Delhi’s new Indian Ocean diplomacy
As China continues to ramp up its Indian Ocean presence, Delhi is stepping up its engagement, collaborations and demonstrations of leadership in the region. In addition to expanding its network of naval partners and bilateral exercises, India is also reviving regional institutions such as IORA and creating platforms to discuss security and strategic challenges in the region. This week’s demonstration of the same is the Indian Ocean Conference in Colombo.
The event’s high-profile speakers (which include India’s Foreign Minister; Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister; and senior leadership from Seychelles, Australia, Japan, Bangladesh and Singapore, among others) suggests strong regional support for India’s position. The actual content of the conference is largely symbolic – much more important is the message that India still leads the Indian Ocean region and remains, most emphatically, an active and present member of the region.
The conference and other similar initiatives are driven by the changing geo-politics in the region. The Indian Ocean, the primary area of operation for the Indian Navy, has largely been quiet on the geo-political front in recent years. But now it is re-emerging as a key strategic area. Chinese military and commercial expansion (particularly when combined with uncertainties in Washington under President Trump) is a cause for concern across the region. The border stand-off at Doklam in the north and Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean have ratcheted up historic competition and rivalry between the two nations. While the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China next week for the BRICS Summit is likely to pass without incident, the bilateral relationship between the two giants will remain tense, and the prospect of closer collaboration limited. Neither side is likely to cross the line into armed conflict, but strategic mistrust in the relationship will continue to deepen.