India is quickly moving to woo the new government in the Maldives. The pro-China administration of former president Abdullah Yameen’s defeat in the recent national elections has given New Delhi the space to manouvre and bring back Maldives, a stone’s throw from the Indian heartland to its sphere of influence in the strategically important Indian Ocean region. The downside is Sri Lanka, where former strong man Mahinda Rajapaksa, known to be close to China, is back in the centre stage of the island’s politics.
Asian rivals India and China are in a race to spread their influence in the Indian Ocean region. Ever since China has begun spreading its wings across South Asia, India has been scrambling to deal with this new situation in its neighbourhood. China is now buzzing around in what India traditionally regarded as its backyard, where it had excellent ties with the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. But with the rise of China, Delhi has to take into account, the looming presence of the Asian dragon in its bilateral ties with neighbouring countries. This is the new narrative with which India needs to come to grips.
When Deng Xiaoping began his economic reforms in 1979, the Chinese concentrated on getting rich and lifting its millions out of poverty. Deng’s advice to people was to bend their heads and work tirelessly. Three decades later, that stage has passed. China is now the second largest economy in the world, replacing Japan. Side by side with its economic clout, China has also developed and modernised its navy, air force and armed forces and is now ready to exert its influence on the world stage. The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, held last year, was a coming out party. As President Xi Jinping said in his Political Report, China would offer an alternative model of development. Put simply, “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
India’s policy since independence was to keep great powers out of its neighbourhood and make sure that the proxy war between the US and the former Soviet Union was not played out in South Asia. With the rise of China, and its growing economic and military clout, Delhi has to deal with this new factor. China provides an alternative narrative of development and many Asian nations, desperate for infrastructure projects, are turning to China.
This is naturally affecting India’s tactical position in the region. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives have had traditionally good relations with India. But China is now aggressively wooing South Asian powers. In Nepal and Maldives (under Yameen) China was able to spread its wings. The unexpected defeat of Yameen has been a setback for China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first world leader to call newly elected President Mohamed Solih after he unexpectedly defeated Yameen in the recent elections. Despite his heavy electioneering schedule, Modi took time off to attend Solih’s swearing in. Delhi had been batting for the opposition in Male and has excellent ties with the Maldivian Democratic Party leader Mohammed Nasheed.
In fact, the downturn in relations with Yameen followed Modi dropping out of a visit to Maldives in 2015. This was because Yameen had slapped terror charges against Nasheed and thrown him in jail. The court which passed the order was allegedly influenced by the government.
Yameen was furious at Modi cancelling an announced visit. The Indian Prime Minister went ahead with the rest of his official tour to the Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka. Yameen, who was already inclined towards China, now played the Dragon card. He signed a Free Trade Agreement with China, during his visit to Beijing in December last year.
The procedure that had to be followed for signing a major foreign policy move, which is laid down in the Maldivies Constitution, was flouted. The opposition said that the Majlis (parliament) was hurriedly convened and the vote was hurriedly pushed through, without having the required numbers. India’s GMR, which had been awarded the job for modernising, expanding and running the international airport, was ousted and a Chinese company given the deal. Many Chinese companies were also given land on leases ranging from 50-100 years, prompting the opposition to talk of land grab by China.
The new government has hinted that these deals will be reviewed. The FTA is likely to be cancelled. In a recent interview to the BBC, Nasheed has said: “The trade imbalance between China and the Maldives is so huge that nobody would think of an FTA between such parties.” He added that “China is not buying anything from us. It is a one-way treaty.” Nasheed was prevented from contesting the last elections, due to the false charges slapped on him by the previous government. Solih was chosen as the joint opposition candidate to take on Yameen. But Nasheed wields enormous clout in the government and his statement on China reflects the general mood in the party. India will go out of its way to regain its foothold in the Maldives. Lines of credit, new projects as well as helping to build democratic institutions in the island state will be India’s priority. The attempt will be to show that while India may not be in a position to conduct cheque book diplomacy like China, it excels in institution building. China’s debt repayment is another problem that is haunting many of those who have opened up their countries to Chinese companies. Whether it is Sri Lanka, Maldives or even all weather friend Pakistan, every country is facing the problem of servicing the huge loans. The first foreign visit of President Solih is likely to be to India. Most of the new initiatives will be announced when he is here.
While things are proceeding according to script in the Maldives, in Sri Lanka the India-leaning Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been replaced by former President Rajapaksa.
The unlikely protagonist is neither the former strong man Mahinda Rajapaksa nor the sophisticated scion of a political dynasty Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is the nephew of president JRJ Jayawardene, the man who signed the India-Sri Lanka accord with Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 and literally defanged India.
Maithripala Sirisena, the mild mannered President, made the first move by sacking Wickremesinghe on October 28 and plunging the island nation into a political crisis. A quintessential politician, who keeps his cards close to his chest, was frustrated with the workings of the Wickremesinghe government. The two were at loggerheads and were not on talking terms for several months.
Ranil and his United National Party were calling the shots, and Sirisena knew that he was losing grip on the government. If he wished to remain politically relevant for the next elections he had to strike early.
Ahead of the 2015 elections, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ditched their leader Rajapaksa, and had joined hands with traditional rivals, the United National Party, to keep Rajapaksa and his family out. The move was supported by India, US and other western democracies.
Rajapaksa, charged by the Tamil diaspora of large scale human rights abuse during the last days of the military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was a hate figure for the minority Tamils. The powerful diaspora lobby wanted to have him tried for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court of Justice. The Rajapaksa family, including his two brothers Gotabhaya and Basil, were regarded as both ruthless and corrupt.
Sirisena and Ranil joined hands to form the government amidst general euphoria among the Tamils, who felt they would now be given their political due, the liberals and the democratic world. However from the start, it was a marriage of convenience and there was no real meeting of minds.
Though out of power, Rajapaksa remained popular among large sections of Sinhala Buddhists, who saw him as a hero for wiping out the LTTE.
Rajapaksa swept the local provincial elections in February this year, signalling that his popularity had not dimmed. Sirisena read the writing on the wall.
Days ahead of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India, there were reports in the Colombo press that Sirisena had spoken of a RAW attempt to assassinate him, at a cabinet meeting. An Indian was arrested. His brother in Mumbai said that he was deranged and suffering from depression. The next day, Sirisena was on the phone to Narendra Modi, reassuring him that the press had misquoted him.
On hindsight, Sirisena’s move made complete sense. He wanted to tell his domestic audience that New Delhi, a friend of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, was ready to remove him from the scene. Soon afterwards he sacked the prime minister and swore in Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man he had earlier back-stabbed, as his prime minister. He also decreed that Parliament would meet on November 16, over a fortnight later. This was to allow enough time for him and Rajapaksa to induce lawmakers to switch sides.
But the best laid out plans can sometimes backfire. There were 12 lawsuits filed before the Lankan apex court, challenging the President’s removal of the PM. Ranil Wickremesinghe also dug in his heels. He refused to vacate Temple Trees, the official residence of the PM. The Court ordered a vote to be taken. Parliament was convened and Rajapaksa lost. Sirisena immediately dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections in January. But this has again been challenged by the UNP, who say that the President cannot dissolve the Parliament at will. The 19th amendment of the Constitution, which is being used by Sirisena, has many loop holes and a good lawyer can argue both ways. But the long and the short of this is political instability in India’s neighbourhood. The first ambassador to call on Rajapaksa after he was sworn in was the Chinese envoy.
China’s 1.4 billion Colombo Port City Project, which was initiated during Rajapaksa’s tenure, the opposition UNP and civil rights groups protested vehemently saying it would affect the environment, stays in place.
Everybody expected the project to be scrapped when Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power. But it was not. Sri Lanka and China have had excellent relations from the days of Sirimavo Bandarnaike. China cannot be wished away, whoever is in government in Colombo. However, Wickremesinghe did not give permission for Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo port last year. Wickremesinghe had assured India that he would be sensitive to India’s security concerns. When Rajapaksa allowed the Chinese submarines and a warship into Colombo port in 2014, alarm bells went off in Delhi.
At the moment the political situation in Colombo remains fluid. Delhi is keeping a close watch. Rajapaksa too has been trying to reach out to India. He had visited India several times when he was out of power and is said to have called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi during one of his visits.
Finally, if and when elections are held in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa is expected to sweep in the south, home to the Sinahala Buddhist majority. The Tamils will certainly not want him back. Ranil Wickremesinghe is also being challenged in his own party by younger elements, including sons of former UNP stalwarts like Gamini Dissanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Perhaps Sirisena’s constitutional coup will help Ranil Wickremesinghe to stave off the challenge from the younger elements in the UNP, because of the sympathy generated by his sacking.
Like India, China is also closely monitoring the latest political developments in Sri Lanka. It is perhaps getting a taste of the uncertainties of democratic politics. Earlier China had consistently stayed away from interfering in domestic politics of countries where it aimed at winning over just the people in power. It has done so across Africa, tangoing with dictators. But as its power and influence grows, China is getting into the domestic power play. In Nepal it has succeeded. In the Maldives there is a setback. And Sri Lanka there is uncertainty.
But in the days to come, both India and China will continue to back their chosen leaders. In South Asia, India will look to regaining lost ground, while China would want to dislodge India.