Celebration in Rivalry

After disintegration of the USSR, it’s redundant to remain non-aligned towards your pro leadership in neighbouring nations. Beijing is doing this and so does New Delhi needs to do this

By Shankar Kumar

Though India-China relations have improved after the 2017 Doklam standoff between the two countries, their rivalry has not stopped them from keeping their eyes open on each other’s activities across the world. In South Asia, it is rivalry between the two neighbouring countries which has pushed countries like Sri Lanka into deep political crisis. Already, Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena has dissolved parliament and has called snap election in the country for January 5, forcing his political rival and deposed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to challenge the President’s decision in the country’s Supreme Court. Is the Sri Lankan President’s move aimed at scoring political points for himself or just an act of whims? But Sirisena undertook such step after former President and pro-China leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who was picked up as a new Prime Minister in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe, maintained that he lacked numbers to prove majority in the House. With this, political crisis in the island nation has further deepened.

Political affiliations of leaders along pro-India and pro-China lines are cited as the reason behind the current uncertainty in the country. If media reports are to be believed, differences between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe deepened after the latter wanted container terminal project at the Colombo port to be handed over to India as per Memorandum of Understanding signed between Sri Lanka and India. The April 2017 MoU signed between India-Sri Lanka also incorporates building of an oil refinery, roads, power stations and development of industrial zones. While status of these projects is not known, Wickremesighe wanted that Mattala international airport, which is closed to Hambantota port, was handed over to India for its operation. Sirisena whose election on the presidential chair in 2015 took India to bear several unbearable costs, was against awarding this and other projects to India. His explanation was local companies, instead of foreign ones should be handed over infrastructure projects.

In his address to the nation, the President cited inappropriate handling of threat on his life by the country’s police chief, the Prime Minister’s inaction on bank fraud issue and differences with Wickremesinghe over several matters as the reason for the dismissal of the latter. Yet several eyes began to roll in suspicion after President Sirisena picked up former President Rajapaksa as the country’s new Prime Minister. It quickly led to a belief among foreign watchers that some foreign hands may be behind the Sri Lankan President’s sudden move. And this became quite apparent when first foreign emissary to welcome and meet Rajapaksa as the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister was found to be none else than the Colombo-based Chinese envoy.

For India, development in the island nation has emerged as a new headache. It issued formal statement in the aftermath of dismissal of Wickremesnghe, stating: “India is closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka. As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka.” But New Delhi has so far not issued any formal statement after the Sri Lankan President dissolved the 225-member parliament. Obviously, India which is closely watching political developments in Sri Lanka, does not want to plunge into the choppy waters of the island nation.

Similarly, in Maldives where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to visit to attend swearing-in ceremony of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the island nation’s new President, New Delhi has hinted out categorically that it will reclaim its political, diplomatic and economic influences in the strategically important country where under the Abdulla Yameen regime, China ruled the roost. Maldives was facilitated to become part of China’s complex and impervious Belt and Road Initiative in the Indian Ocean region. What will happen to the initiative is in the realm of speculation. 

But in the past five years, while island nation’s traditional India-first policy was diluted, the pro-China Yameen regime also ensured that Indian companies didn’t matter in any infrastructure project nor any individual who had a slightest leaning towards India was allowed to rest in peace. In March 2015, the Indian Prime Minister cancelled his visit to Maldives in the last minute as the country had plunged into political turmoil; former President Mohamed Nasheed had been sentenced to 13-year in jail.

Maldives’ relations with India nosedived further when Abdulla Yameen imposed emergency in the country in February 2018 after the Supreme Court ordered release of a group of opposition leaders from jail. Apex court judges, including Chief Justice who formed part of judgment on political prisoners’ release, were also put behind the bars. Completely darkened by arrogance, President Abdulla Yameen didn’t spare even his step brother and former Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from thrusting into jail in his attempt to suppress dissent in the country. Male rejected visa renewals for Indians who were legally working. This year, it turned down India’s invitation to participate in biennial eight-day ‘Milan’ naval exercise and asked India to take back two helicopters it had gifted to the island country for its maritime security.                                                                                                           

The September 24 presidential polls, however, took wind out of Yameen’s sail when electoral outcome went in favour of opposition presidential candidate Mohamed Solih. India was the first country in the world to welcome the polls’ outcome. China which pumped in huge amount of money in Maldives to deepen its political, economic and strategic footprint, had not realized that the table would turn against Abdulla Yameen in such a manner by the people of the island nation. It grudgingly welcomed Mohamed Solih’s election as the new President of Maldives.

Former Maldivian President Nasheed whose supporters played a crucial role in creating an atmosphere in favour of opposition candidate Mohamed Solih, has already declared that all infra projects handed over to China during Abdulla Yameen’s presidency will be reviewed. An estimated $1.3 billion is owed by the island nation to China–more than a quarter of its GDP.  Of the total Chinese investment in the Indian Ocean archipelago, $830 million was pumped in to upgrade the Maldives airport and build 2-km bridge to connect the capital Male with the airport island. Several critics have warned that the debt-ridden island nation may see its situation turning like Sri Lanka, which was forced to give away Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China in December 2017 in exchange for $1.8 billion loan it had taken to develop the project. China is also engaged in the construction of 25-story hospital and other infra projects in Male. But construction exercise was not only business China was prepared to limit itself, it had its eyes on the country’s islets also. According to Nasheed, China has taken on lease not only Feydhoo Finolhu islet but also 15 other islets of 1,192 scattered coral islands which make up the country. In 2017, to the detriment of India, Maldives signed Free Trade Agreement with China.

Now with Abdulla Yameen out of power and pro-India Mohamed Solih in the presidential chair in Maldives, China will find India scratching its back mercilessly, a scenario that New Delhi has to confront with barehanded in Nepal after the return of K P Sharma Oli as the Prime Minister. The Nepal Army refused to participate in the first ever joint military exercise of BIMSTEC nations in Pune in September. The proposal for the joint military drill was forwarded by the Indian Army in June, which was followed by an initial meeting of BIMSTEC senior army officials in New Delhi. But after pro-China lobby in the Himalayan country raised hue and cry, Kathmandu decided not to heed to India’s request for joint drill. While China uses brute money power to intrude into South Asian countries’ soft belly, India uses mix of money and soft power like culture, tradition and historical linkage to keep its neighbours tethered to bilateral engagement. But weak part of China’s geo-political game is that it sees a country, where it has pumped in money for developmental purpose, as a client state. Pakistan is a clear example in this regard.