NEW DELHI: An agreement to give Indian Navy access to the Duqm port in Oman will have far-reaching consequences for India’s strategic reach westwards and in the Indian Ocean. Seen together with the agreement with the UAE for joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf in March, India is making slow but sure progress in pitching its presence in the area.
Last month, India and Seychelles overcame domestic opposition in the island nation to sign a revised agreement for India to build “military infrastructure” in the island of Assumption. A similar agreement for Agalega Island in Mauritius already exists. In 2017, President Ram Nath Kovind made Djibouti his first overseas stop — India and Djibouti are likely to establish diplomatic relations this year with an Indian mission in that very important post on the Horn of Africa.
India was somewhat late in acknowledging the importance of Duqm — the US built its presence there in 2013-14, followed by the UK. Unable to resist the charms of Chinese investment, the Duqm port Commercial Terminal and Operational Zone Development Project saw China investing over $350 million in August 2016.
India has the closest political ties with Oman, also the longest. Its geo-strategic importance for India is unique as it sits atop the crucial waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. More than that, Oman has been the original “non-aligned” country in that region — part of the Arab GCC, but maintaining close links with Iran, and now, the black sheep of the Arab alliance, Qatar.
The US used Oman’s good offices to reach out to Iran when they negotiated the nuclear deal, just as it was Oman’s intervention that helped India rescue Father Tom from ISIS captivity in Yemen. As India seeks to engage the Gulf countries more intensively, the Oman experience is invaluable.
In addition, Oman used to be the original Indian Ocean nation with territorial assets going south to Zanzibar, something that has been a basis for closer ties between India and Oman. While PM Modi has engaged the UAE and Saudi Arabia, somehow it seemed that Oman was falling through the cracks.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj made Muscat her first overseas call, but it has taken Modi four years to travel to Oman — partly due to Sultan Qaboos’ ill health. All three Indian military services conducted exercises with their Omani counterparts and both the Navy and Air Force use Oman’s Salalah for repair and refueling. But Duqm is different — it is completely artificial and created solely for economic and strategic use.
As China takes over Gwadar in Pakistan, India’s presence in Duqm is crucial as a security checkmate, giving India the ability to cut off China at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman. It is part of historical irony that Gwadar, which used to belong to the Omani sultan, was offered to India in the 1950s.
India had refused, on the grounds that it would not be able to defend it from Pakistan. Duqm in addition, gives Indian Navy a logistics multiplier as it seeks to counter China’s presence in Djibouti, and reach further westwards towards the Red Sea.