The new extra-regional player in China seems to want to provoke internal anti-India debates in individual South Asian nations
by N Sathiya Moorthy
At a time when New Delhi continues to be guarded in its comments on sovereignty-centric independent decisions of its neighbours, the new extra-regional player in China, seeking a fast-tracked proactive regional role, seems wanting to provoke internal anti-India debates in individual South Asian nations. The idea is obvious: to try and alienate as many as in these nations against India, by seeking to project the larger neighbour as hegemonic, as was being attempted during the forgotten ‘Cold War’ earlier.
Claiming that India has zero sum mentality in the region, the Global Times, often reflecting the party thinking in Beijing, has said that New Delhi’s outdated strategic mentality cannot “dampen the strong enthusiasm” in the region for deepening cooperation with China. But China stands exposed as the Global Times article, coming as it does after an immediate earlier one, on similar lines and less diplomatically vituperative seems keen on stirring regional peace and balance in the neighbourhood.
In doing so, the Global Times has simultaneously referred to Sri Lanka’s debt-for-equity swap-deal on the Hambantota Port project, and neighbouring Maldives’ maiden FTA, both with China, and Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen’s fast-tracked state visit to Beijing, too. There is no denying the Chinese gaining an upper hand in the region, especially in India’s IOR neighbourhood than earlier, but it does not automatically means that Beijing has gained an upper hand viz. India, too, in regional affairs. These are two different issues, and not two sides of the same coin, either.
Narrow-Minded, But Who
“Indian media outlets still regard China’s acquisition of the port, which provides access to Indian Ocean sea lanes, as a ploy to create more Chinese strategic and economic footholds in the region,” the Global Times said. “Maldives has just inked a free trade agreement with China. The construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being earnestly pushed forward despite terrorism and political instability.”
“It would be too narrow-minded of India to see China’s cooperative activities as exploitative strategies to squeeze its sphere of influence in South Asia,” said the Maldives Independent quoting extensively from the Global Times, and observing that the Chinese tabloid was “barely concealing its glee at its neighbour’s apparent discomfiture.” In context, the Global Times claimed that “Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other regional countries are also willing to intensify ties with India if the latter can satisfy their needs for growth…Disappointingly, New Delhi insists on a zero-sum mentality, interpreting any activity by Beijing from a geopolitical perspective.”
As may be recalled, soon after Maldives’ Parliament rushed through the China FTA in a hurriedly-called session, to facilitate its signing when Yameen visited Beijing only days later, the Global Times had advised that India would do nothing but upset itself if it tried to prevent closer trade ties with Maldives. It denied political intrigue behind the FTA, but added: “Political relationships are sometimes a barometer of economic ties.. It won’t be easy for India to maintain its political influence in South Asia if its own economic presence is weakening. If India thinks its position is threatened, it should consider how it can give more benefits to its neighbours through win-win economic cooperation.”
As if taking the cue from the Global Times, the Vaguthu, a Maldivian site identified with the Yameen regime and leadership, fired the first and strong salvo at India, without provocation and even without waiting for the ink to dry on the former’s unbalanced and uncalled for criticism. Describing India as the ‘best friend’ and ‘closest friend’ until recently, one Adam Nawaz lists out in the Vagathu article India sending troops to neutralise the 1987 coup-bid and also donating the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male. But “today the picture has changed… India is also not Maldives’ best friend. Today, India is an enemy. Today, India looks at Maldives with jealously, selfishness and hatred”, he writes, also listing out out his ‘reasons’ (?):
“Today, some people in India have said openly that India should send the military and change the Maldives’ government. In this context, the write-up refers to “India doing a lot of unethical things” like “suspected supply of weapons and other aids to terrorists in neighbouring Sri Lanka.” As if to trigger the ‘Islamic angle’, the unconvincing write-up also refers to “Kashmir, where India has been acting against international policies, laws and regulations for many years.” In this context, the Vagathu article refers to the change in “India’s behaviour and policies after an ‘extremist Hindu’ in Narendra Modi, came to power. He has a history of acting tough, especially against Muslims.”
The Vagathu article also says that India is “becoming jealous that Maldives is becoming a capable country that would not have to beg India for everything. Secondly, Maldives is an Islamic country, and doing good for Muslims is not India’s policy now. The third is: Maldives’ strengthening ties with China. India does not approve of China giving aid to other countries for development projects and giving free aid. According to the Vagathu, “Today, Maldivians know the truth about India.. Today, Maldivians have to find a ‘new best friend’. The time has come for Maldives to find a new best friend after ending the heart-to-heart relation with India. That best friend should be able to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Maldives in the international arena.”
No marks for guessing who that ‘new best friend’ is and what in political terms, Maldives, or Yameen’s Maldives expects from that relationship. The reference is of course to China, and apart from free aid or heavy indebtedness in the name of development funding, Yameen’s Maldives also wants China to stand by his leadership and government in international fora like the UN, where the country’s current human rights record, and possibly democracy record from the recent past to the immediate and medium-term future may come up for censure of one kind or the other.”
The four-party Joint Opposition (JO) has since lost no time in condemning the Vagathu’s scurrilous attack on the Indian Prime Minister, by name and religion. In separate tweets, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, half-brother of Yameen, called the anti-India rhetoric “outrageous” and his successor, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, “strongly condemned.. President Yameen’s ‘reckless foreign policy.. destroying relationship with India” and added, “Maldives should be sensitive to India’s security and safety.”
As always, India had avoided commenting on individual neighbour’s independent decisions on inevitable cooperation with other regional and extra-regional players. Where India has commented in the past, it has at best been bilateral-centric, without talking about their third-nation relations. Such a course would also tantamount to India seeking to interfere in their internal mechanism and third-nation relations, which New Delhi has consistently avoided.
Sad but true, the Indian media has often been alive to neighbours and neighbourhood only in the context of their American relations in the Cold War era and China ties since then. Most of them seldom report the visits of dignitaries from those nations to India, and/or bilateral discussions at the highest levels being held in New Delhi, and even signing of bilateral agreements of great significance. India’s national media make up for their neighbourhood indifference and callousness by over-reacting when they are caught on the wrong foot on China now, and the US and Pakistan earlier.
Less said about the Delhi-based strategic community, which first gloated that India was already in the Pacific Ocean and the IOR neighbourhood did not matter anymore — first when India-US relations began warming up following economic reforms, and more so after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. They ignored PM Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, pronounced at his Inauguration in end-May 2014, and laid greater and near-exclusive stress on American initiatives on ‘Indo-Pacific’, changing the nomenclature too thus, from the original ‘Asia-Pacific’.
‘India First’ Recalled
Lest possibly the Indian media discourse could well go out of tangent, and end up being seen as reflecting the ‘official line’ as with the Global Times and establishment China, New Delhi broke its silence of the previous weeks on Maldives-China ties, and confined its comments almost exclusively to the FTA. Ahead of the Vagathu article, in what the Maldives Independent observed as a ‘guarded response’, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar refused to comment on the same, saying that they had not seen the full document.
India welcomed the FTA as long as it contributed to the peace and stability in the region, Raveesh Kumar said. “As you are aware India attaches the highest importance to its relations with Maldives. We are also committed to support democracy, development and stability in Maldives.. It is our expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns in keeping with its ‘India First’ policy,” he said in the weekly media briefing.
Bulldozing its Way?
The Indian statement said a lot, and said nothing. The reverse may be truer, but that is how diplomacy is conducted, especially by old-guards like India, in a world where a new-comer like China seeks to bulldoze its way through. There is no denying that the Chinese mood in the region, and elsewhere, too, is bullish at the moment, and the Global Times articles in recent times especially seems to reflect a ‘bull in a China shop’ mentality, viz. India in particular.
It is possible that Doklam or not, China is upset about India not joining its OBOR initiative, which would have gained greater political and economic legitimacy only then. Today, despite China’s claims to the contrary, much of the world sees OBOR only as an extension of China’s strategic initiative, reviving the forgotten Ming Dynasty’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ ambitions and achievements that is fashionable more in terminology rather than reality.
Though China that way wants to project the Hambantota swap-deal only as a part of the OBOR initiative, the Sri Lankan Government side, while acknowledging the possibility, has been more forthright in conceding that the swap deal was necessitated more by the pressing need for the nation to offload its massive debt-burden, incurred during the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. In another common neighbour, Myanmar, members of the former military junta, who still have a decisive say in Parliament and political administration despite democratic change-over under Aung San Sui-Kyi, have been more apprehensive about China, maybe given their long years of association while in direct power and control of the nation’s affairs.
Nothing justifies the Global Times provocative articles on and against China’s own perceptions about India’s role in the neighbourhood, and India’s perceived inability, or unwillingness, or both, when it comes to under-writing some neighbours’ over-ambitious development projects, which do not meet their own economic needs but can only satisfy the geo-strategic initiatives of the investor-nation, China in this case.
Very Chinese, Not Original
India has had to deal with similar situations in the Cold War past too. At the time, after the ‘Bangladesh War’ in particular, the US, even after establishing a military base in nearby Diego Garcia, was reportedly looking around for installations on Sri Lanka mainland, if only to keep an eye on India, then perceived also as being on the Soviet side in regional and global affairs. In context, what China is doing in the neighbourhood may be new to China, but not to India.
The latter needs only to flip through the back pages of neighbourhood relations, and substitute certain names and phrases, and also amounts with certain others, and the emerging scenario requires no further prediction. It is very similar in the case of other Geo-Strategic initiatives of China, launched in the name of geo-economic cooperation. It is just following the American example from the Cold War era mostly, just by substituting an ‘all-American’ nomenclature with a very Chinese one.
Even the Global Times kind of India-bashing, possibly aimed at triggering anti-India discourse, if not decisions, in neighbourhood nations, is not new. For instance, at the height of the Cold War and despite the personal rapport between Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka did provide refuelling facilities for Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the height of the Bangladesh War (1991), only months after India had rushed air-support for quelling the ‘First JVP insurgency’ that was already knocking at Colombo’s gate. It was based on the mistaken belief that after Bangladesh, India could well turn its ‘attention’ to other neighbours, including Sri Lanka.
India actually did not do anything of the kind. Instead, it let Sri Lanka have the strategically critical Katchchativu, close to the Indian shores as a part of a bilateral agreement, only three years hence, ahead of UNCLOS-I and forming part thereof. If Tamil militancy happened in Sri Lanka a decade later, and India was seen as ‘arming and training’ them, it owed to the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil pogrom, in which India did not have any hand.
Other nations may have had a ‘negative role’ in the pogrom, at least in not curbing the street-violence when they were purportedly close to the Colombo dispensation of President J.R. Jayewardene, and also had a lot of concerns for human rights violations across the world, after their own experiences during the World War II in particular. When the Tamil refugees began flowing into the country in their tens of thousands, post-pogrom, India did not want an unenviable, Bangladesh-like situation, when forced-out refugees forced India’s hands in turn to fight a war that it never possibly wanted, and never premeditated, either.
The rest, as they say, is history, be it on Bangladesh, be it in Sri Lanka then, and Maldives, Afghanistan and the rest of the immediate neighbourhood, since. Otherwise, the China-centric media panic in India owes to inadequacies and poor understanding of the historic Indian approach to the neighbourhood, which alone PM Modi reiterated and highlighted even more at his inauguration — and which South Block has been improving and improvising upon, without dumping it, or having to dump it.
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