The M Corridor

Over the past several years, India has begun to look at the Indian Ocean strategically. In other words, it has begun taking a long-term and holistic view of preserving its interests in the ocean.

Even more basic, it has actually begun trying to work out what its interests are at a time when the United States is talking of giving up its historical role as the policeman of most of the ocean.

There are broadly four geographical strands to an Indian Ocean policy – minus the Indian peninsula itself.

One are the countries running from Bangladesh down to Australia. These are all independent minded but non-hostile nations, some of them with independent naval capacity.

These countries are being engaged as equal partners with the idea of persuading them to see New Delhi as the capital they should always consult. They should think, “Hmm. May be I can go sink an island. But let me just check with India if they are okay with that.”

The second strand are the African littoral countries, roughly running from Egypt to South Africa. These are also independent governments, but with a greater standard deviation when it comes to security thinking and capacity.

Some of these countries have no military capacity, weak political systems and sometime even a poor sense of their own foreign policy. The African nations have also shown themselves to be easily swayed by Chinese money and investment.

My sense is that India will have spotty relations with these countries: some good, some indifferent, and with a lot of countries going back and forth from one list to the other. India’s closest friend in this band is Ethiopia. Sadly it has no coastline.

The third is the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. India has more interests in the Persian Gulf — oil and gas, remittances, diaspora, etc — than it does in all the other Indian Ocean states put together.

But the Gulf is a cesspool of geopolitical intrigue and twisted history. India is more the supplicant then master among the Arab countries. And it has minimal ability to bring change to an area that confounds even US power.

The fourth is what I have dubbed the ‘M Corridor’. This is the chain of islands and countries that collectively dominate the central Indian Ocean. These are Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique – the preponderant beginning letter for this lot being M.

Map their maritime territorial claim and you effectively control a swathe of ocean that separates the ocean into two.

These countries require a different approach. They need to be persuaded to become deeply integrated into the Indian diplomatic and security system. New Delhi has begun with trying to co-opt the navies of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Merger would be too strong a word, but inter-operability and so on are very much on the table. Their navies, coastal security and diplomacy should broadly have an “India First” policy – as the last Maldivian government had.

The next three countries – Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique – would be more difficult as India’s links to them are diluted by the presence of other foreign countries and/or domestic groups that don’t really think too much of India.

Here New Delhi should work together with countries like France. The French Navy has the largest European presence in the Indian Ocean, especially naval. Time to up the ante on this – Paris is willing, it has been New Delhi that has dragged its feet.

Mozambique has received great attention from India Inc as well – an important facet to any real Indian engagement with this country which, after all, has many other suitors.

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