China's testing our resolve

China's testing our resolve

China's testing our resolve

Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives, who was in Bengaluru last month to attend a media event, was asked what exactly he had in mind when he sought the dispatch of a special envoy, along with a military contingent, from India. What was to be the agenda of this military contingent and what were to be its 'mission objectives'?

Nasheed explained that he did not want the Indian troops to come and depose President Abdulla Yameen, nor did he want them to come as an 'occupation force' to take control of the capital Male'. He wanted merely 'force projection', to be sent as a signal of Indian displeasure towards Yameen's highhanded behaviour towards his own people and the country's parliament and judiciary.

He also added for good measure that he did not want Maldives to become a pawn in the contestation between India and China in the Indian Ocean. What had happened between his tweet and his visit to Bengaluru was that China had issued direct messages to Maldives' neighbours not to interfere in 'the internal affairs of a sovereign country'.      

China's warning

More important than the rhetoric were reports of the Chinese Navy's movements in the eastern Indian Ocean. It was reported that 11 Chinese warships had sailed into the region in February, amid the state of emergency in the Maldives. A fleet of destroyers, at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers entered the Indian Ocean, according to news portal

Though Indian defence ministry sources later clarified that there were no such movements anywhere near the Maldives and that the Chinese ships were at least 2,500 nautical miles away, the signals were clear. They were meant to deter any adventure by India in what is generally regarded as our backyard.

More recently, there have been reports of a 'Joint Ocean Observation Station' that China is 'looking to establish' in the Maldives. The so-called observatory is to be located in Makunudhoo island, the western-most atoll to the north of Male, closest to the Indian coastline.

That this observatory will not only be a watching station and a listening post with radars and signals intelligence (SIGINT) facilities but will also have 'military application with provision for a submarine base' should not come as a surprise to anyone in the strategic community in Delhi.

One comforting thought, though, is that it is still in the planning stage. But with China, proposals become reality at breath-taking speed. Yameen, by having signed the Free Trade Agreement with China in December 2017 (the second country in the neighbourhood to do so with China after Pakistan) and pledging to align the country along the Maritime Silk Route as part of the Belt and Road Initiative of China, has made it clear as to where he wants to position his country.

With China's presence becoming so ominously imminent, can India dare to do anything in the Maldives? Well, even before the Chinese naval vessels reached the Maldives, India seemed too paralysed to act in a critically strategic country that enables area dominance in the southern Indian ocean. Having lost Humbantota in Sri Lanka to the Chinese Navy and now Makunudhoo island in the Maldives, are we still in control of the southern Indian ocean?

It's a different matter whether China is really interested in protecting and defending Yameen or it is just paying back India for our 'excessive' interest in Vietnam? Or is it payback for our keen interest in the South China Sea dispute with China's ASEAN neighbours?

Neighbourhood and Look East

It is accepted that foreign policy cannot be compartmentalised into regions and it should essentially be a projection of what you are and what you stand for as a country. Let us say, India stands for rule-based governance in international relations. But, when you join hands with one group of nations (ASEAN) against another country, which is not exactly following the high moral principle but its own 'narrow self-interest', you should be ready to face the consequences. Enunciating principles is easy, but to stand by them is tough.

China is essentially testing India's ability to stand up for its convictions and for its interests in the neighbourhood, first in Bhutan (on the Doklam issue) and now in the Maldives. If we let our neighbourhood slip into China's grip, our ambitious 'Act East' will likely remain quite hollow. It may look quite dramatic to have 10 heads of states on one platform to witness our Republic Day parade, but what is at stake for us in Brunei and the Philippines more than in our own neighbourhood?

It has become fashionable for the chiefs of the army and navy to talk of India being a 'net provider of security' in our neighbourhood, including the Indian Ocean. While it sounds very impressive, what exactly do they mean by it? And against whom will we defend our neighbours? Are we truly capable of providing that security or is it just an 'aspirational thing'?

As our neighbours, starting with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives, mortgage their land, along with their sovereignty, to China's easy flowing cash, India has to come up with more ingenious ways of winning over friends by using all the old tricks - 'Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda'. There is much that our agencies can do in the neighbourhood. 'Sabka saath sabka vikas' does not seem to be working even within India. Now, if our neighbours want 'vikas' (progress) with Chinese characteristics, where does that leave our policy?  

(The author is a retired diplomat)

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