Opinion: If New Delhi falters with its neighbours, Beijing gains
Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Modi Photograph: (AFP)
Three recent developments in the neighbourhood have posed new challenges for India which is on an overdrive to expand and consolidate its influence across the world. These developments are critical for two reasons. The first is that they have the potential to impact New Delhi’s security interests in the region. And the second is that they intensify the China Factor which is at play. That the two reasons are also interconnected to an extent, further underlines the significance. To add to the dilemma, the options for India are limited and fraught with risks. It could be damned if it takes chances, and it could be damned if it doesn’t. The country’s Neighbourhood First policy faces a stiff test.
The three challenges come from the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Coincidentally, they have arrived in quick succession, and this has strained New Delhi’s nerves even more. Kathmandu is poised to have a KP Oli-led government that promises to be less friendly to India than New Delhi would want; the incumbent regime in Male, not known for its pro-India stance, has declared a state of emergency there and is busy bulldozing its way against an opposition that leans towards India; and the party of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who turned India-baiter in the last months of his tenure, has signalled a possible comeback with a resounding win in the local body elections. Rajapaksa had leaned towards Beijing once he turned against New Delhi, Oli openly prefers China to India, and the Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is determined to thwart India-friendly opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed’s attempts to make a comeback.
It can be argued that some of New Delhi’s apprehensions are based on presumptions. For instance, Oli may not eventually be the anti-India figure he is expected to be, given Nepal’s geographical constraints. Similarly, Yameen, realising India’s growing clout in the region and beyond, will hesitate to antagonise a powerful regional power. As for Rajapaksa, it is still uncertain that his party will return to office — the national election is due in 2020. In any case, unlike the two other leaders, the former Sri Lankan President had been close to New Delhi once upon a time and it is possible that he may return to his old self if and when he wins. But this line of thought underestimates Beijing’s ability to seize an advantage when it sees one in the region, at India’s cost.
The common factor in the Maldives and Sri Lanka is that New Delhi had sent boots on the ground there. In the first case, the Indian military had intervened to thwart a joint operation by a group of Maldivians and Sri Lankan militants to overthrow the Mammon Abdul Gayoom regime there in 1988; and in the second, Indian Armed Forces had arrived there in 1987 at the invitation of Colombo to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Operation Cactus of the Indian Army succeeded in Male, whereas Operation Pawan, which involved the erroneously named Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) entering Lankan territory to disarm the LTTE, ended in a disaster.
There are voices both in favour and opposition to yet another Indian military intervention in Male. The Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, of which India is a ‘net security provider’ and where Beijing is seeking to expand its influence. An unfriendly Male, thus, could become a weak spot for New Delhi in the region. Besides, the Maldives is a member of SAARC, and at a time when India is already facing obstacles from Pakistan in pushing through its various pan-SAARC initiatives, it could do without another obstructionist in the form of Male. The third reason for India’s concerns is, of course, China’s massive presence in the Maldives — one that could gain further momentum in an India-unfriendly Government there. By some estimates, 70 per cent of the Maldives’ debt is owed to China alone. There is, thus, danger in New Delhi remaining non-committal at this stage.
But those who are opposed to direct India’s intervention say that interfering in another nation’s internal affairs can only be counter-productive. It would be used by sections there to further boost anti-India sentiments. There is also no certainty that military boots on the ground will fetch results. They add that New Delhi would gain more by pressuring Male diplomatically, both bilaterally and globally, and not by escalating the crisis through direct intervention.
The Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna's (SLPP) landslide victory in the local body election was the result of many factors, the primary among them being the discord among the ruling parters led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The coalition arrangement has been far from smooth, paving the way for Rajapkasa to cash in on the discontent and growing public disaffection with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) partnership. Given that Rajapaksa’s SLPP has won big in Sinhala-dominated wards while the Tamil National Alliance has done well in Tamil-populated wards, the UNP-SLFP got squeezed out.
It may be recalled that New Delhi and Rajapaksa had shared a wonderful relationship at the time when Colombo had waged a do or die battle with the LTTE, in which it emerged victorious following decades of bloodshed. But thereafter things began to go wrong as India felt the Rajapaksa government had failed in meeting the commitments at reconciliation with the traumatised Tamil community. True, domestic compulsions also made New Delhi take a hard stand. But that also led Rajapaksa to start veering towards China. He even attributed his electoral defeat to India’s intervention.
Like the Maldives, Sri Lanka too is an important component of the Indian Ocean region and a SAARC member. In case Rajapaksa makes a national comeback and continues from where he had left — in China’s favour — then New Delhi’s hopes of continuing to be a net security provider in the region could be compromised. The already large Chinese presence in Sri Lanka can then only get bigger, much to New Delhi’s chagrin. It makes sense for India to initiate some sort of outreach to the former President.
Closer home, in Nepal, the situation is the most grim of all. It is not in Oli’s DNA, nor in that of his outfit, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), to be pro-India. For years, the CPN (UML) has clung on to slogans against ‘Indian expansionism’, and Oli has benefitted politically from his anti-India line. The 2015 blockade strengthened his hands and made his rant shriller — and more credible. In his first, albeit short, tenure, Oli had sought to snub New Delhi and opened the doors for Beijing to be major partners in the Nepal growth story. With the trend likely to resume in the coming months, New Delhi can only hope that the communist leader will soften his position.
There is a belief that his partnership with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) can achieve this to some extent. The CPN (MC) is led by former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, who is favourably inclined towards India, and he can be expected to temper the coalition regime’s anti-India sentiment. But that is only an expectation, and against this, we have the track record of the Oli regime which gives little cause for cheer to New Delhi.
India’s campaign for lasting regional superiority rests on its relations with the immediate and near neighbourhood. The way it tackles the challenges relating to Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka holds the key to success. If New Delhi falters, Beijing gains.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)