Neighbors, now not distant

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well by focusing on Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka for diplomatic engagement, something that was long awaited. It has been 28 years since an Indian PM made a stand-alone visit to Sri Lanka, and 34 since Seychelles received the head of Indian Government. There is no doubt that India has long-standing historical and cultural relations with these nations, but in the world of real-politic, it seemed that China managed to get a toe-hold in the region that India regards as its sphere of influence.

    The UPA did start the process of building bridges, but Modi’s focus on neighboring countries has certainly taken the engagement to a new level. Diplomacy, however, is more than visits, and thus the slew of agreements signed during the Prime Minister’s visits will help to further strengthen ties. An aggressive Indian role, including providing military and economic assistance, is needed to counter Beijing’s deep pockets and a long-standing desire to further strengthen its bases in the Indian Ocean. The 21st-century maritime Silk Road project is another iteration of the “string of pearls” strategy that China has long pursued, with varying degree of success. It found a temporary toe-hold in Sri Lanka, where a Chinese submarine docked in a Chinese-owned terminal in Colombo, and it has a major interest in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, both of which caused concern among Indian strategic analysts.

    Modi has received a rousing welcome in Seychelles, where he held talks with President James Alexis Michel and in Mauritius, where he was chief guest at Mauritius’s 42nd National Day celebrations and interacted with Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth. His visit to Sri Lanka, where he will hold talks with the top leadership in Colombo and also visit Jafana, is also expected to improve ties with a strategic neighbor. The diplomatic initiative has started well. India’s strengthening its involvement with neighbors who are not separated, but bound by an ocean, should yield rich dividends in the future.

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