Ripe Diplomacy, Right Posturing

India-ASEAN

India has shown immense maturity while dealing with the challenges in its neighborhood in an attempt to position itself a regional power centre.

By Shankar Kumar

Last week’s two developments in India’s backyard must have been worrying for the diplomatic corps to state the least. While one was of high political significance, the other equally intensely worrying from a strategic point of view. First one related to Sri Lanka where the power equations straddled back & forth between Ranil Wickremesinghe & Mahinda Rajapaksa, the common denominator being President Maithripala Sirisena, who turned out to be the architect in chief of an otherwise unseen crisis.  Second story revolved around a media report claimed that Beijing is giving a “military turn” to the ongoing China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan.

Even as the Sri Lankan development may have brought some relief to international watchers as after weeks of drama, Colombo ended political uncertainty in the country, yet it is China’s activity in Pakistan which has triggered widespread concern in India. All this has come in the background of several intelligence reports which have talked about the presence of senior PLA officials in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. However, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying rejected the New York Times report that said China was planning to build military equipment including fighter jets under CPEC.  “According to our information, the relevant report is not true,” Hua Chunying said. Still no more riposte or clarification from China would do away with common perception about Beijing’s design against India in South Asia.

Thanks to international outcry against China’s malevolent cheque-book diplomacy which has left many small and poor countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar and others reel under billions of US dollar worth of debt, the world’s second economic power is increasingly losing its goodwill in one after another country. Instead, India, despite lacking deep economic capacity unlike China, has created a pool of goodwill for itself across the world. In Nepal, pro-China Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, is finding it hard to hide ground realities on India-led development in the Himalayan country, which has surprised him and other anti-India critics as well with the speed and scale of work.  The first trans-border oil pipeline between India and Nepal is on the verge of completion & this may happen as soon as Feb 2019. Eight months after foundation stone was laid down for the 36.2 km long Motihari-Amlekhganj pipeline project, nearly 65 per cent of work on the pipeline project which saw India pumping in Rs 3,500 crore, is complete.

India is also all set to bring Nepal under its rail network program. The 34-km long Jay Nagar to Janakpur rail line is nearly complete and the train on this broad gauge track is expected to run anytime in 2019. This rail link will be further extended to Kathmandu. But it is the rail project between Jogbani to Biratnagar which is going on very fast. It is also on the verge of completion. Before China would connect itself with Kathmandu through rail, India has decided to expand its railway infrastructure into Nepal. While such move aims towards giving China a tough challenge in its design to broaden footprint in the Himalayan country, India is leaving no stone unturned to expand the bandwidth of its diplomatic outreach with Nepal, where it has already built and handed over Integrated Check Post in Birgunj and work on three other ICP in the country is going on. In fact, by actively executing projects in Nepal, India wants to send a message to China that the Himalayan nation is in its backyard and that it will not allow Beijing to have space for its influence.

Similarly, India lost no moment in welcoming the electoral outcome of Maldives, which saw pro-China leader and then President Abdulla Yameen suffering a defeat and joint opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohammed Solih being declared as elected. Also, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had to cancel his visit to Maldives in the last minute due to unfavourable political situation in the island nation in 2015, rushed to Male on November 18 to attend swearing-in ceremony of Ibrahim Solih as the President. Recently, when Solih arrived in India on a maiden three-day visit, New Delhi announced $1.4 billion Line of Credit, budgetary support and cooperation in the maritime security area through coordinated patrols and aerial surveillance.

In Ibrahim Solih, India has actually found a leader who has the potential to bring about a much-needed course correction in Maldives’ foreign policy which drifted towards China in the last five years. Under the leadership of Abdulla Yameen, the island nation signed a controversial free trade agreement with China, offered several islands on lease to Beijing for purposes other than tourism, favoured Chinese companies for all small and major infrastructural projects thereby, leading to burdening the country with huge unsustainable debt. On the other hand, under Yameen’s leadership, India was humiliated and its interests were rubbished; Indians were denied visa; India-Maldives defence pact was shredded to pieces; turned down India’s invitation to participate in the biennial eight-day ‘Milan’ naval exercise; asked India to take back two helicopters it had gifted to the island country for its maritime security; Tata’s housing project was cancelled.  With Ibrahim Solih in power, India wants Maldives ‘India First’ policy to gain currency. By making the island nation do so, New Delhi wants to show mirror to China which was, till a few weeks ago, a force to reckon with in all matters concerning Maldives and its interests.  

Similarly, with former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa losing his gambit to sneak back to power in Colombo, international watchers in India appear to be feeling relaxed. Taking a decision fraught with political immaturity, incumbent Sri Lankan President Sirisena ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe from the prime ministerial chair and made the controversial ex-Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa the new Prime Minister. Even as India, Japan, Europe and the US could understand the sudden political development in Sri Lanka, China raced ahead of others to congratulate Rajapaksa for becoming the new Prime Minister of the country. But China’s wishes fell flat at the altar of justice as Rajapaksa failed to prove majority in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Compelled by the country’s Supreme Court, Sirisena was left with no option but to bring Wickremesinghe back to the prime ministerial chair.  With this, India has got back to contention in Sri Lanka, which is bursting at the seams due to unsustainable $8 billion loans from China.  

In Bangladesh, China has failed to cut much ice despite trying to influence the country’s decision making process with the help of its cheque book diplomacy. Earlier in 2018, Bangladesh cancelled a road construction project with China Harbor Engineering Co. Ltd (CHEC) after it was found bribing government officials. The CHEC, which was involved in the construction of Sri Lanka’s Habantota Port and Pakistan’s Gwadar port, was also blacklisted from participating in any future ventures in Bangladesh. Dhaka has already turned down China’s proposal to build a port in Sonadia. However, that doesn’t mean China is no longer there in Bangladesh. Thanks to India, it is not among the movers and shakers of Bangladesh. Instead, India and Japan have ensured that Dhaka remains out of deep political and diplomatic influences of China. Overall, by playing hard and soft ball with South Asian neighbors, India has attempted to safeguard its backyard from China’s pernicious design. Yet how long such attempts last has to be seen.