HONG KONG – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was set to begin a tour of three Indian Ocean countries Tuesday as he seeks to prevent China from establishing a military foothold in a region his nation has dominated for decades.
Modi was scheduled to visit Seychelles and Mauritius before ending the trip in Sri Lanka, the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years, and where a January election produced a new government vowing to reduce dependence on China.
During the stops, he’ll look to expand military as well as economic ties — something that India had avoided until recently.
India has started to bolster its naval presence to assert greater control in waters that carry most of the world’s oil trade, underscoring its growing discomfort after a Chinese submarine docked twice at a Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka last year. The visits fueled doubts that China’s strategy of building ports in the Indian Ocean was one based purely on economics.
“Modi’s visit to the Indian Ocean reflects the heightened strategic significance of these island states in Indian thinking,” said David Brewster, a specialist in Indo-Pacific security at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“India takes great exception to the presence of extraregional powers in the Indian Ocean and the reaction of New Delhi to the sub visits was an indication of that.”
India last month increased its defense budget by 11 percent to $40 billion and approved the building of six nuclear-powered submarines, triple the number it currently has in service, as well as seven new frigates. The navy also unveiled its first home-built anti-submarine warship in August, when Modi vowed to ensure that “no one dares to cast an evil glance at India.”
Even with the new kit, India’s navy will be dwarfed by China’s fleet of about 49 frigates, 24 destroyers, eight corvettes and about 60 submarines. As China’s navy has modernized, its ships have ventured farther afield, showing up earlier this year in ports in the U.K., Germany and Greece.
“The navy has to be built up,” said Vivek Katju, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand. “As India’s global role will increase, it’s inevitable that India will have to pay far greater attention to the Indian Ocean region, which includes the eastern seaboard of Africa.”
China over the past decade has strengthened its economic ties with countries bordering the Indian Ocean, and in 2013 was the second-largest trading partner to Sri Lanka and Mauritius behind India, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In Sri Lanka, China’s share of total trade rose to 11 percent from 3 percent a decade earlier, outpacing India.
Modi will be the first Indian leader since 1981 to visit Seychelles, where he’ll sign an agreement to help map its waters, according to Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.
In Mauritius, an island nation near Madagascar, he is scheduled to attend a national parade and commission an Indian-built offshore patrol vessel.
Sri Lanka is India’s biggest neighbor in the Indian Ocean, as well as its most crucial partner. Modi has sought to mend relations damaged during the decade-long regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who went to great lengths to court Chinese investment, including a $1.4 billion project to build a city on reclaimed land off Colombo.
After taking power two months ago, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended the project and sought to rebalance his country’s ties with India. On a trip to New Delhi last month, Sirisena signed a deal to receive training for Sri Lanka’s civilian nuclear program.
India’s state-run National Thermal Power Corp. is awaiting environmental clearances before starting work on a 500-megawatt thermal power plant in Trincomalee, a port on the eastern coastline, Jaishankar said on Monday before the trip.
Modi is concerned that China wants to expand its military presence in the region by establishing naval bases in key Indian Ocean ports. This is the “string of pearls” theory first expounded by U.S. consultant Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
President Xi Jinping rekindled those worries among Indian analysts last year when he visited Sri Lanka and Maldives, and met the president of Seychelles in Beijing, to promote his so-called Silk Road trade route rejuvenation project. The initiative is backed by a $40 billion infrastructure fund and includes a maritime route through the ocean states.
China argues that its interests are purely economic, and that it wants to protect vital sea lines of communications that bring it energy supplies from the Middle East. Forty percent of its oil imports pass through the Straits of Hormuz, and that figure doubles to more than 80 percent in the Malacca Strait on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
“Access, rather than bases, is what the Chinese navy is really interested in,” Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations at Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army, wrote last year.
In 2011, India reached a trilateral maritime security agreement with Sri Lanka and the Maldives that included sharing radar coverage of the sea. Mauritius and Seychelles sent representatives to the latest meeting a year ago.
Modi has sought to build closer ties with Japan, Vietnam and Australia, all countries that share concerns about China’s maritime actions. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to New Delhi in January, the two leaders pledged to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
While China’s naval prowess poses a direct threat to nations with competing territorial claims close to its eastern seaboard, Beijing’s leaders will struggle to overcome a geographic disadvantage in the Indian Ocean, according to Brewster at Australian National University.
“China has a huge strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean that it can partially mitigate but never get rid of,” he said. “That’s not going to change even if there are a handful of Chinese vessels hanging around.”
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