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Is India ‘Indifferent’ To Indian Ocean Neighborhood? – Analysis

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Much is happening in India’s immediate South Asian, Indian Ocean neighbourhood, both on the political and diplomatic/geo-strategic fronts. However, political India is tied down to demonetisation, and the Indian strategic community to ‘surgical strikes’, Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan — with no time and inclination to look elsewhere in the neighbourhood. All of it could have consequences for India’s foreign policy, especially the ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach, propounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the commencement of his term two-and-half years back.

Needless to point out, Sri Lanka and Maldives are India’s immediate neighbours in the Indian Ocean. Modi made a landmark three-nation visit of Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius in March 2015, and had to leave out Maldives out of the itinerary, owing to domestic political situation. Nothing much has been heard from the Indian side on the necessary follow-up on these fronts, which is of interest and concern to India from the medium and long-term perspectives.

It’s not as if India has turned a blind eye to developments in these countries, nor has it stopped participating in events over there. Recently, Indian Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba was in Sri Lanka on a five-day visit, when he also delivered the key-note address at the prestigious, post-war annual ‘Galle Dialogue’ in end-November. The visit was aimed at “consolidating and enhancing maritime ties” between the two countries, an official statement had said earlier. Before Adm. Lanba, National Security Advisor (NSA) A.K. Doval had delivered the keynote address at the 2014 edition of Galle Dialogue — only months after the Modi Government had come to power.

‘External interference’

What has gone mostly unnoticed in the past week/month or so is the greater activity on the part of non-regional state players, pertaining to Sri Lankan affairs. In what looks mostly out-of-turn, Chinese Ambassador in Colombo, Yi Xialiang, said in Colombo recently that his nation would not entertain ‘external interference’ in the affairs of Sri Lanka. Independently, and around the time, Russian envoy, Alexander A. Karchava, recalled for the benefit of local audience(s) how Moscow had stood firm with Sri Lanka on UNHRC-related ‘accountability probe’ issues and resolutions in Geneva.

This is not the first time in recent weeks that Amb. Yi has talked in public on Sri Lankan affairs. If he was referring to the Indian neighbour of Sri Lanka, he did not mention it. There is also the distinct possibility, China now wants to be counted in as a South Asian nation — as and when it suits the same. For long, friends of China in the now-defunct SAARC have been pushing the case for making the nation a member of the South Asian organisation.

If Amb. Yi was referring to the US, obviously China too as an extra-regional player like the other, was seeking to make its political presence and ‘initiatives’, if any, a fait accompli for the future. If left uncontested, it can have consequences, though not all of them unpleasant for the host in particular. India cannot be taking a similar view of the neighbourhood situation — not on what Sri Lanka should do or not do, but precisely on what was going on, and was likely to happen, in an area of immediate external security implications and concerns for itself.

In this context, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent reiteration that the US under the upcoming Trump dispensation would continue to be the ‘elephant in the room’ as far as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) was concerned. Earlier, he had made the reference in his inaugural address to Galle Dialogue 2015, and made it clear that none could wish away the American presence and influence. In the more recent instance, he was obviously seeking to silence expectation that a Trump establishment could well begin dis-engaging from the region.

Incidentally, not very long ago, Amb. Yi had joined issue with Sri Lankan Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, on the relative cost of Chinese loans, which the latter had, more-than-once, said was on the high side. The issue was allowed to die a natural death after Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary, Esala Weerakoon, spoke to Amb. Li on telephone, asking not to go to the media on what essentially were bilateral affairs.

In doing so, Weerakoon and the Sri Lankan Government handled the issue with the sensitivity that bilateral relations required. The alternative might have been for the Foreign Secretary to summon the Chinese envoy, and register Colombo’s views in the matter. Minister Ravi too has stopped talking. Incidentally, no one made any big issue of the same in Sri Lankan Parliament, either, then or afterwards. Noticeably, the local media also played down the issue once Weerakoon had spoken to Amb. Yi.

Major defence partner

In the midst of all this, news got around that Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena would be visiting Moscow, for what the local media described as a ‘pow-vow’ with Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in March 2017. US Vice President elect, Mike Pence, spoke in between to Sirisena, inviting him to visit the US, to improve bilateral relations.

Given that the Trump administration reportedly does not have too much of initial reservations to working with Putin’s Moscow, and has only specific concerns about a growing China, what it means for Sri Lanka, or for the larger Indian neighbour, too, remains to be seen. It’s another matter how the bilateral agreement, making India a ‘major defence partner’ of the US and signed during the lame duck presidency of Barack Obama would play out in the coming weeks, months and years.

Governments and administrations are continuing institutions prima facie, and the chances are that the outgoing Obama administration would have taken Trump’s transition team into confidence before proceeding in the matter. Yet, it cannot be gainsaid that the personality of political administrators in different countries — including incumbent Indian Prime Minister Modi — have always contributed to the pace, space and direction of bilateral and regional relations.

Pressure points

In Sri Lanka, however, no one seems to be talking over much about bilateral, regional and international issues, including geo-strategic concerns that may still be close to the nation’s heart, one way or the other. Though no one has begun talking about it, sooner than later, there will be frequent mention of UNHRC March session, when the Maithiri-Ranil duo’s past governmental commitments on wartime accountability probe mechanisms could come in for review.

It’s here, the tilt, if any, in the approach of the freshly-mint Trump administration on larger issues of human rights (as perceived by his American predecessors in the past) too could come up for a closer study. It need not stop with the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) back home, or their brethren in Europe and the immediate American neighbourhood like Canada. The rest of the rights groups across the world too would be watching — though it’s another matter that they too have often trained their guns to suit American priorities and pressure-points than the other way round.

India too may be watching the Trump position with interest, the Obama administration having initiated the Geneva process with vehemence, sweeping away the all important Indian vote, too, in the first year, 2012. Independent of its own performance in the past, or into the future, India should also be looking at what Sri Lanka itself would be wanting from the immediate neighbour in terms of diplomatic initiatives, and what the likes of China and Russia could do, in turn, at Geneva, if it came to that.

Collective decision

In Sri Lanka, new Constitution, Executive Presidency, ‘unitary State’ and power devolution, all in the name of post-war, ethnic reconciliation are getting into sharper focus. In common neighbour, Maldives, the unsettling political environment continues. President Abdulla Yameen, at least in the short and medium-term, has proved that he is a match to anyone and everyone, separately or together, closer home or otherwise.

India’s immediate interest may not relate to the turn of domestic politics in either of these countries. Nor could India be concerned too much about their respective rights, concerns and priorities over the nation’s collective decision, if any, on the future political course nearer home, or geo-strategic priorities and positioning.

India respects the sovereignty of smaller neighbours. But the inability of these nations to arrive at a ‘collective decision’ on such matters has been a cause for the continued political stability well into the future — hence India’s concern, too, as someone who could be affected directly or otherwise.

Waiting on the wings

In Maldives, the major polity is no more two-faced, but three-faced after former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom split away from the PPM, of which he was the founder and chair and of whose nominee incumbent President Yameen is. Already, the MDP led by another former President, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, has been waiting on the wings and as a ‘political refugee’ in distant UK.

The UK lost whatever little hold it had over the Yameen administration after Maldives quit the Commonwealth, way ahead of the January meeting of the CMAG, the ministerial action group. If anyone or any nation, it may be India that may have to get into the act, if only with shared, long-term security interests in mind. Already, the present Maldives Government has acknowledged more than once in recent months that they are working closely with India, especially on fighting international terrorism.

Yet, there is no denying that in Maldives, the China-funded Male-Hulhule sea-bridge, connecting the all-important national capital of Male with the international airport-island that will be making news in the months to come — that too ahead of the presidential polls, due in November 2018. Whether this could tilt the Maldivian voter in favour of Yameen, or democracy issues, as flagged by the Nasheed camp, or the middle path on either initiated long ago by Gayoom, would matter too remains to been.

In Sri Lanka, too, the new dispensation (which is no more new) has been bending backwards to accommodate China on the investment front, the more recent one being the privatisation of the southern Hambantota port, built during predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. At the time of the port-work initiation, a section of the strategic community in India claimed it to be of great geo-strategic value for the nation to have slipped by.

In between, China too has offered fighter jets and a maintenance shop of sorts at the all-important Kattanayake air base/airport, near capital Colombo. The US is also known to have offered Boeing Poseidon military aircraft for purchase by Sri Lanka. Considering Sri Lanka’s economic condition and fiscal position, any offer of choice would have to be possibly accompanied by a financing package, possibly by the US government.

US military teams too have been visiting Sri Lanka in recent months, either for training or for humanitarian work — all of them converging onto better and faster acclimatisation for the future. At least that way, no one is any more talking about any imminent arrival of Chinese submarines for berthing off Maldives, nor of American or Russian military aid or presence, after the disastrous SOFA bid by the former and the embarrassing arrest of a Russian parliamentarian’s son for data theft in the US, the former before Yameen came to power and the latter under Yameen’s care.


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Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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