India's Foreign Policy: Making Waves in the Indian Ocean?


Diplomacy is an art and world leaders, who handle it properly, are remembered for a longer period. As far as the Indian politics is concerned, first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had a fair knowledge of diplomacy and he was able to give India’s foreign policy a new direction. After him, (perhaps) Narendra Modi is the leader who has generated an interest and debate on India’s foreign policy directions.

The Indian premier is trying hard to manage superpowers on a regular basis, albeit regionally. After becoming the prime minister in May 2014, Modi invited all leaders of SAARC member countries for his swearing-in ceremony, thus, sending a strong signal that he was fully prepared to deal with them. Now, he sends another message to the international community by visiting three island nations – Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka – in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). And the message is very clear: India wants to re-integrate South Asia.

Some experts rightly call it as Modi's 'IOR strategy', as the Indian premier’s main aim is to counter China's growing hegemony in the region (jointly with other countries). With this, he sets the tone of India’s ‘new’ foreign policy. Modi knows that he will have to cover much ground, as India has diplomatically neglected its maritime backyard (and also the IOR) for the last 25 years. With China slowly gaining the upper hand in the IOR, the Indian premier has decided to mark the beginning of New Delhi’s great power ambitions. He is confident that India will no longer be considered as merely a sub-regional power, whose clout does not extend beyond South Asia.

However, it is difficult to predict right now whether Modi can get success. Defence analysts are of the opinion that 1962 will be repeated in case of a Sino-Indian war. Sam Roggeveen, noted defence strategy expert and founding editor of Australia’s Lowy Institute of International Policy’s blog, says that if China attacks India, the situation will be similar to the 1962 war, when India was humiliated by its northern neighbour. So, it is expected that Modi will not make a mistake by challenging China militarily.

Diplomatically, India can wage a war against China and Modi has done just that. Ahead of his visit to Beijing in May, the premier has brought the Indian Ocean at the forefront of world geopolitics by visiting the three IOR nations. With New Delhi’s Indian Ocean gambit gathering momentum, Modi is trying his best to throw a strong challenge to the top political leadership in Beijing by building bridges to the island nations. Although it’s still not clear whether China has started considering India as a serious player in the maritime great game, the Indian PM has made sure that the IOR nations will stop playing China against India. This is only the first step in making India pre-eminent in the ocean that bears its name, but not its stamp.

Modi also knows that his upcoming China visit is likely to be one of his toughest foreign policy assignments. That is why he focussed mainly on increasing co-operation with the tiny island neighbours. It will certainly help him negotiate with the Chinese leaders from a position of strength. Modi will have to make many more serious moves to defeat China diplomatically. His five-day visit to the three IOR nations has helped tie various loose ends to India’s IOR strategy, but there is much more that has to be done. The biggest challenge for the Indian PM is to win the confidence of many littoral countries of the IOR, such as South Africa and Malaysia, who are still doubtful of New Delhi’s staying power. They consider China as a more useful global partner.

Half of the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of its oil trade pass through the Indian Ocean. Yet, India – the biggest littoral country – has only begun to take responsibility. Noticing that the US is becoming less interested in policing the ocean, Modi has shown urgency and is trying to recapture the Indian Ocean that has been dominated by a foreign power for almost 300 years.

With New Delhi in a catch-up mode in its rivalry with Beijing in the IOR, the entire world will get an opportunity to see a sea of changes in the South Asian geopolitics in the coming years. These changes will be huge, as India and China alone comprise one-third of the world’s population. Modi has just started making waves in the Indian Ocean.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.