India Must Build Upon Its Recent Engagements in the Western Indian Ocean

PM Narendra Modi being conferred Saudi's highest civilian award
Credit: Narendra Modi Official, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently visited Bahrain, the UAE and Seychelles. Jaishankar’s visit comes as a part of India’s outreach to the Western Indian Ocean in the past one month. The other engagements with the region were Chief of Defence Forces of Kenya visiting India and India hosting the second phase of Malabar Exercise in the Arabian Sea. 

With India looking to engage more in the Indo-Pacific Region, it is important to analyze how India has approached the eastern and western sides of the Indian Ocean and if there is need for a balance between the two. 

India’s approach to the Eastern Indian Ocean

India’s Maritime Military Strategy specifies both eastern and western Indian Ocean, which covers the region from Strait of Malacca to Bab-El-Mandab, Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf and Cape of Good Hope, as the areas of primary interest. However, India has been more focused in its approach towards the eastern Indian Ocean than the western Indian Ocean. 

In order to fill the gap in India’s policy towards the Southeast Asia and East Asia, India launched Look East Policy in 1992 which subsequently became Act East Policy in 2014. India’s focused engagements with Southeast Asia were intended towards boosting ties in economic as well as strategic areas.

Later as the geographical construct of Indo-Pacific gained currency, India, while responding to these developments maintained Southeast Asia as its focus. India’s stated policy towards Indo-Pacific Region is ASEAN-centric. 

Since the Look East Policy, India-ASEAN relations have seen a steady rise. India became a Sectoral Partner in 1992, Dialogue Partner and member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. In 2002 India became a Summit-level Partner of ASEAN while in 2012 India-ASEAN relations were upgraded to Strategic Partnership. In 2018, India and ASEAN, by way of Delhi Declaration, agreed to cooperate in maritime domain.

What is the extent of India’s outreach in the Western Indian Ocean?

The Western Indian Ocean covers a larger and more diverse expanse as compared to the Eastern Indian Ocean. The Western Indian Ocean is spread across Middle Eastern and Eastern African countries which are essentially two continents, Asia and Africa. While the Maldives also falls in this region but India has an accelerated outreach to this country and so this article focuses on Middle East and Africa. 

Between Middle East and Africa, the former has had deeper engagements with India than the latter. Oil trade and Indian Diaspora working in the Middle Eastern countries have been the main elements in India’s relations with the region for decades. However, India’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have evolved over a period of time. Moving ahead of the oil trade and remittances from Indians in the Middle East, India has taken its relations to the strategic level. India has forged Strategic Partnership Council Agreement with Saudi Arabia and Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with the UAE. 

India’s proximity in relations with the Middle Eastern countries has been, in part, driven by the intention to appease a sizable Indian Muslim population as well as to counter Pakistan diplomatically at the international stage. India’s efforts have bore results in recent times when Saudi Arabia and the UAE sided with India over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. India is also one of the preferred destinations for Saudi Arabia and the UAE for making investments. 

Compared to Africa, the Middle Eastern countries offer economic and political incentives to India to develop close relations. However, in the past few years, India has been reaching out to the African countries as well. Since 2014, India has been engaging with African countries by way of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Mauritius, Seychelles, Kenya and South Africa and inviting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as the chief guest on Republic Day in 2019. But still India’s outreach to African countries remains limited as compared to the Middle Eastern countries. 

The need to balance outreach between Eastern and Western Indian Ocean

While India enjoyed close relations with the Middle Eastern countries for decades, a relative neglect of the Southeast Asian countries led India to launch Look East Policy to address this situation. As a result, India’s relations with the Southeast Asian countries have grown over the past three decades.

With the emerging geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific Region, India is giving positive indications towards formation of the Quad. China’s assertion in the South China Sea has been one of the principal motives for the formation of the Quad to ensure freedom of navigation and rules-based order.

For India, engagements in the Eastern Indian Ocean are also facilitated because of ASEAN. ASEAN as a bloc allows India to connect to 10 countries simultaneously. The Western Indian Ocean Region provides no such arrangement. India needs a coherent policy for meaningful engagement with the Western Indian Ocean that would focus equally on the Middle East as well as Africa. Recently, India opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This move may lead to a reset of India-ASEAN relations. In such a case, increased focus on the Western Indian Ocean is necessary for balanced engagements in the larger context of the Indo-Pacific Region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.