With China’s rising indulgence in Asia’s geopolitical scenario, India needs to wean away its smaller neighbours from Beijing’s influence
China has suffered two major diplomatic setbacks in Asia within the span of one month. The first was its failure to get its protégé Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The second was the defeat of its friend Abdulla Yameen in the presidential election of the Maldives at the hands of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, a close friend of India.
In the presidential election in the Maldives held on September 23, Yameen, who had turned the island nation into a vast prison house by arresting all opposition leaders and members of the higher judiciary and suppressing all dissent, failed to be re-elected, despite rigging. Solih won hands down, securing 58.3 per cent of total votes polled.
Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena dismissed his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26 and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man he had defeated in the 2015 presidential election, in his place. The development came as a denouement of a rumour spread by unknown persons that India's external intelligence agency RAW had hatched a plan for assassinating Sirisena. Who planted and spread the rumour is not known but the intention was clear: sow distrust and discord between India and Sri Lanka.
The arbitrary dismissal of Wickremesinghe plunged the island nation into a crisis, with both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe claiming to be the Prime Minister. Ultimately, the crisis was resolved when the Sri Lankan Supreme Court held Sirisena's decision to be unconstitutional and re-appointed Wickremesinghe as PM. When the House met, supporters of both 'Prime Ministers' clashed. Chilly powder was freely used, but Wickremesinghe won the trust vote. Unable to stomach his failure to install Rajapaksa, Sirisena dissolved Parliament on December 9. Fresh elections are to be held on January 5 next year. The outcome of the result will show whether the new government will pursue an independent foreign policy or be amenable to China's pressure tactics.
Meanwhile, the question that arises is: why Sirisena, who started his innings as President and as a friend of India, turned so much against India that he wanted to cut out New Delhi from the projects India was implementing in Sri Lanka, some as joint ventures with Japan? The apparent reason is that today Sri Lanka finds itself in a debt trap. Its huge debt to China (estimated at $1.5 billion) is just unrepayable. China is using this to arm-twist Colombo in toeing an anti-India line. Unless some friendly countries come to the rescue of Colombo by enabling it to repay at least a part of the Chinese debt, Sri Lanka will have little leeway to withstand Chinese pressure.
In the case of Maldives, India has actually come to its rescue. Maldives' total debt to China is around $3 billion. This is a far bigger loan than Sri Lanka's by a country which is just a speck compared to Sri Lanka (65,610 sq. km against 298 sq. km). President Solih visited New Delhi in the middle of this month. India announced financial assistance of $1.4 billion to the island nation, knowing fully well that it will be used to repay a part of the Chinese loan. India and Maldives also agreed to cooperate closely in maritime security in the Indian Ocean. They will also undertake coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance. The strategic significance of this will not be lost on China.
There has been some unfair criticism in some quarters of India's decision to extend financial assistance to the Maldives. The question raised is why should Indian tax-payers' money be paid to China through the Maldives? In the larger context of India's strategic need to contain China and wean away its smaller neighbours from the influence of Beijing, this is a small price to pay. Depending on which government is voted to power in Sri Lanka next month, India may have to help Colombo in loosening China's vice-like grip on the country. This will be necessary for India's own interest.
President Trump's decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan also creates a piquant situation for India. Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan will grow and through Pakistan, China will try to get an entry into that country, which is the gateway to the Central Asian countries that were once constituent republics of the former Soviet Union. These countries are rich in mineral resources.
India will also have to give more attention to Nepal for mending its fences with Kathmandu. Nepal has been drifting away from India and getting closer to Beijing. The drift away from India has to be reversed. This is especially necessary in view of the continuous Chinese military build-up in Tibet, close to the international border in the high Himalayas. India will have to play more aggressive diplomacy vis-à-vis China in its immediate neighbourhood, keeping in mind that the Chinese challenge to India is not only military but also economic.
China is reportedly building facilities in Pakistan for making submarines and other military hardware. This adds a new dimension to India's security scenario. Winning new friends and deepening ties with old friends has become imperative for India. As the saying goes, to be forewarned is to be fore-armed.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)