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Modi's Indian Ocean Nations Visit Has China Angle

FILE - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends an event in New Delhi, Feb. 17, 2015.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to three small neighboring Indian Ocean nations Tuesday as he seeks to ramp up New Delhi’s influence along a strategic maritime route where China’s presence has been growing. The Indian leader will focus on bolstering security ties.

The first stop for Prime Minister Modi will be the Seychelles. From there, he travels onto Mauritius and Sri Lanka.

These are tiny island countries but they are receiving priority treatment. Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to Seychelles in 33 years and to Sri Lanka in 28 years.

Indian foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said New Delhi wants to tap the “substantive goodwill” for India in these countries.

“We are looking at our visit, our interest, the possibility of our cooperation with these countries, and we are very bullish about where we see these relationships going,” said Jaishankar.

Maritime ties

Besides strengthening economic links, Modi will focus on boosting maritime ties as India seeks to become the main “security provider” in the Indian Ocean region.

That’s partly to offset China’s security cooperation with these countries, which has raised worries in New Delhi about Beijing’s push into the Indian Ocean region.

Director of the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, Vijay Sakuja, said India will help build the maritime infrastructure of its Indian Ocean neighbors, providing patrol vessels, aircraft, surveillance vessels and other technological systems.

“The very fact that Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after India -- India finds that Indian Ocean plays very, very significantly in its strategic calculations," said Sakuja.

"Ninety percent of our trade by volume and about 75 percent by value moves over the ocean and through the Indian Ocean, so it makes a lot of sense for New Delhi to make sure that the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace and stability,” said Sakuja.

In Mauritius, the Indian leader will commission a 1300 ton coastal patrol vessel.

Sri Lanka, Maldives connection

Modi will spend the most time during his five day tour in Sri Lanka, where India is seeking to build close ties with the new government.

Foreign Secretary Jaishankar said India wants to do more to rebuild the island nation.

“We also think expanding investment and creating employment in Sri Lanka would be a good way to go. Both countries have invested in some big projects, but we are really looking to scale that up,” he said.

Building a 500-megawatt power station in Trincomalee port is one of the projects which India hopes to seal.

Under the previous Sri Lankan administration, China had become the biggest foreign investor, but the new government is showing signs of moving away from Beijing’s predominant role in building its infrastructure. That’s music to the ears of Indian officials, who were uneasy about China’s expanding influence so close to India's southern tip.

Sri Lanka last week put on hold China’s largest investment in the country -- a $1.5-billion port city project in Colombo.

Originally, Modi also was scheduled to visit Maldives -- another Indian island nation -- but it was dropped due to the domestic political turmoil triggered by the arrest of its former president [Mohamed Nasheed].

Modi is not the only high-profile leader to make a diplomatic foray into Indian ocean countries -- in September last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the Maldives and Sri Lanka.