Over the past few decades India's political and security classes as well as the media, are displaying much greater awareness of the importance of the Indian ocean to its security and economic interests. It is for this reason that the fate of the India-Seychelles agreement to develop communication and surveillance facilities, an airstrip and docking infrastructure for naval vessels in Seychelles strategically located Assumption Island has attracted substantial attention. The agreement marked the culmination of an important and first of its kind Indian move in the Indian ocean.
The Assumption Island project, important to the maritime security interests of both countries, was under discussion for over seven years and the agreement was signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the island country in 2015. India has ratified the agreement but the Seychelles government has been unable to do it because it needs parliamentary ratification and the opposition parties are making that impossible at this stage. For these parties the agreement detracts from Seychelles sovereignty. Consequently, Seychelles President Danny Faure decided not to take it to Parliament. This means that the project's implementation cannot take place.
Earlier this week Faure came to India on a state visit. Wisely, the Modi government did not make the Assumption Island agreement a prestige issue and strengthened co-operative bilateral civil and defence mechanisms which included the handing over of a Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft. On the Assumption Island matter Modi and Faure co-ordinated their remarks. After their meeting Modi said, "We agreed to work together in the Assumption Island project keeping in mind each other's interest in this regard". Faure responded, "In the context of maritime security Assumption Island was discussed. We are equally engaged and will continue to work together bearing each other's interests in mind". Clearly, Modi has indicated that he is willing to tweak the agreement to meet Faure's domestic needs. What will now be required is to ensure that both sides urgently work to push the matter and not let these remarks become only a way to salvage Faure's visit.
India's activism in the Indian ocean area and generally on maritime issues marks a radical and welcome departure from the historical past. Traditionally, the north India based political and security elites, living far away from the waters that surround the Indian landmass, thought only in continental terms. Indeed, maritime threats and opportunities were not within their mental horizon. This was so with the Maurya and Gupta empires in ancient times and with the Mughals during the medieval period. They all maintained effective armies but no navy at all. Thus, ships carrying Mughal nobles to the Hajj were at the mercy of the pirates and the marauders sailing in the Arabian sea but still there was no attempt to develop a navy to combat these threats; thinking remained insular and exclusively land based.
Indian elites during the British period were aware that the colonial powers, including Britain were able to expand throughout the world because of their naval reach. As Britain became the world's greatest naval power in the late 18th and 19th centuries it also became the leading country of the world. There is no evidence though that the British example was fully absorbed in independent India's thinking despite its 7517 Km of coastline and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal and Lakshadweep in the Arabian sea. Besides, the principal threats that India faced were from across its western and northern land frontiers; hence, most resources were devoted to the army. The navy was not developed as was merited, only partly due to paucity of resources.
Now the strategic significance of the Indian ocean and the waters that surround India is being recognised. Their sea lanes are vital for India's external trade and energy security. To safeguard these interests India has to ensure that the island states of the region—Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles and closer home, Maldives and Sri Lanka—do not become centres for anti-Indian activities. Clearly, in todays day and age India cannot expect to exclude other powers from the Indian Ocean region but it can legitimately expect that these powers do not act in a hostile manner from these island countries. Such an approach would not undermine the sovereignty of these states.
In the diplomatic game expectation does not translate into assurance without strategy and action. That is what India will now have to fully develop and integrate through a doctrine. This is especially required for China is showing enormous activism in the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) it seeks to develop ports and other maritime infrastructure in the Indian ocean island countries. In some cases, it will use its financial clout to acquire land and may carve out areas where it will exercise almost base like status. The Maldives is a case in point.
President Abdulla Yameen is blatantly violating the Maldives constitution and is going in for an obviously 'fixed' Presidential election in September. He is also determined to demolish his relations with India by breaking the normal security and economic linkages that have traditionally marked the relationship. He is doing this obviously because of growing Chinese economic engagement with his country. India has shown great patience but at some stage will have to draw a red line and then adhere to it. That line should be part of an overall and coherent doctrine; ad-hoc approaches would not do.