Indian Ocean Region Still a Blur on MEA Map

By Devirupa Mitra

A new leadership at the helm, the Ministry of External Affairs had restructured internal divisions to create a new one, focusing exclusively on the Indian Ocean region. But even after the division has officially come into existence, its contours are yet to be fully mapped. It seems the ministry cannot quite decide whether to take on everything from piracy to bilateral ties in one fell swoop or it would be too much to chew.

The new Indian Ocean region division was planned as an offshoot of the earlier BSM department, which looked after Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar—all very crucial for India’s foreign policy.

After the last joint secretary (BSM) Harshvardhan Shringla handed over his baton in the first week of January, the department was split down the middle with Sri Lanka and Maldives made part of a larger focus on Indian Ocean region. The new official title given to one of Shringla’s two successors, Suchitra Durai is joint secretary (SM and IOR).

However, the ministry is still struggling with defining this division.

The big Indian Ocean islands, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, are supposed to be plucked from the East and Southern Africa division and put in the new basket. There is also a certain view that the littoral east African countries should also be part of the division.

The new emerging trilateral partnership between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka in maritime security would be a perfect fit, especially as they expand to include Mauritius and Seychelles. But, whether the new division works with the new countries on the bilateral front is still not clear. “Should their bilateral relationship, which also has certain development assistance component, also get to the new division? It is still being debated,” said an MEA official.

Workload related to the recently-rebranded Indian Ocean Rim Association would certainly become part of the new division. It is now being looked by MEA’s multilateral economic relations—but responsibility will be given to the newly-formed division after joint secretary (MER) Dinesh Bhatia is scheduled to leave.

Then, there is the issue of piracy. With major navies concentrating their efforts in the region, there has been a significant drop in the number of piracy incidents last year—but there is fear that piracy operations may be just pushed further south.

At present, issues related to piracy in Indian Ocean are technically being looked after by two divisions in MEA. The United Nations (political) looks after the multilateral part, while West Asia and North Africa division looked after the piracy angle from the localised view through Somalia and the horn of Africa region. “It will take some time for this new division to evolve and settle down,” said an official.

Meanwhile, the other changes have already begun to be implemented. Public diplomacy division has been merged into external publicity. Three MEA divisions have begun to work from Jawharlal Nehru Bhawan—ESA, United Nations (Political) and United Nations (economic and social).


Original Article