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India gets a reprieve in Sri Lanka & Maldives

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant.
Published : Dec 20, 2018, 12:23 am IST
Updated : Dec 20, 2018, 12:23 am IST

The Maldives is estimated to have racked up over $1.3 billion in debt to China.

Ranil Wickremesinghe (Photo: AFP)
 Ranil Wickremesinghe (Photo: AFP)

It is time once again for smiles and handshakes. After several years of frigid relations, India and the Maldives are back to the bonhomie of a traditional friendship. The new Maldivian President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who won a somewhat unanticipated election victory this October, was in New Delhi this week, calling India the “closest friend” of his country.

President Solih’s New Delhi visit and pronouncements marks a radical shift in the decidedly pro-Beijing policy adopted by his predecessor, the rabidly anti-Indian strongman Abdulla Yameen. Mr Yameen had kicked off his authoritative rule by sacking and imprisoning the country’s first democratically-elected President, Mohammed Nasheed, and ruthlessly suppressing real and imagined rivals, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Mr Yameen had virtually cut off all relations with India, forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cancel his 2015 state visit to the Maldives. An unperturbed Mr Yameen had continued to cosy up to China, which poured in money into a number of big-ticket projects including a 2-km-long sea bridge linking the Maldivian capital, Male, with its airport.

China is believed to have secured permission to build ports and military installations in some of the 1,192 islands that comprise the tiny Indian Ocean republic. Chinese naval ships too began to visit Male. When Male cancelled a planned military exercise with New Delhi, it was clear that the country had slipped into the Chinese camp.

Now, with Mr Yameen out and Mr Solih in the top seat, it emerges that Chinese investments in the Maldives were part of a familiar pattern designed to induce indebtedness and further tighten Beijing’s iron grip.

The Maldives is estimated to have racked up over $1.3 billion in debt to China. This amounts to more than a quarter of its entire GDP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $1.4 billion in aid to the Maldives which should get that country out of the debt trap sprung by China. This payout is expected to bring Male back to New Delhi’s fold.

A similarly fortuitous turn of political events in neighbouring Sri Lanka has recently gladdened New Delhi. The pro-China political usurper and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had unconstitutionally replaced the country’s democratically-elected Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was forced out late last week. India openly welcomed the reinstatement of Mr Wickremesinghe, and its external affairs ministry spokesman added: “We are confident that India-Sri Lanka relations will continue to move on an upward trajectory.”

Mr Rajapaksa, it will be recalled, had made some major concessions to Beijing and had ended up indebting his country, compelling Colombo to lease out its Hambantota port to China.

Mr Wickremesinghe might be pro-India, but this is not the case with a large and powerful section of Sri Lanka’s political class, which includes the country’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, who had dismissed him.

India might have won a reprieve in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, but that could well be temporary. It was the internal politics of the two nations that had worked in India’s favour and not any overwhelming geopolitical dynamic.

Like it or not, China will continue to remain an attractive proposition in this region with its deep pockets and the potential of balancing New Delhi. Fears of Indian hegemony in South Asia will similarly remain an ineluctable factor in the geopolitics of the region.

On the other hand, fears of the Chinese dragon hug contrasted with India’s tendency to peddle soft power could make regional leaders think twice before once again putting all their eggs in Beijing’s basket.

In the long run, however, matters can only get more complicated in India’s neighbourhood, principally because China’s commissars are intent on making the Indian Ocean their playground.

The rapid development of the Chinese blue water Navy spells ultimate Chinese assertivenesshere as it already is in the China seas.

An aggressive rival in the region is already severely testing India’s influence and infusing new uncertainties. The kind of abrupt anti-India shift and an equally abrupt course correction of the kind seen in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, far from being exceptions, could well become the norm in the future.

In order to immunise our interests from the mercurial politics of the smaller, inherently insecure regional nations, New Delhi requires a broader, more overarching strategy. One possibility would be a closer and more pragmatic tieup with Japan to secure both the military and economic environment of the Indian Ocean region. Japan, unlike the Western powers, does not possess a negative militaristic persona, despite its historical past.

Its defence-oriented military is seen more as a balancing than a bullying or predatory force. The same cannot be said of China or the United States, two nations that are looked upon with considerable suspicion in today’s world, especially in the Indian Ocean region.

Tokyo, despite its manoeuvres designed to reassure Beijing, is quietly but resolutely moving towards building a formidable naval capability. Its latest decision to build destroyers capable of hoisting the naval version of the US-made F-35 fighter is a major step towards developing a high degree of deterrence as well as the capacity to operate far from its territorial waters.

Equally significant is Japan’s decision to develop a military base in Djibouti, which already hosts a similar US and Chinese presence. These decisions point to Japan’s seriousness in emerging as a key security player in the Indian Ocean region.

New Delhi would do well to dovetail its plans with that of Tokyo. Such an alliance would only be mutually helpful. Japan also has a huge pool of investible capital which could be invested in the region in a judicious mesh of economic and security interests.

New Delhi has taken baby steps in this direction but falters due to an excessive concern with Beijing’s sentiments. While it must comply to a degree with Beijing’s rigid demands to avert military pressure on its borders, New Delhi must simultaneously, even brazenly, pursue a politico-economic-military alliance with Tokyo.

A strong, credible geopolitical alliance in the Indian Ocean region will be the greatest stabilising force. This could also be the best deterrent against future unsettling alliances and detrimental agreements like the ones witnessed in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Tags: ibrahim mohamed solih, ranil wickremesinghe