NEW DELHI: As China makes rapid inroads into the western Indian Ocean, India is hoping to shore up its own security and defence engagement with the strategically significant Madagascar and Comoros Islands in the region. Both countries have confirmed their participation in in the Indian Ocean Region meeting of defence ministers which India will host next week.

While Madagascar delegation will be headed by its defence minister Richard Rakotonirina, Comoros will send a defence delegation under its foreign minister Dhoihir Dhoulkamal. This is the first time that a high-level defence delegation will visit India from the archipelago off the east coast of Africa.

India will host the IOR defence ministers' conclave, themed Enhanced Peace, Security and Cooperation in the Indian Ocean, alongside Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru on February 4. As Indian officials have been quoted as saying, the conclave is an attempt to promote dialogue in an "institutional and cooperative environment that can foster peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean region".

Recognising the geopolitical significance of Madagascar and Comoros, where China continues to ramp up its connectivity and security related activities, the foreign ministry had in 2019 included these countries in IOR division that also handles Mauritius, Seychelles Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Madagascar though is still awaiting appointment of a defence attaché despite an approval in principle by the government in 2019. The defence ministry is expected to clear the proposal soon. India had signed a defence MoU with Madagascar in 2018 under which they are said to be discussing several projects for capacity building and training of Madagascar’s defence personnel.

China is also said to be considering appointing a defence attaché in Madagascar to monitor security related issues. It has already replaced France as the main partner of Madagascar and Comoros in terms of trade, investment and aid. For both India and China, it's important to intensify bilateral engagements with the geo-strategic islands as they look to enhance their naval presence in the western Indian Ocean.

In terms of security and defence, India has sought to catch up in the past few years, more so since the visit to Comoros by Vice President Venkaih Naidu in 2019. The 2 countries had then signed an agreement for defence cooperation with India also announcing a Line of Credit for $ 20 million for procurement of high speed interceptor boats by Comoros. While Naidu's visit was the first ever high-level visit to Comoros from India, as government sources said, Indian naval ships have been making "goodwill visit" to the archipelago in the strategic Mozambique Channel since 2008.