Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used >his visits to Seychelles and Mauritius — besides Sri Lanka — to enunciate a proactive vision of India’s interests and responsibilities in this sensitive region. It is indeed the clearest expression yet by an Indian leader of what the Indian Ocean and the region around it mean for Delhi. “We seek a future for Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR — Security and Growth for All in the Region,” Mr. Modi said, l >aunching the offshore patrol vessel MCGS Barracuda in Mauritius on March 12. “Our goal is to seek a climate of trust and transparency; respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries; sensitivity to each other’s interests; peaceful resolution of maritime security issues; and increase in maritime cooperation.” In a sense, India has now stepped out of the closet to engage with the wider Indian Ocean region, stressing that its security interests are critical. After all, the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks in the country’s history, Mumbai 2008, came by sea.
By inviting Seychelles and Mauritius to join the existing maritime security cooperation arrangement among India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister signalled that Delhi was ready to play a pre-eminent role in the region. Mr. Modi has batted for the creation of a strong regional grouping around the Indian Ocean. However, India’s record in building multilateral institutions has been poor — the Indian Ocean Rim Association is a case in point. Good and stated intentions by themselves are not enough to convince partners that India is willing to bear the burden of their security and economic expectations. Mr. Modi’s diplomatic calendar has been full and he is still very much within the grace period normally allowed to a government to match vision with reality. But India’s diplomatic and security establishments, unused to working together, must be enabled to work in tandem if Delhi is to make a lasting impact in the Indian Ocean region and beyond. Given that the Indian Ocean channels carry two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, a third of the bulk cargo and half of all container traffic, the region’s strategic significance is unquestionable. And India’s commitment to “shape its future” can only be welcomed. Without referring to China and the United States, the Prime Minister said India had to recognise that there were “other nations around the world” with a strong interest and stakes in the region. A higher profile for India in the region is not necessarily a zero-sum game given the challenges it faces. For example, climate change is an issue Mr. Modi flagged both in Mauritius and Seychelles. A more confident India must play its role in the region — defending its interests but acting in cooperation with others.