The ‘neighbours first’ agenda will help India counter the machinations of China
In the early years of independence, particularly after the Chinese aggression, we looked at the north as the source of danger for India. The mighty Himalayas proved to be inadequate to protect our motherland.
The British had already anticipated this and negotiated treaties with Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim to ward off the evil of China. Independent India too had followed the same policy of creating buffer states between itself and China.
The awareness of the danger from the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea was there, but while marauders and conquerors came by land, it was traders and missionaries who came from the sea. But as powerful navies began to ply the Indian Ocean, the dangers from the sea in the form of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines became evident.
During the Cold War, we made an effort, together with the littoral and hinterland states, to keep the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. But the Indian Ocean continued to be plagued by great power rivalry and military bases came to be established.
After the end of the Cold War, India began to hold military exercises jointly with several countries in a spirit of cooperation for international security. In the changed situation, the islands in the Indian Ocean became crucial for Indian security when China began to increase its presence not only in the oceans, but also on the islands themselves.
Among these islands, Sri Lanka and Maldives became vulnerable because of their internal problems, such as political instability, terrorism, separatism and drug trafficking. The flourishing tourism industry added its own problems to the islands.
India had close relations with Sri Lanka and Maldives because of their proximity to India and the interaction between India and these countries through trade, cultural and other contacts. But due to the inherent issues in South Asia, where all the evils of the world are present, there were many fluctuations in our ties with them.
Sri Lanka is a classic case where India tried every trick in the book ranging from extending strong support to the LTTE to fighting it. Sri Lanka became a playground of world powers, particularly China and we were silent spectators when the Tamils were butchered in the end.
More recently, Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power as a friend of India became more enamoured of China and moved away from us. Then he tried to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and bring Rajapakse as Prime Minister.
Through all these internal developments, China got the upper hand. Now it looks like some sense has dawned on Sirisena and he is trying to get closer to India. The Easter bombings of the churches and hotels should have come as a shock to him.
Against this backdrop, Modi's stop-over in Colombo was a master stroke. Sirisena had visited India for Modi's swearing in ceremony. Modi became the first world leader to visit Sri Lanka after the bombing and stressed his anti-terror role after the Balakot bombing.
Together with Sirisena's disillusionment with the Chinese over BRI, it is possible that the Modi visit might be a turning point for the better in India-Sri Lankan relations. Modi again proved his ability to strike when the iron was hot.
The Maldives had a certain stability during the 30 year rule of Abdul Gayoom and it maintained a steady relationship with India, despite the basic Islamic compulsions it had.
India had invested in vital projects in Maldives. The countering of the attempted coup by Indian intervention in the Maldives in 1988 gave India a security role in the island and a strong bond with the President developed.
But things went out of control when China tightened its grip on the country. The elections brought Nasheed to power and the situation became complex after a coup against him. The advent of Abdullah Yameen as President was the worst period in bilateral relations.
But still India did not deny him permission to visit when an organisation in the name of APJ Abdul Kalam invited him to receive an award. But such gestures did not make any change in Yameen and he went to the extent of asking India to take back the surveillance aircraft India had gifted for the security of Maldives.
It was the surprise election of Ibrahim Solih as President that brought a turning point in India's favour. The new President has made it absolutely clear that India would be his first priority, implying that he would not act against India's interests.
Modi grasped the hand of friendship extended to India and promised to respond in whatever way possible to the needs of Maldives. His decision to choose Maldives as the first destination of his second term made the right impact. Maldives bestowed on Modi the highest honour of the country and invited him to address its Parliament.
The announcements made during the visit indicated the extent and depth of the relationship being shaped between Modi and Solih. The most dramatic was the announcement that India would build a cricket stadium in Maldives through a generous line of credit.
Modi gave Solih a cricket bat signed by the Indian team to the World Cup to symbolise the new dimension to the relations. BCCI had already sent a team in May to prepare for Modi's visit. Plans are being made to train cricketeers from Maldives in India.
It is believed that Solih chose India because of his admiration for the Indian team even as Pakistan was also offering such cooperation.
Cricket received much attention, but agreements reached during the visit covered areas such vital areas as hydrography, health, passenger and cargo services by sea, capacity building in customs and civil service training. A technical agreement on sharing ‘White Shipping Information’ between the Indian Navy and the Maldives National Defence Force was also signed, enabling exchange of prior information on the movement of commercial, non-military vessels.
According to a joint statement, Modi and Maldivian President Solih jointly inaugurated a ‘Coastal Surveillance Radar System’ and a training facility of the Maldives National Defence Force, by remote link.
“Both leaders welcomed the signing of the $800 million Line of Credit Agreement in March 2019, for assisting the Maldives to achieve sustainable social and economic development. The leaders stressed the need to work towards expeditious implementation of people-centric and socio-economic projects,” a statement said.
Further, it said the leaders “reaffirmed their unequivocal and uncompromising position against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”
After the talks, Modi said the two countries have agreed to start a ferry service between Kochi and the Maldives. He added that the launch of RuPay Card in the Maldives will give a boost to tourism.
In other words, after years of witnessing souring relations during Yameen’s term, Modi and Solih achieved great progress in resetting relations. Modi attended Solih’s inaugural ceremony in Male in November 2018, and Solih’s first visit abroad, after assuming office, was to India in December 2018.
Modi's “neighbours first” policy has been more than matched by Solih's “India first” policy. Modi's first visit abroad in his second term to Maldives and Sri Lanka has taken India's neighbourhood policy forward in the face of the Chinese machinations in the region.
The regional cooperation in South Asia without Pakistan is also becoming a reality in the process.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)