Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had barely departed from Delhi for Kathmandu, en route to Beijing on 26 March, when external affairs Minister S. Jaishankar shed his stuffy suit for an ikat blue Fabindia cotton sleeveless jacket and flew to the Maldives for his own meetings with President Ibu Solih and foreign minister Abdulla Shahid.
Jaishankar’s foray into the Maldives and Sri Lanka these last few days has been noted as much for his sartorial elegance as for India’s agile return into this part of the Indian Ocean.
From Male, Jaishankar has travelled to Colombo, where he is meeting the Sri Lankan leadership – he donned a canary yellow jacket for his first meeting with finance minister Basil Rajapaksa – and attending a virtual meeting of nations around the Bay of Bengal.
For the tone-deaf Chinese, who believe that India will be willing to forgive and forget the fact of Chinese troops sitting on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh for the last two years, thereby violating every peace and tranquility agreement in the book – as Mr Wang indicated during his Delhi visit – Jaishankar’s travels in the Indian Ocean may have come as a surprise.
Remember that in the Maldives and in Sri Lanka, the Chinese have considerably expanded their footprint in recent years. Maldivian opposition leader Abdulla Yameen has been orchestrating an “India Out” campaign these last few months and had strongly wooed the Chinese when he was in power until 2018.
Certainly, in the interim, India has not been cooling its heels. Jaishankar’s confidence in asserting India’s primary place in the Maldives and Sri Lanka has been echoed not just by the various blues of the cotton jackets he has sported across various venues in Addu City and Gan (where he paid tribute to 72 Indian soldiers killed during the Second World War), but also matched his sunshades glinting off the bright sunshine in those Equatorial parts.
So even as Wang Yi was refurbishing his credentials with Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in Kathmandu – exhorting him to live up to the promise to invigorate China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) made by his predecessor K.P. Oli – Jaishankar in the Maldives was inaugurating the India-built police academy and various other projects in the company of Solih and Shahid.
A comeback in South Asia
Jaishankar chose his Maldives stop carefully, outside the capital Male, in Addu atoll. The southernmost atoll in the Maldivian archipelago, Addu, along with Fuvamulah, lies south of the equator – it has both Buddhist ruins and whale sharks for easy company. But Addu also lies within whispering distance of the one-and-a-half-degree channel, a major shipping passage in the Indian Ocean.
It is significant that the external affairs minister handed over the Indian-built expanded coastal radar system to the Maldivian chief of defence forces during his visit, which basically means that India will henceforth maintain a keen and constant eye on the Maldives.
For those watching South Asia carefully, this past week has seen a fascinating reversal of several recent Indian foreign policy debacles in its neighbourhood. It’s important to take a moment to understand what’s going on, to see clearly how India has clawed its way back into the region, where, not so long ago, the ground was being pulled from under its feet by the far richer and stronger Chinese.
A classic example is Nepal. Only in 2020, Oli’s government was raging at India on sovereignty issues, seeking to incorporate the Indian territories of Kalapani, Limpiadhura and Lipulekh. But Oli’s Leftist government has since lost power to Deuba’s Nepali Congress and the mood has radically changed in Kathmandu, even though the sovereignty issues haven’t been ironed out. Deuba is now coming to Delhi on 1 April on a three-day visit, within days of Wang Yi exiting from Nepal.
From the Maldives to Nepal, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, India seems determined to regain its former primary place in South Asia. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is lost to the Taliban, which refuses to allow girls into school, Pakistan is undergoing another attempt at political transformation, while Bhutan is still largely in quarantine.
Gains ahead of BRICS
Jaishankar’s Sri Lanka visit, also to participate in the BIMSTEC meeting – where Myanmar’s generals, having ousted Aung San Suu Kyi, are participating – is a fascinating case study. As Sri Lanka’s foreign debt ballooned and foreign exchange reserves fell for a variety of reasons in the last decade – among them an overnight shift to organic farming, paying off huge Chinese loans and focusing on the domestic economy rather than an export-oriented one – India stepped in to rescue Sri Lanka by extending it trade credit amounting to $1.4 billion.
This includes a $400 million RBI currency swap, a $500 million loan deferment and $500 million credit for fuel imports.
Earlier this March, Basil Rajapaksa flew in to Delhi again – his second visit in four months. In meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India cleared another $1 billion in emergency financial support. A “four-pronged approach” to address Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has since kicked in – Indian credit lines to import food, medicine and fuel, a currency swap to help boost Colombo’s foreign exchange reserves, the early modernisation of the Trincomalee oil tank farm and a reiteration of Colombo’s commitment to facilitate Indian investments, reported The Hindu.
On Monday, Jaishankar walked around downtown Colombo, visiting an outlet of Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, with its managing director Manoj Gupta briefing him on the fuel supply situation.
Less than four months ago on 6 January, Lanka IOC, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Sri Lankan government had signed three agreements to jointly develop the Trincomalee oil tank farm in the eastern part of the country, while NTPC agreed to set up a solar plant, also in Trincomalee. The Adani Group has also signed a deal to set up two renewable energy projects in northern Sri Lanka.
What had been pending for the last 30 years, when Jaishankar was first in Colombo during the latter days of the war fought between Indian peace-keeping forces and the LTTE, as a young diplomat in the Indian high commission, has through the twists and turns of history, at last come to fruition.
Jaishankar will participate in a BIMSTEC meeting in Colombo before he returns home later this week, while Wang Yi will likely discuss his south Asian sojourn – across Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal – back in Beijing.
Clearly, the Chinese want Modi to come to the BRICS summit later this year in China, which is why Wang Yi invited himself to Delhi. According to Global Times, “China and India should not let the border issue define or affect the overall development of the bilateral relationship,” which basically means that India should learn to live with Chinese troops in their forward positions along the LAC in Ladakh.
Certainly, that is not acceptable to Delhi. But as negotiations on border disengagement continue in the coming months, leading up to the BRICS summit, India holds an ace in her hands, which is the presence of PM Modi at the BRICS summit.
Should the PM go to China or not if Chinese soldiers menacingly remain on the LAC in Ladakh? Can Modi, backed by South Asia’s enhanced support for India, play for higher stakes with Beijing?
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)