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India to reset strategic policy for Indian Ocean

Ministries such as External Affairs, Defence, Shipping and Commerce are being roped in to re-cast the country’s Indian Ocean strategy.

Kabir Taneja  New Delhi | 8th Nov 2014

Sushma Swaraj

he Indian government has initiated a grand review of India's strategic alignment in the Indian Ocean to reflect the changed realities of the region, at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his visit to Myanmar, Australia and Fiji and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wraps up her trip to Maldives.

According to sources familiar with the matter, various ministries such as External Affairs, Defence, Shipping and Commerce are being roped in to re-cast the country's Indian Ocean strategy. The new design will look at "strengthening both military naval and commercial shipping capacities" and generating "country specific thinking".

Calls for a rework of India's Indian Ocean strategy had been brewing within the strategic community for some time. Initial steps were taken by the new government within months of taking power in New Delhi, with the Shipping Corporation of India launching special container trade lanes with countries such as Myanmar earlier last month. Sushma Swaraj's visit to Maldives was also aimed to strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), an organisation which was set up in 1995. She is next headed to the UAE, also an IORA member, for a three-day visit.

Recent reports of Chinese submarines and warships docking in Sri Lanka, right on the doorstep of India, have also added a spring to the policy review process. The docking of Chinese submarines at a Chinese built port (which India had refused to construct previously) in Sri Lanka sent alarm bells ringing in South Block and the Prime Minister's Office. Prior to the docking, India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had made it known to Sri Lanka's defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that playing host to the Chinese navy would be "unacceptable" to New Delhi. Both Beijing and Colombo have downplayed the event.

Government sources have also made it clear that the new administration's Sri Lanka policy is not hostage to domestic politics of Tamil Nadu, and that India's foreign policy will only and exclusively be administered from Raisina Hill.

More than 70% of India's liquefied energy supplies travel through the Indian Ocean making it vital to the country's security. India's close allies such as Japan also source vast quantities of natural gas and crude oil from the Middle East which travels through the Indian Ocean towards Japanese shores.

Extended security from Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal is also looking to be addressed at an urgent pace. Strengthening of the Indian Navy, which has had a poor year due to a spate of accidents involving submarines and other vessels is expected to be addressed at a fast pace. The urgency is highlighted by the fact that terror plots aimed at India's naval installations are emitting from Pakistan after the attack at Karachi's naval base and naval ships were moved away from Kolkata because of intelligence reports citing possible terror attacks.

The Bay of Bengal is being featured as a crucial part of India's geo-strategic and geo-economic asset in the future. While security in the Arabian Sea is strong due to proximity to Pakistan, the advent of piracy and power is due to geological prediction that the area is floating in natural gas reserves, enough to take care of India's entire gas needs for this century. The possibility of Chinese constructed ports in Bangladesh has also alarmed New Delhi and helped in putting Bay of Bengal upfront in the strategic review of the Indian Ocean.

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