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Narendra Modi’s ‘Mausam’ manoeuvre to check China’s maritime might

NEW DELHI: As China's President Xi Jinping comes calling on Wednesday, India is all set to launch what is probably the Narendra Modi government's most significant foreign policy initiative for countering Beijing's growing influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Long accused of remaining a mute spectator to China's expanding interests in the region — and the astounding success of Beijing's "maritime silk road" proposal — India will soon launch its own Project Mausam, a transnational initiative meant to revive its ancient maritime routes and cultural linkages with countries in the region.

Titled Project Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural Landscapes Across the Indian Ocean, the project focuses on the natural wind phenomenon, especially monsoon winds used by Indian sailors in ancient times for maritime trade, that has shaped interactions between countries and communities connected by the Indian Ocean.

TOI has learned that foreign secretary Sujatha Singh held a meeting with culture secretary Ravindra Singh to discuss how to give shape to the project, garbed in India's cultural linkages but with a serious strategic dimension, in light of the Chinese emphasis on the maritime silk route.

According to sources, Project Mausam aims to explore the multifaceted Indian Ocean "world" — extending from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago.

While India is also among the countries invited to join China's maritime silk route initiative, New Delhi has been alarmed by the interest shown by Sri Lanka and Maldives in the Chinese proposal, which ostensibly seeks to revive ancient economic linkages. Xi will become the first Chinese president to visit these two countries later this week.

Infrastructure push

The government will seek to draw on its ancient linkages with countries in this region as it offers an alternative which could counter-balance the maritime silk route of China. India also faces the onerous task of matching China's emphasis on building landmark infrastructure in the region, including ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. While the facilities are said to be civilian, India fears China getting operational control of these.

While the maritime silk route is likely to see China further intensify its naval activities in the region, India is looking to do more than just play catch up. It has offered a $100 million concessional credit line to Vietnam for purchasing patrol boats and is focusing on enhancing naval cooperation through joint naval exercises and working on issues of maritime security.

"India is the founding member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium as well as Contact Group on Piracy. The Indian Navy commenced antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the sea routes of the Indian Ocean in 2008. India has started cooperating with Maldives and Sri Lanka on maritime security in trilateral format since October 2011," said an official.

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