Love thy neighbour!
Considering China’s growing supremacy, India must remain pragmatic while balancing diplomatic relations with her neighbours, writes Arun Srivastava
"More than China... India should play a better role in Maldives than in any other country because we are neighbours. And we have been friends." This is a simple sentence but diplomatically, this remark from Ahmed Mohamed, Maldives' ambassador to India, has wider ramifications. Through his one-liner, he was holding India responsible for the present crisis.
While at some level it reflects the mind and political stance of the island country, it also implies that it is the duty of India to keep its neighbour in good humour, serve its interest. And, for this untiring task, India must not expect anything from them. In fact, behind the façade of diplomatic jargons, he was trying to make the point that for the present crisis, India must not hold the present ruler responsible. Though he did not outrightly blame India for the deteriorating India-Male relations, his cryptic remark is enough to send the message that all is not well with the two countries.
It is not that Maldives is the first neighbouring country to express this feeling. That India does not treat its neighbours as equals is an old allegation. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the neighbours also reciprocate the same sentiment. This cannot be a one-way traffic. The Maldives action cannot be described as a good neighbourly gesture. This has been the primary reason for neighbourhood hostility. Maldives knew of India's reservations about Beijing's Belt and Road initiative to build trade and transport links across Asia and beyond, but ignoring the Indian concern it signed the deals with China, which was detrimental to the Indian interest.
Maldives has been in crisis for some time. The situation aggravated after the Supreme Court of that country quashed convictions of nine senior opposition leaders, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, in cases ranging from corruption to terrorism. The tension came to a head when Yameen's government rejected the ruling, imposed emergency for 15 days and then arrested the Chief Justice and another judge of the court. What was shocking was the reluctance of the Maldives President to discuss the issue before precipitating the crisis.
He allowed his Chinese friends to muddle the situation. China has no locus standi to warn India or the other nations to refrain from meddling in the affairs of Maldives. Yameen aligning with China has not come as a surprise. In global diplomacy, there are a number of such examples. Maldives has the right to align with China but Yameen must weigh the impact and fall out of his move. Yameen has progressively moved closer to China as his fragile grip on power has been challenged by Nasheed.
In this backdrop, China's insistence that India should keep away from the development in Maldives is untenable. It is an open secret that China would not have received a boost if India had played its cards professionally. A closer look at the development would make it clear that India's inability to have a clear-cut policy about the neighbours and also its inability to build on the 'Neighbourhood First' policy have been responsible for the creation of the situation. The neighbours look at India, not as a provider of economic development assistance. Even if it moves to provide assistance, its action is viewed with suspicion. On the contrary, China has emerged as a greater attraction for them.
India's relations with Maldives have been tattered since 2012 when Nasheed was deposed by force and Abdullah Yameen became President. Since then, Maldives has progressively cosied up to China at the expense of India. This started with the cancellation of the Indian company GMR's contract for building the Male Airport and instead, it being awarded to China during President Xi Jinping's 2015 visit. The Indian construction firms have also sullied the Indian image in the neighbourhood.
India increasingly finds itself in a blind alley. Even as the Modi government claims that its diplomacy expands, the strategic space to address its core national or international concerns is certainly not expanding. The Prime Minister claims to have the American establishment on its right side, but the recent developments do not endorse this. It would be a tough proposition to find any evidence that India's capabilities have changed for the better during these years.
India has been proactive in strengthening its partnerships with Japan, Australia, the pro-American countries, which are concerned about China. Undeniably, this has antagonised the friendly forces and countries. These initiatives have not helped India to make its own independent space in the global arena. From Doklam to Kashmir, from Maldives to Nepal, India has been put it in a helpless position in its own neighbourhood. The fact cannot be denied that with the possible exception of Bangladesh, India's diplomatic, moral and even elder brother authority stands diminished. While India's Pakistan policy is a complete flop, China's shadow looms large on the neighbours.
The results of local government elections in Sri Lanka also make it explicit that India has lost a friend. The shadow of China looms large in Sri Lanka. China's efforts to make its base there could materialise only due to the wrong handling of the island issues by the government. The outcome of the village elections makes it clear that China will play a bigger role in Sri Lanka's development. The battle line has been drawn between the country's twice defeated pro-China former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the incumbent pro-India coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena.
India lost the ground again due to the wrongdoings of the Indian contractors. An impression was created that the Indian contractors were not sincere. Rajapaksa used the civic poll to send the message across. Interestingly, all the allegations by Sirisena and others against him did not find takers. Rajapaksa succeeded in convincing the people that the government was selling out "national assets" such as the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport, both projects initiated by him with huge Chinese loans. People dismissed Sirisena's allegation; "We know that 10 trillion rupees came into Sri Lanka during the regime of Rajapaksa, but the Finance Ministry can only account for one trillion rupees. We do not know what happened to the remaining money." The opposition had also alleged that Rajapaksa and his immediate family received huge payoffs by giving fast-track approval of the Chinese-funded projects that included highways, ports, airports and even an offshore city close to Colombo.
Though the Nepali political leadership has been trying to maintain a facade of normal relations with India, it is a known fact that it is hostile. The way the Indian political leadership tried to interfere in the matter of framing the Nepali Constitution has simply antagonised the Nepali people and their leadership. In the existing situation, China has replaced India as the benefactor. Khadga Prasad Oli, the chairman of the CPN-UML, visited China last year when he was Nepal's Prime Minister and proposed plans for a railway and expanded roads connecting the two countries. A previous government also signed a memorandum that would see China cooperate on the construction of Nepal's largest power station. Now, China is busy establishing its military bases at far-flung strategic locations on the lines of the Malabar military exercise, which is a trilateral naval exercise involving the US, Japan, and India.
(Views expressed are strictly personal)