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Countering China's clout

Srinivas MazumdaruMarch 11, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting three Indian Ocean countries in a bid to bolster India's economic and security ties in a region where Beijing has been making inroads in recent years.

Indiens Premierminister Narendra Modi
Image: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

After Modi's landslide victory in last year's general election, many had expected that the Indian PM would focus mainly on domestic issues. But today, few would argue that to be the case. Since his inauguration, the Hindu nationalist politician has been at the forefront of shaping the nation's foreign policy.

One of the central planks of Modi's international agenda has been to reinvigorate ties with India's neighbors in South Asia. As part of this mission, Modi embarked on a foreign trip on March 11 that will take him to three Indian Ocean island nations – the Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

"India attaches paramount importance to strengthening relations with this region, which is vital for India's security and progress," Modi said in a statement before starting his tour. Many believe the trip offers the Indian PM a chance to rejuvenate ties against the backdrop of China's growing clout in the region, particularly in Sri Lanka.

Mithripala Sirisena und Narendra Modi
Modi will tour Sri Lanka just weeks after Sirisena visited IndiaImage: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Indian concerns

In recent years, China has increased its presence in Sri Lanka by pumping billions of dollars in investments and building critical infrastructure such as ports. As a result, ties between Colombo and Beijing reached new highs during the tenure of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who turned mainly to China as a key source of financial support and development.

"The previous Rajapaksa administration had engaged China both economically and militarily to balance India. Not only economic engagement deepened; but also Rajapaksa built close defense relations," Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, told DW.

But the close ties between Beijing and Colombo, and the docking of a Chinese navy submarine in the Sri Lankan capital last September also triggered national security concerns for New Delhi.

Modi and Sirisena

The reason for this is that as India's biggest neighbor in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka occupies a key geostrategic position. "Given its geographical proximity to India, Sri Lanka can emerge as a major hub in terms of keeping an eye on India's military activities," said analyst Pattanaik. Colombo is therefore vital for New Delhi geopolitically, and any presence of external forces in Sri Lanka will affect India's security, she added.

In this context, Rajapaksa's defeat in January's presidential elections was viewed positively by the Indian government, according to analysts. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, is believed to favor relations with India over China. Indeed, Sirisena's first foreign visit as president was to India, where he expressed his desire to boost bilateral ties and signed a deal on civil nuclear energy cooperation with New Delhi.

Less than a month later, Modi is set to land in Sri Lanka on March 13 for a two-day visit, the first tour by an Indian PM to the southern neighbor in 28 years. During his stay, Modi will hand over thousands of homes built for internally displaced people with Indian financial assistance, as well as address the nation's parliament.

The Tamil issue

The Indian leader will also travel to Jaffna Province, an ethnic Tamil-dominated region in a Sinhalese-majority country. Although Sri Lanka's war with Tamil rebels came to an end in 2009, Colombo has since been heavily criticized for failing to reconcile with the ethnic minority. The Tamil issue is crucial for Modi given that India's own Tamil population wants the PM to take a tough stand on Sri Lanka.

In light of this development, the key will be how the Sirisena-led government will treat the minority Tamil population, said Sumit Ganguly, India expert and professor of Political Science at the Indiana University Bloomington. "Unless the new administration departs from the policies of the past, there could be continuing problems on Indo- Sri Lanka relations," Ganguly told DW.

From time to time, the issue of fishermen from both sides straying borders have strained relations. Ahead of Modi's visit, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's comments on potentially shooting Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters drew a sharp rebuke from New Delhi.

Sri Lanka Bürgerkrieg Flüchtlinge
The Tamil issue is expected to come up in discussions between Modi and SirisenaImage: AP

Boosting trade ties

But despite these differences, Modi's visit is expected to bolster cooperation between the two neighbors. Officials say giving a boost to bilateral commerce, which currently stands at around $5 billion, is a priority.

In fact, Sri Lanka was the first country India signed a free trade agreement with. By ensuring close trade and investment ties, the Modi-led administration wants to pull Sri Lanka back into its orbit, say analysts.

Besides economics, experts believe, both leaders may also focus on strengthening defense and security cooperation, particularly on maritime and counter-terrorism issues. "I am confident that my visits to all three countries will reinvigorate our relations with them in this all-important region we call home – the Indian Ocean," said Modi ahead of his departure.