Recently, the Government of India launched a humanitarian program called Mission SAGAR- translated as Security and Growth for all in the region. It is seen as a step taken by India to wrest leadership in the Indian Ocean region during the times of global crisis. India is one of the first responders in the Indian Ocean Region to provide relief during times of distress. Under Mission SAGAR, Indian Navy’s Shardul Class ship INS Kesari was deployed to deliver COVID-19 assistance, which includes medicines, medical personnel, kits, food items to the island nations of Seychelles, Maldives, Comoros, Mauritius, and Madagascar. The supply of Indian goods, services, and expertise in the form of human capital are seen as a way of cultural diplomacy of India to enhance its image through the supply of quality products and services. Although Mission SAGAR is a humanitarian program, it is also being seen as a stepping stone for advancing India’s regional capacity building and interests.
Firstly, this is seen as soft power diplomacy to extend the Indian’ sphere of influence’ in the strategic Indian Ocean Region. By responding to the countries in times of distress, India seeks to win the support and goodwill of these strategic island nations. For a long time, India has practiced soft power diplomacy to achieve its objectives, and it has attained considerable results by building reliable bridges with its neighbors. India’s philanthropist approach towards COVID-19 is a classic example to corroborate its longstanding approach. Secondly, such an approach will help improve relations with the island nation, especially in the light of increasing Chinese influence in the region. With the mission SAGAR, India has begun to reverse some of the strains in bilateral ties in the Indian Ocean Region due to increasing Chinese presence.
Thirdly, this move by New Delhi is seen as one of the steps to increase Indian engagement with Africa. India is the second-largest trading partner of Africa, behind China. Indo-African trade relations are cruising ahead at nearly 20 percent. Through Mission SAGAR, India aims to have a greater strategic imprint on the African continent. Mission SAGAR has also shifted Indian Foreign Policy’s focus from traditional partners to non-traditional partners. Through this move, India seeks to revive and bolster its age-old ties with Africa.
Fourth and most important, it will help to keep a check on increasing Chinese presence in the IOR. Recently, China has used the COVID-19 crisis to flex its muscle in the IOR and South China Sea, threatening the sovereignty of many coastal countries. Nearly a dozen Chinese underwater drones were detected in Eastern IOR. These drones are used for underwater research, channeling of data, spying, and facilitating submarine movements. Nearly a month ago, the Chinese Research vessel, the Shiyan 1, was sailing in the Exclusive Economic Zone of India, off the Andaman Nicobar coast. The increase in the frequency of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines and intelligence ships in IOR is another worrying trend. These activities cannot be effectively monitored without an expansive reach.
It is clear that China is acting fast to establish hegemony and influence in IOR. China’s hastiness can be explained by the fact that a bulk of Chinese trade happens through the Indian Ocean region. The majority of Chinese energy supply passes through the IOR, crossing the strategic Strait of Malacca. Securing these lines is a strategic compulsion for China.
However, the presence of the Indian Navy in the region and regional multilateral formulations like the QUAD are creating physical and psychological deterrence, ensuring that Chinese actions are kept under the scanner. With countries like Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines coming closer to each other due to increased Chinese assertions, a strengthening of partnership to counter China is likely in the post-pandemic era. As such, the SAGAR project will help the Indian Navy to have an increased presence in the Indian Ocean, especially in the western IOR. The island nations have been chosen in such a manner that it will help bring the entire IOR under the Indian Navy’s surveillance. The island nations of Comoros and Seychelles are strategic destination points, which would help the Indian Navy to keep a check on the Anti-Piracy task force of China in Djibouti, Eastern Africa. This would help the Indian Navy to have a more secured Western Indian Ocean. Simultaneously, the proximity of Andaman and Nicobar bases to the Strait of Malacca could ensure a more secure Eastern IOR. An increased frequency of movement of the Indian Navy could act as a deterrence for the Chinese, preventing them from acting in a way that is detrimental to the sovereignty and security of other nations in the Indo-Pacific. Growing Chinese threats and actions have bolstered the resolve for a stronger QUAD and an expansive QUAD plus.
Mission SAGAR has given legitimacy and credibility to the Indian Navy to frequent the waters of the Indian Ocean without the threat of undermining the sovereignty of other member states. India reached out to many South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and supplied them with essential commodities ranging from food, medicines to personnel. India is keen on maintaining and increasing its sphere of influence in South Asia and the IOR, a key strategic goal. India looks forward to establishing a strategic network and partnership in South Asia and IOR based on soft diplomacy, an approach that vastly differs from Chinese ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy. India could be seen as an alternative Asian giant to China in the long run.
While China’s image is crumbling due to COVID-19, the supply of faulty kits, and assertive actions on multiple fronts, including in the South China Sea and IOR, India has an opportunity to emerge as a regional leader with the help of its soft and cultural diplomacy.
*Note: China and India share the view of Maritime Law that warships don’t have free access to coastal waters, without the permission of the concerned country. China stands firm on this law when the area of focus is the South China Sea but seems to break away from this when the area of focus shifts from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean region. China is tactfully using its research vessels, fishing vessels, and other non-combat ships to intrude into the sovereignty of other nation-states while following the aforementioned dichotomy.
*** The author is an undergraduate student pursuing graduation in the field of Political Science and Economics from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. He is interested in the field of International relations and wishes to pursue a career in the same ***