Indian Ocean Outreach

Cover Story

While most analysts and media tended to project Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to three island nations – Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius – as part of a charm offensive focussed at veering them away from China’s influence and to counter its purported ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the region, the fact is that Modi’s visit only highlighted an on-going multi-dimensional effort that has been in progress for long. The recent visit also heralded the underpinnings of India’s readiness to assume greater responsibility and leadership of the region, writes Dr P K Ghosh

India has stepped up its efforts in enhancing its relations in general, and on maritime security in particular, with its island neighbours in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This was particularly evident with the recent March 2015 visit of the Indian PM Narendra Modi to three island nations – Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius – a region long considered India’s strategic backyard but an area where New Delhi’s influence has been eroding slowly but steadily. While most analysts and media tended to project this as a part of a charm offensive focussed at veering them away from China’s influence and to counter its purported ‘string of pearls’ strategy in the region, the fact is that Modi’s visit only highlighted an on-going multi-dimensional effort that has been in progress for a long time. The recent visit also heralded the underpinnings of India’s readiness to assume greater responsibility and leadership of the region. Additionally, at the subterraneous level, it was clearly to negate the growing strategic influence of the Chinese. However, on the ground, it was a continuation of a series of works that had commenced with a series of NSA’s meetings earlier.

With the current focus of India’s aspirations aimed at playing the role of a net security provider for the IOR, cooperative approaches have naturally assumed salience. At the heart of this new initiative is to build a multilateral maritime arrangement with Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives. As Prime Minister Modi recently said in Mauritius, “We call this Indian Ocean outreach as ‘SAGAR’. We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region.” 1

The series of National Security Advisors level meetings that were conducted did not involve all the islands together. The main agenda at these meetings was to create closer functional operatives on maritime security while India would assist in capacity build-up. The focus of the current efforts are to bring these countries within a common grid of a multilateral maritime security framework thus reiterating India’s new policy of neighbours first – at least to the neighbouring countries themselves.

Security Relations with Sri Lanka

Modi's trip to Sri Lanka was the first in 28 years by an Indian Prime Minister and it came at a time when China’s growing presence in Sri Lanka had suffered a setback with the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Sirisena government has made its desire public to correct Rajapaksa’s tilt towards China and has already made some significant overtures towards India. The new President visited India as his first trip abroad, which resulted in a civil nuclear energy cooperation pact. In a move that risks diplomatic row with is largest trading partner, Sri Lanka has suspended a $1.5 billion Chinese luxury real estate project in Colombo.

Having overcome the baggage of history, it needs to be mentioned that the two armed forces of India and Sri Lanka support a close service to service relationship. Training exchanges at differing levels of seniority are common. Military intelligence sharing has continued since earlier times when on several occasions such information helped the Sri Lankan Navy intercept arms shipments to the LTTE.

At the defence cooperation level, one of the biggest unfinished agendas of the bilateral relations has been the absence of a formal Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA), even though it has been in discussion since 2003. Domestic compulsions on either side have prevented the final signing of the DCA.2 The lack of a formal defence agreement has not however stymied the level of cooperation between the two countries. Despite a political controversy that erupted in Tamil Nadu in 2013, India continues to train Sri Lankan personnel and officers.3 New Delhi and Colombo also commenced a formal Annual Defence Dialogue (ADD) in February 2012. Even though India has steadfastly maintained its public posturing about not supplying offensive military hardware to Sri Lanka, it has quietly decided to extend a $100 million credit line to Colombo for purchase of non-lethal weapons.4 In fact since 2000, India has supplied 24 L-70 anti-aircraft guns, 11 USFM radars, 10 Mine Protected Vehicles and 24 Battlefield Surveillance Radars to Sri Lanka.

India-Mauritius Defence Relations

India and Mauritius have long maintained extensive and close cooperation in areas of defence. As per the Indian High Commission in Mauritius, under the Indian Technical and Economic Co-operation ITEC-II programme, about 45-50 personnel from the Mauritian Police Force are trained annually in Indian defence training establishments. India has been deputing a Diving and a Marine Commando (MARCOS) training team to Mauritius for training commandoes and divers of the Mauritius Police Force regularly from 2008.

At the request of the Government of Mauritius, Indian naval ships also regularly undertake surveillance and joint patrolling of the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Mauritius with a view to provide deterrence against on-going piracy and illegal fishing activities in the region. In 2009, the Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv was delivered to Mauritius mainly for such purposes.

In September 2013, India commenced the installation of a Coastal Surveillance Radar System (CSRS) in Mauritius, to provide coverage of areas that remain difficult to monitor. The system was financed by a €2.46 million grant and the effort is to link the network dove-tailing it to the Indian network.

Against this background, the recent visit by Prime Minister Modi produced a new security cooperation agreement as part of India’s renewed Indian Ocean outreach programme. Modi and the Mauritian Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth signed five agreements, of which the relevant one focussed on opening up the “ocean economy”, or “blue economy”, while another was a strategically relevant key memorandum of understanding entailing India taking over responsibility to build transport infrastructure for the Agalega Islands. It was also stated that the Indian Navy will be working closely with the Mauritius Defence Forces guarding the outer islands. Apart from these, India has also extended a $500-million Line of Credit for development or security projects that Mauritius will decide at a later stage.

The highlight of the PM’s visit included the commissioning of a 1,300-tonne, Indian-built coastal patrol vessel, MCGS Barracuda. The ship showcased India’s commitment to maritime security, along the African coast and also the government’s “Make in India” programme. The construction of the $58 million OPV was funded partly by an EXIM Bank line of credit ($48.5 million) and partly by a grant ($10 million).

NSA Meetings: Laying the Roadmap for Future Security Cooperation

The earlier NSA-level meetings, of which there were three so far, were significant in that they set in process the security partnership agenda reiterated by the PM’s current visit. The specific topics included focussing on enhancing cooperation on key technical issues like Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through the provision of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) services and assistance in Automatic Identification System (AIS). With India having considerable expertise in this field post Mumbai blasts, assistance in these fields would enhance the capacity of the littorals.

These meetings had chalked out the entire roadmap for future security cooperation outlining the following aspects, which will be probably extended to other island nations as well:

a. The facility of the Indian Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) Data Centre to be used by Sri Lanka and Maldives in order to monitor and track merchant vessels flying their flags. In turn Sri Lanka and Maldives are to provide required details of their merchant ships as per International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations;

b. The Merchant Ship Information System (MSIS) be utilised for exchange of unclassified information on shipping;

c. Sharing Automatic Identification System (AIS) data in a trilateral format over the MSIS platform;

d. Undertaking MDA training in India;

e. Strengthening maritime linkages in the field of SAR through operations, providing expertise and technical assistance by India in setting up Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) in Sri Lanka and Maldives, coordination in relaying and receiving distress alerts and safety messages and conduct of SAR training in India;

f. Strengthening mechanisms for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance and providing additional support and assets on a case by case basis;

g. Maintaining lines of communication on illegal maritime activities between identified Points of Contact and exchanging messages on a regular basis;

h. Strengthening marine pollution response cooperation through conduct of IMO Level I and Level II courses in India, formulating contingency plans for pollution response, capacity building, and participating in India’s National Pollution Response Exercise (NATPOLREX), as observers;

i. Strengthening the biennial trilateral exercise ‘DOSTI’ by conducting table top exercises and seminars on maritime issues in every alternate year;

j. Passing Tsunami warnings simultaneously to agreed Points of Contact and also to the designated National Tsunami Warning Centres; and,

k. Setting up a trilateral sub-group focused on legal and policy issues related to piracy.

Beyond Multilateralism

Shedding the isolationistic mindset that was prominent during the Cold War era, the current Indian efforts at creating a maritime security grid and following a ‘Neighbours First’ agenda is unique in many ways and has found reiteration by the current Modi government.

Given the large Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of these island nations in sharp comparison to their respective maritime capacities, a symbiotic security arrangement seems mutually beneficial to both the nations as well as to India. Apart from this, India is seen as a benign power ready to assist lesser capable states in capacity building, in contrast to the perception of the rise of a hegemonic China. Hence, it might be easier for the littorals to readily join the bandwagon willingly rather than be swayed by Chinese inducements.

Simultaneously, at the subterraneous level, the arrangement will partly constrain the growing influence of China and Pakistan in regional dynamics. Most importantly, the arrangement will provide India with the option to utilise and foster forward bases (notional or real) in the entire region, if the need arises. Thus, it will enable India to retain moral high ground against military forward basing in the oceans, while, at the same time, providing it with the ability to assess the farthest regions with technological means without the overwhelming physical presence of its military troops in the area.

The NSA level meetings reiterated the cooperative approaches and provided the foundation for this security arrangement to function, which, in many ways, has been carried forward by the current visit of the PM.

Agreeably, there is another major Indian maritime security initiative known as the IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) founded in 2008 and currently with a 35 nation membership that aims at bringing the IOR littoral navies together for active discussions on matters of common maritime interest. This regional forum of navies is decidedly naval in its outlook and its focussed viewpoint is unlikely to replace the current approach that supports a more holistic overview of security cooperation. Instead, it is expected that the IONS and various bilateral and multi-lateral exercises like MILAN will supplement these cooperative efforts rather than duplicate it. At the strategic level, all these efforts reiterate India’s position as a net security provider while ensuring that India retains strategic leverages against adversarial powers keen to increase their influence in the region.

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Dr P K Ghosh

Dr P K Ghosh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He was the lead Co-Chair of the CSCAP International Study Group on Maritime Security (Naval Enhancement in Asia Pacific) and the coordinator of IONS from NMF.

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    1 As stated by Foreign Minster External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the inauguration of An International Conference on “India and Indian Ocean: Renewing the Maritime Trade and Civilisational linkages

    2 Nitin Gokhale “ Army Chief Visits Colombo to Further Indo Sri Lanka ties” 19 Dec 2012 available at

    3 India Sri Lanka Defence Cooperation available at

    4 Ibid

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