PM Modi with Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Photograph:( Twitter )
With Male returning to its pro-India stance, India has, in diplomatic terms, beaten China in an election in the Maldives. But the win will have to be followed up with deft action.
For a country still reeling from the aftermath of the recent assembly election results, this may be easy to miss: an election India won outside its borders.
While Indian political leaders were busy criss-crossing states for poll yatras, the prime minister was attending a swearing-in ceremony outside the country — the only one he'd not visited in the neighbourhood in the four years he'd been in office. (And that's saying a lot for a man accused of spending more time globe-trotting than governing.) In November, in the thick of election season, Prime Minister Narendra Modi witnessed Ibrahim Mohammed Solih take oath as the president of the Maldives. In diplomatic terms — India had beaten China in an election in Male. Not many expected this win, but most welcomed it.
It was hardly surprising then that President Solih's first foreign visit was to India. Today, in a string of meetings, India and the Maldives have pressed the reset button to revive a relationship that was being ruined by Chinese money. India has promised more than a billion dollars in aid. Bilateral pacts have been signed. But this visit is as significant in bilateral terms, as for its larger geopolitical impact.
All business, including business of the political kind, is driven by money. Asia needs a lot of it, $26 trillion dollars according to one estimate. That's how much this region needs for investment in highways, railways and other infrastructure projects. The big moneybags is Beijing. It splurges in the garb of being a benign harbinger of development. It extracts market access and strategic influence in return. It's what we call China's debt diplomacy.
But history is no mean player in geopolitics. India has been an unofficial security guarantor to smaller neighbours in the Indian ocean. Island states like Mauritius, the Maldives and Seychelles depend on New Delhi for military training and equipment. India has the access China desires. These countries sit on key sea routes. Hence the tug of war between New Delhi and Beijing.
As China launched a charm offensive with its Belt and Road Initiative, most of India's neighbours were awed by its cash. They began slipping into China's orbit. India worried about this "policy of encirclement" but it did not have money to match China's. It used diplomatic dexterity. China's aggression played in India's favour too. Country after country began seeing through the plot. Chinese influence became a domestic political issue. From Malaysia to Sri Lanka to the Maldives, the political players changed on the promise of containing China.
For India, it's an opportunity worth converting. But Delhi's record on delivery is hardly inspiring. Plus, many of these countries with their crushing burden of debt are too far gone in China's fold to fully exit. For the Maldives alone, its debt to China is equivalent to 20 per cent of its GDP. There is an unspecified number of islands leased to China for building tourist resorts. There's a free trade agreement that has helped spike Chinese imports to 18 per cent. There's no clarity on how much money the government owes to Beijing.
This is a test for President Solih. This is also a test for India. It must deliver on promises. Prime Minister Modi's diplomacy will have to be followed up with deft action.