In tune with its focus on maritime strategy, the government has increased its financial commitment to Mauritius, Maldives, Sri Lanka — all island nations in the strategic Indian Ocean region where India is planning to expand its footprint. This comes against the backdrop of an assertive and a pro-active China in the Indian Ocean region.
The allocation for the Chabahar port was, however, cut down drastically.
The total budget for the Ministry of External Affairs was hiked by 19 per cent — from Rs 15,011 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 17,884.78 crore in 2019-2020.
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India has moved towards building strategic assets in two Indian Ocean countries, Mauritius and Seychelles, as New Delhi signed agreements with them to develop “infrastructure” in two islands — one each in both nations.
The plans towards building strategic assets in Agalega island in Mauritius and Assumption island in Seychelles were announced in 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited these countries.
In Mauritius, India signed an MoU for “improvement in sea and air transportation facilities” at Agalega island. This pact provides for “setting up and upgradation of infrastructure for improving sea and air connectivity at the Outer Island of Mauritius which will go a long way in ameliorating the condition of the inhabitants of this remote Island. These facilities will enhance the capabilities of the Mauritian Defence Forces in safeguarding their interests in the Outer Island,” a note on the MoU said.
“Island development” is an internationally accepted euphemism for developing strategic assets. US and China are known to be developing infrastructure in islands all over the world.
The government increased its commitment to Mauritius from Rs 350 crore last year to Rs 1,100 crore. Mauritius PM Pravind Jugnauth visited India twice this year.
For Maldives, the allocation has increased from Rs 125 crore last year to Rs 576 crore. The country has seen a friendly dispensation, with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in power, after the defeat of Abdulla Yameen. During Yameen’s regime, Chinese influence had increased substantially, and now India is trying to develop several projects there.
For Sri Lanka, which goes to elections later this year, the government has increased its allocation from Rs 150 crore to Rs 250 crore — a significant increase as Delhi is working on several infrastructure and development projects. In the island nation, India is moving for reconstruction of Kankesanthurai Port. This deal strengthens India’s interest in developing the Trincomalee Port project, a deepwater site about 300 nautical miles from Colombo. Among the other neighbours, Nepal is the biggest beneficiary, as India has increased its allocation from Rs 650 crore last year to Rs 1,050 crore this year. With the K P Sharma Oli government in power, Delhi is trying to mend its relationship with Kathmandu and working on several infrastructure projects. A lion’s share of the MEA’s budget has gone to Bhutan — from Rs 2,650 crore last year to Rs 2801.79 crore.
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For the Chabahar port in Iran, the government has reduced allocation from Rs 150 crore to Rs 45 crore. Although the US has forced India to cut down on its oil imports, India has got a waiver on the Chabahar port development since it gives access to Afghanistan — bypassing Pakistan. But, private investors and firms are not making enough progress, and the allocation has dipped.
In 2018 as well, a quiet maritime strategic diplomacy emerged as the key theme of Union budget. The beneficiaries were Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Maldives — all island nations in the strategic Indian Ocean region where India is competing against China for influence.