China’s muscle has forced India to rethink its maritime strategy

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By Brahma Chellaney

China’s increasing encroachments into India’s maritime neighbourhood will likely keep this region insecure and heighten uncertainty

While India watches with concern Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is boldly visiting the Maldives on the day its autocratic president, Abdullah Yameen, is to cede power after a surprise election defeat. Modi’s visit for the new president’s inauguration effectively ensures that Yameen will peacefully transfer power to the victor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Indeed, the mere announcement of Modi’s visit signalled to Yameen that he had no choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Coordinated pressure from democratic powers, including the spectre of an Indian military intervention, is helping to restore Maldivian democracy. The US had warned of “appropriate measures” and the EU had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when the graft-tainted Yameen hesitated to concede defeat despite the election outcome, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people”.

Yameen had stacked the electoral odds in his favour by jailing or forcing into exile all important opposition leaders and working to neuter the Supreme Court, including by imprisoning justices. But such was the grassroots backlash against his dictatorial rule that he lost the election to the little-known Solih, the common opposition candidate. Unless autocrats wholly manipulate elections, they cannot control voters’ backlash, which is why Malaysia’s Najib Razak was swept out of office in May and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was booted out in early 2015.

It is ironical that Sri Lanka has now been plunged into political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena’s unconstitutional actions, which smack of the kind of authoritarianism displayed by his predecessor, Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change, has himself abused the power of his office. Ominously, Sirisena has reached a Faustian bargain with Rajapaksa, whose decade-long presidency brought democracy under siege.

The collapse of the Sri Lankan partnership between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed an early warning to the Maldivian unity coalition that the restoration of full democracy is reversible unless those elected to high office respect constitutional rules and show consideration for their partners. Solih’s victory was made possible by opposition unity. But the only thing that united opposition leaders was the imperative to end Yameen’s tyrannical rule.

Those who helped fashion Solih’s victory include former presidents, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed. Earlier jailed by Gayoom, Nasheed took office in 2008 by defeating Gayoom in the country’s first multi-party election. But in 2012, Nasheed was ousted at gunpoint after pro-Islamist groups, including forces loyal to Gayoom, laid siege to the presidential office. In this light, political stability and democratic progress in post-Yameen Maldives will hinge on rival leaders staying united behind Solih.

There is much in common between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, including their islander cultures and shifting political alliances and the fact that Maldives’ official language, Dhivehi, is a dialect of Sinhala. The murky turn of events in Sri Lanka casts an unwelcome shadow over Maldives’ new democratic beginning.

In fact, the biggest threat to democratic institutions in India’s maritime neighbourhood — after internal crisis — comes from the growing role and leverage of the world’s largest autocracy, China. From bribing politicians to shielding pliant leaders and governments from UN actions, China has encouraged anti-democratic developments. Before Sirisena recently stunned a cabinet meeting by claiming he was the target of a RAW assassination plot (his office later denied he named RAW), he publicly boasted that Chinese President, Xi Jinping, “gifted” him almost $300 million “for any project of my wish”. China has also built South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in Sirisena’s home district.

A central challenge for the Solih-led Maldives will be to escape China’s debt entrapment, given how Beijing has sought to further its geostrategic goals by attempting to hold Sri Lanka financially hostage. Throttling democracy allowed Yameen to take the Maldives down the slippery slope of increasing indebtedness to his protector, China. The accumulated debt to China is now more than two times greater than Maldives’ yearly revenues. In steering his archipelago country firmly into China’s orbit, Yameen also leased several unpopulated islands opaquely to Beijing.

More broadly, the centenary this week of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client states — the very pursuits of China today. China’s increasing encroachments into India’s maritime neighbourhood will likely keep this region insecure and heighten uncertainty. By muscling its way into India’s backyard, Beijing has prompted an Indian focus on the maritime domain, including seeking to turn four key projects into “pearls” — Sabang (Indonesia); Chabahar (Iran); Duqm (Oman); and Agaléga (Mauritius).

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