By Atul Aneja
New Delhi, Feb 23: India has swiftly taken a giant step in countering Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean, with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar signing two defence pacts with Maldives and Mauritius—each with a strong maritime dimension.
Jaishankar's pre-emptive strike follows Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Hoping to lower its dependence on the Malacca Straits, which are dominated by the Americans, the Chinese have been making feverish efforts to secure the region's ports. Besides, Beijing is trying to kill two birds with one stone. In trying to assert in the IOR, the Chinese simultaneously want to the undermine the regional influence of India, another rising power.
The Chinese have already secured Kyuakphyu in Myanmar, Hamabantota in Sri Lanka, and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, to achieve its twin aspirations.
China's forays add context to Jaishankar's latest visit to the IOR. In the Maldives, a deal was inked in the EAM's presence on Sunday, permitting India to develop a Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard Harbour at Sifvaru --Uthuru Thilafalhu (UTF).
In addition to the harbour and dockyard, India will also support the development of other infrastructure needed for the harbour, support the development of communications resources and radar services, and provide training.
'Glad to sign with Defence Minister @MariyaDidi the UTF Harbour Project agreement. Will strengthen Maldivian Coast Guard capability and facilitate regional HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) efforts. Partners in development, partners in security,' Jaishankar tweeted.
In Mauritius Jaishankar announced a $100 million Defence Line of Credit. This would "enable the procurement of defence assets from India" according to the requirements of the country which was emerging as an important maritime entity in the Indo-Pacific region. "These initiatives underline once again that the security of Mauritius is the security of India; in the prosperity of Mauritius is our prosperity," he said. Under the terms of the loan Mauritius would get a Dornier aircraft and an Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv on lease, to bolster its maritime security capabilities.
Ahead of Jaishankar's visit India had deepened its soft-power bonds with both the IOR nations, which were invited to a Covid-19 conference New Delhi had hosted. During the meeting, India had proposed a regional health alliance which would help the neighbourhood countries to forge a collective response to pandemics.
The consolidation of India's footprint in the IOR includes the port of Sittwe in Myanmar, a muscular presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Duqm island in Oman and Assumption Island in Seychelles. The Assumption Island is located around 1,100 km southwest of the Seychelles' capital of Mahé. Once the project is completed, it will help Seychelles' Coast Guard to patrol the nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and counter piracy, illegal fishing and drug-trafficking.
India's naval footprint in the Indo-Pacific has also been boosted by a key logistics agreement with the United States and growing ties with France which has basing rights in Reunion island in the IOR. The Indian and French Navy for the first time conducted joint patrols from the Reunion Island which is an overseas region of France and an island east of Madagascar and 175 km southwest of Mauritius.
During a visit to La Réunion French President Emmanuel Macron announced that India will also deploy a naval aircraft at Reunion island as part of joint surveillance mission with France in the southern Indian Ocean.