In a first, India has just held a special training course for 6 Indian Ocean Region (IOR) countries, 4 of them from the strategically important western Indian Ocean where India has been playing catch-up with China.

Thirty five diplomats from Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Maldives participated in the 2-week special course held at the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service. Comoros and Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean, a region where bureaucratic red tapeism has threatened to undermine the Indian outreach, sent 12 and 10 diplomats respectively for the programme.

The course entailed modules on India’s polity, foreign policy, contemporary maritime issues, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, international framework under UNCLOS, multilateral and economic diplomacy, diplomatic protocol, health diplomacy and climate change challenges. According to the government, this first-ever course will further promote mutual understanding and cooperation between IOR countries and help build awareness about this region as one based on "peace, progress and prosperity" for all.

The fact that countries like Comoros and Madagascar, the largest island in the Indian Ocean, showed a lot of interest in the programme is of significance to India. China has consolidated its naval presence in the region with the appointment of a defence attaché in Madagascar earlier this year.

While India had approved the proposal for a military attaché in Madagascar a few years ago, the actual appointment is yet to take place. Similarly, another proposal for deployment of a liaison officer at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre in Madagascar is still hanging fire. Yet another proposal for appointment of English teachers in Madagascar, despite years of discussions, has not materialised.

Beijing, on the other hand, launched a Chinese language course in the Madagascar defence ministry last month to facilitate a more efficient "exchange of ideas and experiences"’ between the 2 militaries. According to Global Times, the Madagascar defence minister, Richard Rakotonirina, addressed the conference in Chinese, saying the course will help the 2 sides understand each other and deepen ties. Even before the launch of this new course, Beijing had been training Madagascar officials in China in French, one of the 2 official languages in the island.

For India, it’s important to have a defence attaché to be able to build upon Madagascar’s stated desire to deepen defence ties with the country located in a region of increasing strategic importance. In an interview to TOI, during his visit to India earlier this year, Rakotonirina had said Madagascar wanted to gain from India through joint military exercises and capacity building programmes.

India and Madagascar already have an MoU for defence cooperation and, as Rakotonirina had said, the latter wants a Malagasy-Indian joint commission for cooperation in maritime sector through transfer of Indian expertise to Magalasy National Navy.