Katchatheevu and other islands of Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula. Source: Wikipedia - Photo: 2024

India Considers Island States New Nodes of National and Security Interests

By C. Raja Mohan*

This article was published in The Indian Express.

MUMBAI | 4 April 2024 (IDN) — Delhi’s surprising focus on Katchatheevu, an island in the narrow strip of waters between India and Sri Lanka, is a part of the ruling BJP’s determination to break into Tamil Nadu’s electoral map. Hopefully, the potential negative consequences for Delhi’s improving ties with Colombo are manageable.

But zooming out of Katchatheevu to the audit of Indian foreign policy over the last decade, we find island states and territories from the South Pacific to the African coast have become new nodes in India’s changing strategic geography.

Indo-Pacific – from ‘American plot’ to maritime orientation

Whether it is the Maldives that now occupies much Indian mind space in the growing maritime joust with China, or Delhi’s new engagement with the resource-rich Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Islands, the joint development of infrastructure on the Agalega island of Mauritius, the collaboration with Australia in the eastern Indian Ocean islands, or the NDA government’s focus on developing the Andamans to our east and the Lakshadweep to the west, islands have emerged as an important part of India’s new geopolitics.

More broadly, India’s strategic imagination of the world’s regions and how we describe them has altered significantly over the last decade.

Consider, for example, the “Indo-Pacific”. The idea was first proposed by the late Japanese Premier Abe Shinzo, in a speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007. Abe urged us to reflect on the “confluence of the two oceans”—the Indian and the Pacific. It ran into much bureaucratic and political resistance in Delhi. Sceptics in Delhi saw the Indo-Pacific as an “American plot” to “entrap” India into “containing” China.

It took over a decade after Abe’s call for India to formally embrace the Indo-Pacific idea — in a speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the annual Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore during the summer of 2018. India’s deteriorating relations with China, marked by a series of military crises in 2013, 2014, and 2017, was an important factor in Delhi’s rethink; so was the growing strategic partnership with the US. The Indo-Pacific is now well-established in the Indian discourse, and so is its institutional anchor, the Quad, which brings together Australia, India, Japan and the US.

From Eurasia to Europe

The idea of “Eurasia–the continental cousin of the maritime Indo-Pacific—has not gained equal currency in the Indian strategic discourse but is now part of India’s new diplomatic vocabulary. If Japan and the US popularised “Indo-Pacific”, Russia has driven the “Eurasian” idea. As a great power straddling Europe and Asia, Russia sees the vast Eurasian landmass as its natural sphere of influence.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, built jointly by Russia and China, was the institutional expression of the Eurasian idea. Given India’s stakes in continental Asia, its long-standing ties to Russia, and its quest for a multipolar world, Delhi was eager to join SCO. Its campaign concluded successfully in 2017 when it became a full member.

But India’s thinking on Eurasia began to change amid Delhi’s deepening problems with Beijing, the growing conflict between Russia and the West, and the deepening Sino-Russian alliance. India’s interest is no longer limited to inner Asia but has expanded to include Europe in the far western corner of Eurasia.

Europe has long been a neglected geography in independent India’s international relations. That has changed in the last decade. High-level exchanges offer one indication. According to the foreign office, Modi has travelled to Europe 27 times in the last 10 years and received 37 European heads of state and government; External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has travelled 29 times to Europe and received 36 counterparts in Delhi over the last five years.

Trade grows, agreements await

Trade is another indication. While a free trade agreement with the European Union remains elusive, the flow of commerce, investment, technology, and people between India and Europe is growing steadily. Europe is India’s second-largest trading partner and third-largest export destination. Last month, India signed a free trade agreement with the EFTA, constituted by four small but significant countries—Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

The last decade has seen France’s rising political salience as a bilateral partner and collective Europe’s growing weight in India’s great power relations. Even as India is learning the complex art of economic engagement with the European Union in Brussels, it also recognises that Europe is not a political monolith but a continent of regions.

The Nordic region, the Nordic-Baltic coalition, the Med 9 of southern European nations, and the Caucasus have emerged as new geographies of consequence for India in Europe and around it. Last week’s visit of Dmytro Kuleba, the first by Ukraine’s foreign minister, underlines India’s potential role in shaping war and peace in Central Europe, whose turbulent politics have triggered two world wars and threatens to unleash a third.

The plans for an economic corridor between India and Europe via the Middle East, the Abraham Accords, the Gaza war, the rise of the Arab Gulf, India’s deepening partnership with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the presence of nearly 20 Indian naval ships outside the Red Sea region today, and the growing engagement with Africa is producing a more integrated view of the Middle East, Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Western Indian Ocean. These were often seen as separate categories in the past.

Related links:
Katchatheevu issue: If India crosses sea boundary, it will be seen as violation of sovereignty, says former Sri Lankan envoy
Did Congress ‘give away’ Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka?
Decode Politics: Why Katchatheevu, a speck of an island, is causing a splash in Tamil Nadu poll waters
Katchatheevu: Why an Indian Island went to Sri Lanka and many hope for its symbolic return
South Asia, an idea lost

Amid the expansion of India’s geographic vocabulary, there is one unfortunate loser, “South Asia”. SAARC’s failure has persuaded India to focus on sub-regional cooperation in the eastern Subcontinent and trans-regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal littoral. Pakistan, in turn, has sought deeper economic integration with China through the CPEC corridor. Islamabad is now looking to UAE and Saudi Arabia to monetise its national assets and overcome the current economic crisis.

“Regions” are not fixed geographic units. Politics, economics, and ideology have a big role the making and unmaking of regions. Regions are also elastic; they expand and shrink depending on the circumstances. Many familiar regions, “South Asia”, “South East Asia”, “East Asia”, “Asia-Pacific” — were all politically “invented” in the last eight decades. The “Indo-Pacific” is only the latest.

As we look ahead, two new geographies—“Zomia” and “Khorasan”—might draw more of our strategic attention amid the growing pressure on the Subcontinent’s eastern and western frontiers.

In the east, the Burmese army is losing ground to a coalition of opposition militias in the country’s north. The potential political vacuum in upper Burma could spell trouble all across Zomia–an academic term for a region where the high lands of North East India, South West China, and South East Asia meet. It’s a region where centralised state control has been traditionally weak and is full of minority populations, some of whom straddle across formal state borders.

The ethnic restiveness, the return of violent religious extremism, and growing military tensions on Pakistan’s western borderlands raise questions about the sustainability of the current frontiers in what we might call the “Khorasan”.

Although extremist groups like the Islamic State have imbued it with expansive religious and territorial content, Khorasan in Persian means the land of the rising sun. It refers to Persia’s eastern borderlands, including parts of modern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Few in Delhi would want to bet that the political and territorial orders in Zomia and Khorasan will endure in their current form. India, then, will inevitably be drawn deeper into the geopolitics of the Zomia and Khorasan.

*The writer is a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express and a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews]

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Image: Katchatheevu and other islands of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula. Source: Wikipedia.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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