Modi to visit India's neighbours Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Trips being made in line with his 'neighbourhood policy' and are aimed at boosting defence cooperation, amid China's growing presence in the countries

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making the point that the country's neighbourhood is just as important in his second term. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will launch a coastal radar system and a defence training centre during his visit to the Maldives this weekend, in a move to boost defence cooperation amid a backdrop of China's growing presence in the country.

The two-day visit is his first to the South Asian nation since he was re-elected for a second term, and signals his intention to continue his "India's neighbourhood policy".

While in the Maldives, he will also address its Parliament.

The Indian Prime Minister is making the point that the neighbourhood is important in his second term as well, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said at a media conference on Thursday.

Tomorrow, Mr Modi will head to Sri Lanka, where China has also substantially increased its presence in the past few years.

Mr Gokhale added that the coastal radar system, which Mr Modi will launch with Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is to help monitor the movement of ships around the Maldives.

India has given these systems to several other countries as well, including Mauritius and the Seychelles, to build a network that helps in maritime surveillance.

As for the defence training academy that the two leaders will also jointly inaugurate, Mr Gokhale said the academy and its software were built by India to strengthen Maldivian national defence services.

Mr Modi's decision to visit India's neighbours first since he began his second term "underlines the continued emphasis of India's neighbourhood policy", Mr Gokhale added.

As part of efforts to strengthen India's outreach, New Delhi is offering a series of projects to the Maldives, including one to improve sewage and water supply, and also considering helping to form a national cricket team and building a cricket stadium

The Maldives and Sri Lanka, both situated in the Indian Ocean, are strategically important to India even as China seeks to increase its presence in both nations.

India's relations with the Maldives underwent a major upheaval when the previous government under then President Abdulla Yameen intensified ties with China.

However, the current government led by Mr Solih, who was elected last November, has restored the country's longstanding India First policy.

Mr Modi reciprocated the move by attending Mr Solih's swearing-in ceremony last November.

Similarly, India and Sri Lanka have had close ties.

China's presence grew significantly under former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure and the Chinese built a port that they now run.

Mr Gokhale said Mr Modi's visit was a "special gesture" to show solidarity with and confidence in the Sri Lankan government, following the Easter Sunday terror attacks in which 290 people were killed and more than 500 others injured.

Mr Modi launched his "India's neighbourhood policy" in his first term when he invited the leaders of South Asian nations, including India's rival Pakistan, to his swearing-in ceremony. He then made his maiden visit to Bhutan.

He also sharpened his country's Indian Ocean policy, including partnering the United States for security and defence in the ocean.

Like he did in his first term, Mr Modi invited leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation to his swearing-in last week. The initiative is a regional organisation comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

Analysts said the China factor has raised the importance of the Maldives and Sri Lanka in India's eyes.

"Both countries are politically and strategically important," said Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think-tank.

"India recognises that China could make a comeback in the Maldives or Sri Lanka," she added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2019, with the headline Modi to visit India's neighbours Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Subscribe