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India steps up engagement in Indo-Pacific region amid China's Health Silk Road initiative

India steps up engagement in Indo-Pacific region amid China's Health Silk Road initiative

India is stepping up engagement in its neighbourhood including in the Indian Ocean Region as part of Indo-Pacific vision amid China's renewed attempts to expand its strategic footprint across Asia by taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis.

India is stepping up engagement in its neighbourhood including in the Indian Ocean Region as part of Indo-Pacific vision amid China's renewed attempts to expand its strategic footprint across Asia by taking advantage of the Covid-19 crisis. With China making efforts to assist countries reeling under the pandemic as part of its "Health Silk Road" initiative, the Modi government has intensified its neighbourhood outreach efforts as parts of Covid diplomacy. China's new initiative is extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s ambitious connectivity initiative, according to persons familiar with Beijing’s plan.

India being net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region has sent Naval Ship 'Kesari' to Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles, carrying on board two Medical Assistance Teams, consignments of Covid related essential medicines and essential food items, officials told ET. The Ship will deliver consignments of Covid related essential medicines to Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles and about 600 tonnes of food items to Maldives, officials informed. This is the first time that a single assistance Mission is covering all island countries of western Indian Ocean in one go. This conveys the inclusion of Madagascar and Comoros as part of India’s Indian Ocean vision.

This also indicates rising salience of Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in MEA policy making. The region is getting the same importance as immediate neighbors. IOR countries (Maldives, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles) were among the very first to receive India’s Covid assistance. Op Sanjeevani in Maldives and special Air India flights with medicine consignments to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles. It is the only region where three medical teams have now been sent to assist. Maldives earlier and now Mauritius and Comoros. This conveys not only readiness to deploy manpower but also the confidence and faith in Indian expertise in these countries.

All assistance is request based. But the manner in which the operations have been carried out display Delhi’s readiness and capability to step up even as India have challenges at home. The move cements India’s status as first responder in any crisis and builds trust in these countries that India can be relied upon as a trusted partner to deliver. The PM and Foreign Minister maintain regular communication with the leadership of IOR countries, including on social media.

Amid Chinese moves PM Narendra Modi has dialed key leaders across the region. He rang up Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha. He also spoke to Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and conveyed India's willingness to provide all possible support to Myanmar for mitigating the health and economic impact of the pandemic. The Prime Minister called up Suu Kyi days after China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent a military medical team to Nay Pyi Taw to help the South-east Asian nation to deal with the pandemic. This was the second medical team Beijing sent to help Nay Pyi Daw to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak in Myanmar. China has sent its military medical teams to Laos and Pakistan as well.

China’s envoy to Myanmar is engaging in hectic diplomacy to implement Beijing’s key infrastructure projects in the country despite the fact that both countries’ economies are facing a significant slowdown due to the effects of the COVID-19. The Chinese backed projects include New Yangon City, Kyaukphyu Deep-Sea Port and Industrial Zone and the China-Myanmar Border Economic Cooperation Zone.

Myanmar signed an MoU to establish the China Myanmar Economic Corridor in 2018. The 1,700-kilometer corridor will connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, to Myanmar’s major economic hubs—first to Mandalay in central Myanmar, and then east to Yangon and west to the Kyaukphyu SEZ in western Rakhine State. Delhi on its part is also extending currency swap facility to its neighbours to help them mitigate the impact of the crisis on their economies, in addition to providing them with paracetamol and hydroxychloroquine tablets as well as protective gears for healthcare professionals, face masks and other medical equipment besides sending medical teams. India has also sent medicines on grant basis to several African states.

India recently activated a currency swap facility of $ 150 million for Maldives. The Reserve Bank of India is also working with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to finalise a $ 400 million currency swap agreement for the neighbouring island nation. China already provided a preliminary $ 500 million concessional loan to Sri Lanka to help it cushion the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In SE Asia, Modi had also discussed with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam, President Jokowi of Indonesia and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore cooperation to combat pandemic. He has also separately engaged with each and every leader in the immediate neighbourhood.


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