commission for Africa reflects the same concern- fall of 1.2%, 6.8% and 10.8% for Comoros, Mauritius and Seychelles respectively, while Madagascar showing marginal growth of 0.4%.
During such a tumultuous and unexpected crisis, Mission Sagar was much needed. Helping the Indian Ocean Island Nations and developing positive relations with them is strategically significant for India. Indian Ocean carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments, making it the most important sea route. Also, the Indian Ocean Island countries form the part of Indian Ocean Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Sea lines of communication are very important for state’s economy and region’s economic health. They are very important for commercial trade routes and also for military movements.
This importance of Indian Ocean SLOCs has also been recognized by other powers like China, giving higher importance to India’s maritime security. China has been increasing its hegemony in the Indian Ocean region by increasing maritime Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and increasing presence of PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) in Indian Ocean. Although historic references to silk routes have been given, no Chinese ships controlled the Indian Ocean routes since the Chinese explorer Zhang He sailed in the 15th century, embarking on seven voyages.
Also, while increasing presence of Chinese naval ships in the Indian Ocean, China has also been using sophisticated technology like Unmaned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) in the Indian Ocean. The UUVs, apart from being used for science can also be used for tracking submarines and destroying mines. In addition, Chinese research vessel, the Shiyan-1 was operating in waters inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Andaman Islands and China informed India that Type 093 nuclear-powered submarines would patrol Indian Ocean.
Looking at such economic and strategic importance of Indian Ocean islands as also recognized by other nations, SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) was launched by India in 2015. The main purpose for SAGAR was tackling regional issues like providing humanitarian help to maritime neighbors and counter non-state actors like pirates in the Indian Ocean. 2004 tsunami, repeated earthquakes, threat of rising sea water, water crisis of Maldives and Indian help that followed shows the importance of this initiative. The overall objective for India is to gain legitimacy as the sole regional power in the Indian Ocean with the capability of providing humanitarian relief and security to the entire region. The Sagar Initiative, launched in 2015, works in tandem with Act East Policy, Project Sagarmala and Project Mausam.
Keeping in line with the overall initiative of 2015, India extended help to the Indian Ocean littoral states, right from evacuation from Wuhan, China due to Coronavirus. Those evacuated, included compassionate cases from Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, South Africa, and Madagascar. Then, the compassionate cases were also put into quarantine in India, before sending them to their respective countries, giving credibility to India, as a responsible power.
In Mission Sagar, India became the first responder to Mauritius and Seychelles by sending a consignment of life-saving drugs including hydroxychloroquine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also gave full assurance to these countries, of Indian help. Such help on top of 2018 agreement with Seychelles to jointly develop a naval base on Assumption Island must have definitely created a new bond between the two countries.
On the other hand, China supplied epidemic prevention materials to Maldives right at the beginning. In light of the pro-Indian government at Male after so many years, India could’ve become the first responder to Maldives, a South Asian state. However, the debt-trap diplomacy of China has strained relations between Maldives and China, giving India ample space and opportunity to build stronger relations. However, such opportunities are more dependent on miscalculations by the other side, rather than strategic diplomatic acts from ours. India must be wary that Indian Ocean is the most important route for world trade with Malacca Strait, Johore Strait and Suez Canal being the busiest trading routes. Other nations will try and increase their influence in the region. The Russia-Iran-China naval exercise in 2019 in the Indian Ocean is evidence of this very threat. This exercise started from Chabahar, a port constructed by India.
As the Western Indian Ocean is at the crossroads of East Africa, Gulf and South Asia, along with the access to Suez Canal, it becomes a fight for hegemony between the Gulf powers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Qatar and also Turkey. With rising economic and military prowess of Gulf nations, they are becoming a new challenge for India in the extremely critical region of entrance to the Indian Ocean’s Sea Lines of Communication- the choke points of Bab el-Mandeb and Eritrea.
Gulf countries are investing heavily in port infrastructure and military bases. The UAE was making a military base in Berbera, Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region, but now it will be converted into a civilian airport. They already have a permanent base in Assab, Eritria. The purpose of both these bases is to control Bab el-Mandeb, the entrance to Western Indian Ocean. The way Gulf countries are expanding port infrastructure and vying military bases, they want to control the choke points to the Indian Ocean like Bab el-Mandeb.
Although India has good relations with the Emirates and is developing positive relations with others Gulf states, China is becoming a challenge. They are able to provide the most important resource to the Gulf states- investments and infrastructure. China-Oman Industrial park in al-Duqm, Saudi Industrial complex of Yanbu are invested by China. Chinese investments in Gulf ports and economic development will only increase because the Western Indian Ocean is the link to Europe, critical for the One Belt One Road Initiative. China has also managed to get a naval base in Djibouti and flexes its muscle time and again with advanced technology like UUVs and naval ships. Thus, China stands in a position to change the priorities of the Gulf states by helping them increase their interests in this energy rich region and get to hold Sea Lines of Communication by its neck, checkmating India.
While Mission Sagar and the overall Sagar Initiative aims to develop economic and security cooperation with maritime neighbors, the importance of these critical straits of Bab el-Mandeb and Persian Gulf, should not be forgotten. Indian investments into the port projects should increase. Indian relations with Gulf countries have improved and this should be built upon. This added to geographic closeness, organisations like Indian Ocean Rim Association and shared common history should be leveraged to increase Indian participation in infrastructure development through examples like Chabahar and humanitarian relief like Mission Sagar. Having the entire Sea Lines of Communication under control except the neck will turn out to be useless.
Covid-19 gave an important opportunity to India to extend its relations with the Indian Ocean Island Nations and through Mission Sagar, the concept of SAGAR Initiative of 2015 got strengthened. With the amount of lives saved, capacity build and equipment supplied, Mission Sagar became an important milestone in the relations. The recent acceptance of India into the Indian Ocean Commission, as an observer state, in the presence of China, shows that India has gone a long way since the launch of SAGAR in 2015. Through Indian Ocean Commission observer status, India can have a say in another choke point of Indian Ocean-the Mozambique channel. Mission Sagar can be extended to the Gulf countries and Indian Ocean stakeholder states to increase Indian legitimacy and build a positive image.
However, India should also be wary that it was the 5th member to be accepted as an Observer state while China was already present. Also, India, in order to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean Island Nations, needs to start building infrastructure, conduct military exercises and invest with the stakeholder countries to become a major player at the neck of Indian Ocean Sea Lines of Communication- the Bab el-Mandeb and Eritrea.
Nikunj Singh is a Research Intern at ORFThe views expressed above belong to the author(s).