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With Beijing Looking On, India Is Muscling Up In The Indian Ocean Region

This month India bolstered its ties with regional partners Bangladesh and Australia.

18/04/2017 2:01 PM IST | Updated 19/04/2017 9:06 AM IST
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pose for the media prior to a meeting in New Delhi.

As Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi wrapped up their speech at their joint press conference earlier this month, the MC inadvertently asked the two dignitaries to "step down" instead of "stepping down from the podium", sending across a wave of laughter on an otherwise solemn occasion. In contrast, this week has been all about India stepping up its relationship and synchronising its efforts with two very important partners from the Indian Ocean Region—Bangladesh and Australia.

As the summer heat rose in Delhi with the onset of April, there was a proportional increase in the activities in the diplomatic corridors of the national capital, with two heads of state visiting at almost the same time. Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina touched down on the Indian soil, after seven years, on 7 April 2017, and was greeted by the Prime Minister of India at the tarmac. The gesture was gigantic enough to send ripples across the otherwise calm waters of the Indian Ocean, with China keeping a close eye on the visit.

The growing strategic reach between India and Australia will not only help in neutralising China's presence in the Indo-Pacific region but will also provide a boost to India's growth story.

As an outcome of the deliberations held between the two premiers, 22 agreements were signed between both the nations. India announced the extension of a $4.5 billion line of credit for development projects in Bangladesh and another $500 million for defence hardware purchases for Dhaka in a bid to deepen political and strategic ties between the two neighbours. In a bid to strengthen people-to-people ties between the two nations, a bus service was also inaugurated by the two Prime Ministers that will run between Kolkata, Khulna and Dhaka; a new passenger train service and a new rail link for running goods trains were also announced. In addition, India will finance a diesel oil pipeline from Numaligarh to Parbatipur and Indian companies will enter into a long-term agreement for the supply of diesel.

Apart from the 22 agreements that were signed, an additional 14 were in the field of private investments. Trade between the two countries stood at $6.1 billion in fiscal 2015-16 but over time, India aims to be the biggest trading partner of Dhaka, replacing Beijing whose trade with Bangladesh presently stands at $10 billion. However, unlike Beijing, India is not seeing Bangladesh only as an economic market but a neighbour with whom the Prime Minister is keen on deepening cultural, geographical and historical ties.

The India Today Group via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull during the ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi.

The second high-level visit of the week came with the arrival of the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull on 9 April—his first visit to India after assuming office in 2015. As a result of the bilateral talks between the two heads of state, six agreements were signed between both the nations, ranging from cooperation in countering international terrorism to cooperation in the field of health, science and space technology. Both leaders recognised that India and Australia share common interests in ensuring maritime security and the safety of sea lines of communication. They also recognised the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Both these visits are significant in terms of India's emerging leadership in the Indian Ocean Region.

An agreement was reached on retaining energy and resources as important aspects of the bilateral relationship. While Prime Minister Turnbull underlined Australia's position as a reliable and innovative partner in meeting India's energy security needs, Prime Minister Modi welcomed the passage of the Civil Nuclear Transfers to India Act through the Australian Parliament and both Prime Ministers anticipated commercial exports of Australian uranium could begin soon, opening up a new avenue for Australia to support Indian electricity generation.

The Indo-Australia agreement also mentioned the use of Australian expertise in boosting agricultural productivity, logistics management and education services. On the other hand, Australia views India as a rising economic superpower which is slated to become the third largest economy by 2030. The growing strategic reach between the two nations will not only help in neutralising China's presence in the Indo-Pacific region but will also provide a boost to India's growth story.

There was at all times a clear emphasis on the need to maintain peace and stability in the region. Prime Minister Modi in his intervention during the joint statement issued by the leaders in Delhi noted that India and Australia recognise that their future is deeply tied to peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region.

Thus, both these visits are significant in terms of India's emerging leadership in the Indian Ocean Region. They also have their value additions in helping India in moving closer to its dream of being a leader in the production of renewable energy and energy security. The Prime Minister's dream of making the nation a net energy exporter rests on the pillars of the supply of Australian coal. While India anticipates receiving coal and uranium from Australia, Bangladesh looks forward to 100MW of energy from India for its power needs.

While Bangladesh is relying on trade and investment by China and has openly supported the One Belt One Road Initiative, Australia is in a rather uncomfortable position with the rise of the dragon. Thus, the two visits will play a big role in changing the geopolitical dynamics of not only the Indian Ocean Region but the Indo-Pacific at large.

(The author is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are personal. )

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