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30 March 2017, Gateway House

Impact of the Indian Ocean Connectivity on India-Kenya Relations

The past decade has witnessed an evolution of India-Africa relations especially since the implementation of Modi's Act East policy. There is also a growing realisation of the strategic and geopolitical value of the Indian Ocean region. This speech highlights the policies needed to strengthen India-Kenya relations and tap the wealth of resources in this Blue Economy.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The following speech was delivered at a conference at the University of Nairobi. He also presented a paper on “Impact of Indian Ocean Connectivity on India-Kenya Relations”.


The Indian Ocean links, not separates, India and Kenya as well as the rest of Eastern and Southern Africa. History bears witness to this ocean being a time-tested highway through which people travelled with goods, customs and traditions as well as ideas and values to create the foundation of a relationship that continues to flourish to this day. India’s multi-dimensional partnership with Kenya needs a new momentum in changed contemporary realities. The Indian Ocean region confronts major challenges viz. the absence of security, sharpening geopolitical contestation and uncertainty, geo-economic competition, inadequate focus on the nations’ development agenda, pressing need to broaden economic cooperation, and the imperative of deploying requisite resources for tapping full potential of the Blue Economy. A serious discussion on available tools and their prioritization is essential, which enables policymakers to address the challenges identified and prepares civil society to increase its contribution in this context. The suggested toolkit may need to include the following: enhancing connectivity through sea and air links; stepping up political  economic and cultural exchanges in a mutually beneficial manner in keeping with recent trends; increasing and expanding the interaction of ideas through the medium of “knowledge people” and public at large, especially youth, women, artists and professional classes; and exploring new ways to augment India-Kenya cooperation in select multilateral institutions of mutual interest such as the African Union, EAC, the emerging continental FTA, IORA, IAFS, besides UN and the UN-related bodies like UNEP and UN-Habitat. Most importantly, the place of Eastern Africa – with Kenya as its pivotal actor – in India’s worldview should be assessed and located accurately, just as Kenya, driven by what is occasionally portrayed as its “Look East Policy”, accords high importance to its partnership with China, India and Japan.


In a professional life spanning four decades, this author has spent 37 years in diplomacy and 10 years in the strategic and academic community. The common thread through the decades has been the chance to reside, observe, study, reflect and write on developments in the Indian Ocean region. As a diplomat, I served in four Indian Ocean nations – Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar and South Africa. I was also responsible, while serving at the ministry of external Affairs, for India’s relations with three other Indian Ocean nations – Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh. As head of a prestigious think tank – the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), we strove hard to strengthen Track II linkages within the region.

Hence, I articulate a personal conviction born of years of observation and experience: the mighty Indian Ocean links, not separates, the littoral nations, particularly India and Kenya, the two lands that were connected by their courageous and adventure-loving people long before the advent of colonialism in the 19th century. The story that a Malindi sailor, perhaps an Indian or Arab expert on ocean winds, served as a pilot for Vasco da Gama in 1498 and showed him the existing sea route from the East African coast to Indian shores, bears mention in this context.[2]

Our collective aim for this conference, I think, is to situate and examine India-Kenya relations in the larger context shaped by major developments and changing power dynamics in the Indian Ocean. The implicit hope is that this exercise will reveal to us the path to revitalize and deepen ties that have stood the test of time.

Accordingly, I propose to share briefly my views on a few key concepts popular in strategic and diplomatic circles; point to significant challenges that confront the countries of this region; and try to spell out the way forward in a manner that helps both policymakers and public opinion. It is through enhanced synergy between the government and non-government sectors that we may have a better possibility to address and resolve the pressing policy issues that stare at us today.

Past Decade: Key Concepts

During the sunset years of the 20th century, scholars and political leaders had started portraying the 21st century as the “Asian Century”, arguing that the shift of power from the west to the east heralded its arrival. If the 19th century was British and the 20th century was American, the argument ran, the 21st century would be Asian in character, with Asia leading and impacting on the world. Indian leaders, however, offered a different perspective. Speaking at the first India-Africa Forum Summit PM Manmohan Singh envisaged the 21st century as the century of Asia and Africa. In March 2017, President Pranab Mukherjee spoke of an “India-Africa century.” The narrative about the Asian century has lost much of its momentum in recent years as disputes relating to the South China Sea and East China Sea as well as China’s strained relations with several Asia-Pacific powers created their own ripples. Some scholars now point out that the Asian century died even before it was born.[3]

Fast growing literature on another idea – the rising salience and significance of the India Ocean – is noteworthy. The vast Indian Ocean region hosts over 40 countries and nearly 40% of world population. It has been “our common home since time immemorial” and holds “immense opportunities for the future”, said Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister of external affairs.[4]

In a country whose capital, New Delhi, was accused of “sea-blindness” for decades after Independence, conferences and seminars are held on oceanic affairs with remarkable regularity. Recently India’s ministry of external affairs created a new division that handles the Indian Ocean region. For trade, energy supplies, security and strategic factors, the importance of the Indian Ocean has gone up in every policy calculus and, with it, the public awareness about it in all segments of the region.

Reference may be made, in this context, to another relevant concept i.e. of the Indo-Pacific region.

A mix of scholars and political leaders from diverse countries – US, Australia, Japan, Indonesia and  India – have advanced this idea, maintaining that security and development issues in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean have now become so deeply intertwined that the two regions should best be considered as a single region called the Indo-Pacific. They see it as an integrated geopolitical and geo-economic theatre. But, to be fair, it may be added that there are other scholars who disagree. Seeking to promote a consensus view at the international conference hosted by ICWA in March 2013, the government asserted that the Indo-Pacific region could be viewed “as a spatial concept wherein the strengths and complementarities of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are in full play.”[5]

Scholars also disagree on definitions of the Indo-Pacific differ. One of the broadest definitions was offered by the Indo-Pacific Governance Research Centre, University of Adelaide, which called it as the region “spanning the western Pacific Ocean to the western Indian Ocean along the eastern coast of Africa.” I happen to subscribe to this definition.

For comprehending the larger picture, a brief mention of three specific facets of India’s contemporary foreign policy is essential. These are: i) the qualitative transformation of India-Africa ties, ii) the upgradation of Look East Policy to Act East Policy, and iii) the articulation of a new Indian Ocean Policy.

On India-Africa relations, the past decade (2008-17) has been marked by tremendous progress. Through the instrumentality of India-Africa Forum Summits, the holding of the Third Summit where leaders of all 54 African countries were present, the broadening of agenda of cooperation, and the offer of generous grants and lines of credit, this partnership has been given a major boost. Deficit in India’s political visibility on the African continent has been tackled head on. In the past two years (March 2015-March 2017), the top trio of leaders – the President, Vice President and PM – visited a total of 16 African and Indian Ocean countries. This is a historic outreach by India in the past seven decades.

The second facet, the adoption of Act East Policy, reflected New Delhi’s resolve to accord higher policy attention to East Asia. Without weakening its commitment to the core concept of “ASEAN centrality”, India has endeavoured to strengthen its economic and strategic cooperation with non-ASEAN nations such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, while attempting to boost key bilateral relationships with ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

The country’s new Indian Ocean policy was articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Mauritius in March 2015. The policy, encapsulated in SAGAR (meaning ocean) which stands for “Security and Growth for All in the Region”, includes the following critical elements:[6]

  1. Safeguarding our mainland and islands and defend our interests.
  2. Deepening economic and security cooperation with our friends in the region, especially our maritime neighbours and island states.
  3. Collective action and cooperation for peace and security in India’s maritime region.
  4. A more integrated and cooperative future that enhances the prospects for sustainable development for all.
  5. Primary responsibility for security rests with IOR countries, while extra- regional countries would be engaged through dialogue, visits, exercises, capacity building and economic partnership.

Challenges in Indian Ocean

The multiplicity and gravity of challenges faced by the Indian Ocean littorals are uncontestable, although the assessment and relevance of challenges may vary from nation to nation. Out task here is not to offer an exhaustive analysis, but to flag them in order to suggest how they may be addressed in the specific context of India-Kenya relations.

Geopolitics of the region has become far more complex than before. Britain’s dominance of the Indian Ocean continued well after WW II; it gave way to the US Navy’s eminent role between 1960s and 1970s. Subsequently the US and Soviet Union became engaged in a strategic contest, even as the Non-Aligned nations persuaded the United Nations General Assembly  to declare the Indian Ocean as “a zone of peace.” The post-Cold War period saw the US as the centre of a uni-polar world. However, a few years into the new century, US became a declining power. China, India and Japan began to increase their military strength, power projection, economic influence, and diplomatic activism. This phenomenon encompasses (i) the growing rivalry between China and India, despite their mutual cooperation on a wide range of multilateral and bilateral issues, and (ii) an expanding concert of interests and policies among the US, India, Japan and, to a degree, Australia. As Michael Auslin puts it: “The immediate cause of rising insecurity (in the region) is simple: as China has grown stronger, it has become more assertive, even coercive.”[7]

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has been on the increase as geopolitical dynamics evolve further. Among the changes noted are “a possible downsizing of the Western engagement with the region and conscious efforts by the resident stakeholders to get involved in the management and governance of the Indian Ocean.”[8]

Alongside the above developments, there has been a rising awareness among member-nations of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) that international cooperation is the only way to ensure peace, stability, security and development in the region. Indonesia has been playing a leadership role in this context. The message of the Jakarta Concord and other outcome documents[9] of the historic, first-ever, IORA Summit on 7 March 2017, needs to be absorbed and embedded in policymaking by all, particularly India and Kenya as both are important members of this regional institution.

Geopolitics apart, an array of non-traditional security threats has been the object of much international discussion and policy action in the region. Everyone’s list of them would include piracy, terrorism, violent extremism and radicalism, cyber security, climate change and disaster risk management. The problem of piracy has been with humankind through history, and it keeps recurring. Its latest manifestation in the waters off the Somali coast in recent years demonstrated its complex origin, deadly region-wide impact, and the efficacy of international cooperation that eventually brought it under control. The Indian Navy played a significant role in achieving a positive outcome.[10]

Terrorism has now become a global phenomenon, stretching its tentacles from the US, Africa (including Nairobi) and Europe, through Delhi and Mumbai, to Jakarta, Bali and Australia. Hardly an international conference takes place today where this subject is missing from the agenda. A key question to ask ourselves is: are governments the world over winning or losing the war against terrorism? Our response should determine future strategy. In the bilateral context, mechanisms are in place to enhance cooperation for countering terrorism, but their effectiveness should be kept under constant review.

Disaster risk management has been emerging as a major challenge. Natural disasters cover a wide range of events such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, cyclones, tsunamis, heat waves etc. According to the Global Assessment Report 2015 of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), economic losses from natural disasters are now reaching an average of $250 billion to $300 billion each year.

Cooperation in this field has been developing in a better way in the region east of India i.e. among ASEAN and East Asian Summit (EAS) member-states than in the area west and south of India. This underlines the need for stepping up cooperative endeavours. There is no reason why India and the East African Community (EAC), especially Kenya, cannot show leadership in this direction. India demonstrated its commitment and leadership role by convening the EAS conference on disaster management and emergency response in New Delhi in November 2016. Lessons of the conference have relevance to Eastern Africa. Disaster management and emergency response require a people-centered and multi-sectoral approach, which builds resilience to multiple hazards and creates a culture of prevention and safety.

The Way Forward

Our analysis and experience indicate the need for expanding dialogue and deepening cooperation between India and Kenya along the following lines:

  1. Elevate the bilateral relationship to Strategic Partnership: Kenya, traditionally one of the most important partners in Africa for India, has now begun to receive serious attention from the Indian establishment. The roadmap, devised during PM Modi’s visit to Kenya in July 2016 and President Uhuru Kenyatta to India in January 2017, should be implemented optimally, with a sense of priority and urgency.
  2. Take economic cooperation to a new level: As the Exim Bank reports in its latest study, Kenya “is becoming a foremost business hub, not only for oil and gas exploration but also for manufacturing exports, as well as consumer goods and services.”[11] Besides, as an African expert noted about the broader linkages: “The India-Africa relationship should be anchored on investments by Indian firms in African countries and access to Indian markets for African multinationals….”[12] This requires identifying specific obstacles, designing solutions and then implementing them in a sustained manner. Possibilities of Trilateral Cooperation i.e. between India, Kenya and a third country (such as Japan, Germany, UAE and the US) should be fully explored.
  3. Make maritime security a priority area for bilateral cooperation: There is a good match between needs and capabilities of our two countries. Considerable scope exists for expansion of the existing cooperation.
  4. Explore the contours of cooperation to harness full potential of the Blue Economy: This should be undertaken through a determined pursuit of three inter-related objectives i.e. job creation, GDP growth, and sustainability. In other words, economic development and sustaining the environmental health of the oceans and lands surrounding them will need to go together. The desired strategy will require deployment of new financial resources, latest technologies and exchange of best practices and ideas with a view to benefitting both from the existing and emerging sectors of the Blue Economy.
  5. Strengthen cooperation within the framework of IORA: Its six priority areas[13] and three cross-cutting issues[14] provide adequate room for our two governments to undertake specific projects that benefit us as well as the region as a whole. Proposals presented by India such as institutionalizing cooperation mechanisms of White Shipping Agreements, setting up an Information Fusion Centre for strengthening Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and offer to establish an IORA Centre of Excellence (ICE),[15] should be discussed bilaterally and a joint initiative may be considered.
  6. Revitalize the pillar of People-to-People exchanges: By pushing for an accelerated growth of tourism; deepening of educational cooperation; expansion of awareness about our Indian Ocean linkages in school curricula; forging new linkages among universities, civil society, youth and women groups; deployment of sports (viz. cricket, hockey, football and track events) to strengthen friendship among our peoples; initiating institutional dialogues at the level of Think Tanks and media organizations; and engaging Indian/Asian Diaspora in all these proposed activities, we will be in a sound position to supplement and reinforce cooperative ties being promoted by the government and business sectors. That is how we can make a difference.


A former head of the Indian Navy, Admiral Arun Prakash, pointed out: “The surge of interest in the Indian Ocean, of which India is a major geographical constituent, is a new phenomenon.”[16] It is hoped that the laudable initiative to convene this conference, with its much-needed focus on India-Kenya relations, will culminate in a consensus report that contains substantive but implementable suggestions for the consideration of policymakers of both countries. Finally, we also look forward to a major book emerging from this unique conference.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House. He served as India’s ambassador to five countries, three of them in Africa including Kenya.

The following speech was delivered at a conference at the University of Nairobi. He also presented a paper on “Impact of Indian Ocean Connectivity on India-Kenya Relations”.

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[1] This Paper was presented at the international conference on “Connectivity Re-visited: Kenya, India and the Indian Ocean”, held in Nairobi: on 28-29 March 2017.

[2] (accessed on 18 March 2017).

[3] Please see Michael Auslin, “Is The ‘Asian Century’ Over Before It Has Begun?”, Raisina Files, 2017, ORF.

[4] (accessed on 19 March 2017). The statistics relating to the Indian Ocean she cited is worth recalling here: “Today, the Indian Ocean carries one half of world’s container shipments, one-third of the bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of the oil shipments, though three-fourths of this traffic goes to other regions of the world. 90% of our trade by volume and 90 % of our oil imports take place through sea. We have a long coastline of 7500 km, 1200 islands and a 2.4 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone.”

[5] Keynote Address, Salman Khurshid, minister of external affairs, Indo-Pacific Region: Political and Strategic Prospects, (ICWA, 2014).p..xi

[6] Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Barracuda in Mauritius (March 12, 2015) (accessed on 15 March 2017).

[7] Please see Michael Auslin, “Is The ‘Asian Century’ Over Before It Has Begun?”, Raisina Files, 2017, ORF, p.14.

[8] Vijay Sakhuja and Raghavendra Mishra, Evolving Dynamics of the Indian Ocean: Prospects and the Way Forward, (NMF, 2015), p. xx.

[9] The other two outcome documents were: IORA Action Plan and IORA Declaration on preventing violent extremism and countering terrorism.

[10] Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu and Shruti Godbole, “A Case For Strengthening India’s-Africa Partnership”, India and Africa: Forging A Strategic Partnership, October 2015, Brookings, India. The authors assert aptly: “Eradicating piracy and ensuring free Sea Lines of Communication in the Indian Ocean remains one of the major objectives of the Indian military engagement in Africa.” p.12.

[11] Export Import Bank of India, “India’s Investments in Select East African Countries: Prospects and Opportunities.” p. 11.

[12] Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, “The Path To A Real India-Africa Economic Partnership”, India and Africa: Forging A Strategic Partnership, October 2015, Brookings, India, p. 51.

[13] They are: maritime safety and security; trade and investment facilitation; fisheries management; disaster risk management; academic, science and technology cooperation; and tourism and cultural exchanges.

[14] These are: Blue Economy, women’s empowerment, and promotion of democracy and good governance.

[15] Please see the statement by the Vice President of India at the Jakarta Summit of IORA. (accessed on 17 March 2017).

[16] Arun Prakash, Security Challenges Along The Indian Ocean Littoral: Indian and US Perspectives, (NMF, 2011), p.1


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