New Delhi: With Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi ramping up China’s outreach to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Africa as part of Beijing’s relentless effort to expand its footprint and influence in these strategically important regions, India has launched a “diplomatic blitzkrieg” to step up its engagement in key African nations as well as in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. China started its diplomatic mission in the New Year with Wang’s visit to some African countries and the Maldives and Sri Lanka in what highlights Beijing’s renewed bid to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean island nations. “Indian diplomats were in action mode even before the Chinese Foreign Minister started off his visit to the African countries and to the nations in India’s maritime backyard,” top diplomatic sources said.

As a result of this, India already ramped up its diplomatic outreach to IOR and Africa, sources added. Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately conveyed his New Year greetings to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa. PM Modi conveyed the greetings on 7 January, one day before Wang’s arrival in Colombo. Wang reached Sri Lanka on 8 January to conclude his whirlwind tour of the Indian Ocean Region and Africa. Sources told The Sunday Guardian that PM Modi in his message assured Sri Lankan leaders of India’s cooperation in all crucial and strategic sectors. “The message that the Indian leadership sought to give to its Sri Lankan counterpart was about China’s debt-trap diplomacy on the pretext of projects and heavy financing,” a diplomat told this newspaper. Wang Yi was in neighbouring Male when PM Modi conveyed his message to the Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo. Significantly, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Thursday evening (6 January) spoke to his Sri Lankan counterpart, G.L Peiris over phone, conveying that India was a reliable friend and would support Colombo in these difficult times. India’s outreach to Sri Lanka like this is being seen in the context of Delhi’s diplomacy to counter Beijing’s determined push to expand its clout in the Indo-Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean Region. “Definitely, Wang’s visit to Male and Colombo is part of China’s strategy in that direction,” says a diplomat. EAM Jaishankar, is also learnt to have spoken to the Foreign Minister of the Maldives a week before Wang landed there.

MEA sources told The Sunday Guardian that in the New Year, EAM Jaishankar has so far spoken to a dozen Foreign Ministers. He has spoken to the Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, UAE, Singapore, Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria, Bhutan, Indonesia, Australia, the US and Russia. “Now EAM Jaishankar will intensify engagement with the African countries where China is eyeing to expand its clout,” said an official.

India knows well how China is trying to increase its engagement with the African countries in the Western Indian Ocean. These island nations are Seychelles, Comoros, Mauritius and Madagascar with whom China has stepped up its engagement. With this in view, India has already started increasing its diplomatic engagement with these countries. Ambassador Abhay Kumar’s recent meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Madagascar, Patrick Rejoelina is being seen in this perspective. The bilateral issues were discussed at this meeting and new areas of cooperation were identified, sources say. EAM Jaishankar will also start visiting these countries soon, particularly those where Wang Yi visited this week, sources added.

Wang began his African journey this week visiting Eritrea and Kenya. Kenya is the largest economy in East Africa and a key hub for Indian Ocean trade. China has developed a significant economic presence in Kenya. Eritrea recently joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He also visited Comoros.

Interestingly, Indian Navy ship Kesari arrived at the port of Moroni, Comoros on the day when the Chinese Foreign Minister was in that country. Chinese diplomats are said to have seen a message in the development, say sources. The visit to Comoros assumes significance even as Beijing has been trying to increase its presence and engagement in the Indian Ocean and the African continent. Wang’s visit to the Maldives is significant because this is the first high level visit from China to the island nation under the Solih government that came to power in 2018. Yi’s Male visit was closely watched and scrutinized by India amid an “India Out” campaign going on in Maldives with Beijing’s backing.