Is India’s influence declining in the ocean named after the country? That seems to be the conclusion of some analysts after the Maldives’ cancellation of an airport development contract with an Indian company in November, writes Nilanthi Samaranayake for India’s The Nation.
These concerns are elevated by China’s increased engagement with smaller states in the Indian Ocean, including the Maldives.
Given the legacy of the 1962 war between China and India and ongoing competition for influence, New Delhi is right to have suspicions about Beijing’s intentions in its neighbourhood and whether smaller Indian Ocean countries are playing the two sides off each other. But the fact is that India’s position in the region remains strong due to longstanding and growing security cooperation with smaller neighbours as well as the Indian Navy’s expanding capabilities. New Delhi’s influence has been underscored by former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed’s decision to seek refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male after a Maldivian court ordered his arrest.
India is a rising naval power and has the natural advantage of geography in the surrounding ocean. Moreover, India is connected to smaller countries in the region through entrenched ethnic and historical ties. President Mohamed Waheed has discussed the Maldives’ “preferential relationship” with India, and a former Maldivian foreign minister has stated that “nothing will change the fact that we are only 200 miles from Trivandrum”, referring to the Maldives’ proximity to the Indian city. India feels security obligations to regional states and has displayed its operational reach through campaigns in Sri Lanka and Maldives. In 1987, it intervened in the Sri Lankan civil war through the Indian Peace Keeping Force. Likewise, Indian armed forces intervened in the Maldives in 1988 following a coup, and after the 2004 tsunami the Indian Navy was first to provide critical disaster relief to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia.
Still, New Delhi should not take for granted its dominant position in the Indian Ocean. The rejection in Maldives, though its significance should not be overstated, serves as a wake-up call for India to invest more in developing its backyard. Scholar Rani Mullen finds that India’s provision of aid lacks a cohesive strategy. India’s intelligence organisation Research and Analysis Wing recently called on the government to provide more economic investment and technological expertise in the Maldives and Nepal, following analysis of China’s IT and telecom industries’ interest in these countries.
Also, a Jane’s Defence Weekly article reported last July that National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon called on Indian envoys in neighbouring countries to discuss ways to facilitate often delayed infrastructure assistance through the new Development Partnership Agency. Officials conceded that New Delhi’s assistance projects carried on “interminably” and that ties to regional states were “limited and haphazard.”