( May 29, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the last 36 hours, we have seen intense discussion and speculation on the future of India-Pakistan relations in the wake of Nawaz Sharif attending the swearing in ceremony of Narendra Modi as India’s new Prime Minister. But no one seems to be talking about China. What most analysts appear to have missed is that Modi has also sent a multi-leveled but clear message to our giant neighbour in the north.
Take his invitation to all the leaders of neighbouring countries, most importantly Maldives and Sri Lanka. China has been for years single-mindedly pursuing its string of pearls strategy to encircle India. Maldives, traditionally a good and amiable friend of India, is now almost lost to China.
To quote from John Elliott’s recent—and eye-opening—book Implosion, “Problems probably created, or at least accentuated, by China have emerged in the Maldives… China opened a mission in Male, the capital, in March 2012, and the country’s president, Mohamed Waheed, met (former head of the Chinese government) Wen Jiabao in China a month later, when $500m aid was agreed.
“Towards the end of 2012, the government cancelled a long-tern build-and-operate airport contract with GMR, the Indian infrastructure company. That happened just after China’s defence minister, Liang Guanglie, visited the islands. Mohammed Nazim, the Maldives minister for defence, national security and transport, who handled the airport, had also just been to Beijing. This showed a distinct pro-China tilt by the Maldives…
“Previously the islands had relied on Indian assistance, as was well illustrated in 1988 when Indian troops quickly quelled a coup attempt by Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries. Unsurprisingly, India, which is rarely adept at handling its neighbours, failed to deal smartly with the airport situation and the contract was lost, which was widely seen as a gain for China.”
Among the many areas the second regime of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was paralysed in, one was foreign policy. The Indian government sat around open-mouthed as China quite openly lured Maldives into its area of influence. Maldives is also crucial to India for another reason: the islands have been seeing a disturbing rise in Islamist fundamentalism, which, while creating social and political instability in the islands, could also have disturbing implications for India. Inviting Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom over for the swearing in, and chatting with him to get an informal sense of the situation in the islands is Modi’s first step to woo Maldives back into India’s fold. At the least, he is sending a message to China that India would no longer sit idle and watch Maldives slide away and become a pearl in China’s string.
Right now, in the wake of the global furore about the way it ended its civil war, Sri Lanka believes it needs a great deal of international support. While the Manmohan Singh government was blackmailed by its Tamil ally Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) into not voting for Sri Lanka at the United Nations, China has been happily and not-so-quietly stepping into the breach. Chinese companies are building infrastructure contracts worth some $4 billion including the country’s second international airport, a massive special economic zone, and Sri Lanka’s first four-lane expressway, and all almost wholly funded with Chinese soft loans.
In August 2013, China opened the Colombo International Container Terminal, a $500 million port 85% owned by a Chinese merchant company to serve as a hub between Singapore and Dubai. The Hambantota Development Zone, which the China is helping to build, will include an international container port, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities. It is expected to cost more than $1 billion and again China is funding 85% of the project.
As Jack Goodman writes in The Diplomat, “The recent commitment from Sri Lanka to join the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) indicates the proximity of the two states’ strategic aspirations and is a reflection of the assimilation of national interests. The Indian Ocean ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Chittagong in Bangladesh have all benefited from Chinese investment and account for 30% of global trade, according to Indian Ocean Rim Association. The MSR is a vital strategic project for China in the Indian Ocean, and will increase China’s presence in South Asian shipping routes. Sri Lanka can be seen as a gateway port up the western coast of India and further west to Iran, a vital exporter of oil to China. The brand new port of Hambantota…is located on (what is) historically not a traditional shipping route. However, it is the perfect location to meet the strategic objectives of the MSR.”
There’s another pearl, and right next door to India. Indeed, the tragedy is that Sri Lanka turned first to India for assistance in building Hambantota port, but, as usual, we dithered and sat on our hands. Spotting a juicy opportunity, China moved in.
A free trade agreement between China and Sri Lanka is in the offing. Bilateral trade exceeded $3 billion in 2013 and China is Sri Lanka’s second-largest source of imports behind India.
The fact that Modi ignored the shrill protests from the Tamil political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) own allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and went ahead and invited Mahinda Rajapaksa and met him, is a clear indication that the new team in charge well understands the China threat. It is time to rebuild relations with Sri Lanka after decades of unease and do what is best for India in its neighbourhood and in the Indian Ocean.
But the smartest move that Modi has made vis-à-vis China—and which hardly anyone seems to have understood the significance of so far—is giving former army chief V.K. Singh an apparently strange combination of portfolios. Singh will be minister of state with independent charge of the north east, and also be minister of state in the external affairs ministry under Sushma Swaraj.
As China continues to refuse to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, and builds military-grade highways that can rapidly move tanks and heavy artillery to India’s border, it’s absolutely the perfect stratagem to put a former army chief in charge of the region. This should give the Chinese some pause.
And his additional responsibility in the external affairs ministry is a brilliant piece of thinking. In effect, Modi has made a committed Indian soldier our man for China. The People’s Liberation Army may now think twice before sending in troops miles inside Ladakh and camp there for a week and saunter back, sneering at India’s supine indecisiveness. China’s strategy for long has been to push India and see how far we can be pushed. So far, the message that our neighbour has got is that we can be pushed very far indeed. That message gets altered dramatically now in one stroke.
This is Modi’s message to China. One, we will not be sitting around any longer watching you bead your string of pearls around India, and we will try to reclaim some of the pearls. Two, don’t expect to be getting those old jollies any more, of pushing us and strolling away, whistling merrily. Many in India may not have understood Modi’s intent, but the wise men in Beijing surely will.