India’s worries increase in strategically located neighbours

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Two significant domestic developments have taken place in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both strategically located neighbours of India. The developments have wider ramifications for India, given China’s increasing inroads into the two countries.

China has left no stone unturned to woo these two close neighbours of India that straddle vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Unlike India, both have joined Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), adding to New Delhi’s anxieties.

In the Maldives, the China-leaning former president Abdullah Yameen walked out free from house arrest on November 30 after being acquitted of money laundering and embezzlement charges by the country’s Supreme Court. He was in prison after losing his …

As the country’s president from 2013 to 2018, Yameen had given India much cause for grief with his government locked in a tight clinch with China. With presidential polls in the archipelago just two years away, the possibility of Yameen running for the post cannot be ruled out. If he were to win, Maldives would for sure be back in China’s embrace, queering the pitch for India yet again.

A day after Yameen’s release, came another noteworthy development in the neighbourhood. In Sri Lanka, the Chinese embassy announced it was suspending the project for solar power plants on three of the country’s northern islands owing to the concerns of a “third party”. The reference was clearly to India, which had been worried about Chinese projects so close to its shores and had made known its misgivings to the Lankans.

The Chinese announcement came even as Sri Lankan finance minister Basil Rajapaksa was in New Delhi seeking more financial assistance for his country, which is now in dire economic straits. Basil is part of the powerful Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka, with older brothers Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country’s president and prime minister, respectively.

Colombo’s outreach to New Delhi was, perhaps, also driven by the rough time it has been having with Beijing after it decided to return what it said was “contaminated” fertiliser supplied by China.

After failing to coerce Sri Lanka to accept the consignment, an angry China has now dragged Sri Lanka into international arbitration to resolve the dispute. A lesson in there for Colombo—-if you play with fire, you can be singed by it.

In New Delhi, Basil met Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and even National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Undoubtedly, New Delhi would have conveyed to the visiting minister that his government’s unabated embrace of Beijing, unmindful of India’s strategic concerns, did not bode well for bilateral relations.

However, despite India’s unhappiness with the Rajapaksa regime’s continuing China tango, Basil returned to Colombo with assurances from New Delhi that it would help his country with lines of credit for food, medicines and fuel purchases as well as a currency swap arrangement it has been seeking for long.

In turn, New Delhi has extracted assurances from Colombo about one of its long-pending demands – the go-ahead to modernise the World War II-era oil tanks farms in Trincomalee and facilitation of Indian investments in Sri Lanka.

New Delhi has legitimate concerns on both fronts. It would not like the Trincomalee project to go to China, given that the port is so close to Indian shores. It is also not happy that while the Rajapaksas-led Sri Lankan government has been Chinese investments with open arms – the Colombo Port City Project is one such instance – India got booted out of the strategic East Container Terminal (ECT) project.

While India has settled for the West Container Terminal, Sri Lanka has gone ahead and awarded the contract for developing the ECT to a Chinese company. It is perhaps these moves by Colombo that have made New Delhi extremely distrustful of Colombo. And the reason why it made it clear to Colombo is that if it is seeking assistance from India, it will need to keep its strategic interests in mind.

Indeed, New Delhi needs to adopt an even firmer approach towards Colombo given that the latter has shown little inclination to keep India’s strategic concerns in mind since the Rajapaksas return to power. It needs to ensure Colombo takes some concrete measures on the Trincomalee oil tank farms before it decides to loosen its purse strings for Colombo.

In contrast to the pronounced China-tilt of Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksas, the Maldives, under the presidency of Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Mohamed Solih, is no longer under the overwhelming influence of China. India-Maldives ties have become robust with the return to power of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

India has regained its primacy in the Maldives strategic space, which it had lost to China during Yameen’s presidency. But Yameen’s release has set the alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

Within days of his release, Yameen was indulging in blatant anti-India rhetoric. The Maldives Journal, a news website known for its anti-India stance, quoted him as saying during an Opposition rally that the “Maldives is not an Indian town” and its president should not be a governor appointed by India.

He has also begun stoking the opposition-led ‘India Out’ campaign that gathers steam every once in a while by declaring that the “Indian military will have to leave the Maldives…I do not want a single soldier or a single pair of boots of the Indian military to remain on the soil.”

His remarks came days after Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi became the first minister from a foreign nation to be the chief guest at the passing out parade for cadets at the Indian Naval Academy. If the invite was meant to signal how vital India-Maldives defence cooperation is, Yameen is back doing what he does best – fanning anti-India sentiments.

The New Delhi-Malé relationship went through a difficult and strained phase during Yameen’s presidency. So much so that PM Narendra Modi, who undertook a ‘Sagar Yatra’ to countries in the Indian Ocean region—Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius – chose to skip the Maldives.

With Yameen back in active politics, China could well occupy centrestage in the Maldives once again. Though India, and indeed other world powers, would be hoping that the nascent democracy does not slide back into turmoil and the destruction of democratic institutions as had happened during Yameen’s presidency. India will have to keep an eagle-eye on both Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Parul Chandra

Deccan Herald.

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