From the deserted Ladakh plateau north in the Himalayas, where Indian and Chinese soldiers have been facing off for the last four months or so, to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean lapping 1,192 beautiful coral islands of the Maldivian archipelago on both sides of the Equator, India’s new realism is in full sway.
On 10 September, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar led his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in talks in Moscow, facilitated by the Russians, to broker disengagement in Ladakh; while the phrase “status quo ante” did not figure in the joint statement that emerged later, New Delhi is convinced that it’s better to persuade the Chinese to return to its own side of the Line of Actual Control (another phrase that did not figure), rather than quibble over three words.
Also on 10 September in the US, Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi and the US pointperson in the Pentagon for South Asia Reed Werner signed a framework for defence and security relationship to “deepen engagement and cooperation in support of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean…and promotes a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Considering Maldivian Speaker Mohamed Nasheed is coming to Delhi later this week on 20 September, it’s obvious that India is on board.
By now, it’s clear even to high school children studying online in this coronavirus pandemic that there is only one country throwing its considerable weight around, against whom these new Indo-Pacific alliances are being forged: China.
A new order in Kabul
Meanwhile, in Doha, India sent senior diplomat J.P. Singh, who has served in both Kabul and Islamabad, to represent it at the opening of the Taliban-Afghan government peace talks, while Jaishankar – like Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi – addressed the gathering over video.
Arguably, Jaishankar’s presence in Doha would have sent a strong signal that India is ready to stay the course, no matter how tough, in the considerably difficult weeks and months that lie ahead.
Especially since Jaishankar, in his superbly crafted book, ‘The India Way’ warns about the “dangers of strategic complacency” and quotes Plato to support his argument that “the heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior.”
Especially since China’s envoy to Afghanistan Liu Jian — or Pakistan’s Qureshi — came to Doha. Jaishankar’s presence would have allowed him to rub shoulders with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and NATO commander in Afghanistan Scott Miller — who captured the Doha moment by walking up to the Taliban in the full glare of chandeliers and greeted them – and certainly emphasised India’s willingness to be not just a stabiliser but an amplifier of peace in the region, even as the Americans get out of Afghanistan.
Still, New Delhi has come a long way since two retired diplomats were sent to Moscow in 2018 to participate in talks with the Taliban. Amar Sinha, former ambassador to Kabul and T.C.A. Raghavan, former high commissioner to Pakistan, were instructed not even to speak with them, besides pleasantries over lunch and tea.
Khalilzad is also in Delhi today to talk to the Indian leadership, on his way out of Doha, via Islamabad, illustrating a deepening tie with India. He has no doubt shaped Jaishankar’s shift to open India to the new order taking shape in Kabul — but the foreign minister’s reluctance to step up to the promise of the strategic partnership signed with Afghanistan under PM Manmohan Singh as long back as 2011, is an indication of the cliché that “old cautions die hard” in Delhi.
Expanding influence in Indian Ocean
Still, Nasheed’s visit to Delhi later this week certainly confirms that new foreign policy shifts are underway in Modi’s India. The Prime Minister has been more than fulsome in his praise of the Maldivian leadership, announcing a package of $500 million, including a $100 million grant, in August, citing a special friendship that “will always remain as deep as the waters of the Indian Ocean.”
Thank you, President @ibusolih! India will continue to support the Maldives in mitigating the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our special friendship is, and will always remain, as deep as the waters of the Indian Ocean. https://t.co/nbKL19hw7P
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 13, 2020
The Indian package, of which the remaining $400 million is tied aid, will build Maldives’ largest civilian infrastructure project that will connect capital city Male with the neighbouring islands of Villingili, Gulhifahu and Thilafushi with a 6.7 km-long bridge and causeway link.
The Indian projects are expected to overwhelm the Chinese-built seemingly undulating Sinamale bridge that connects Male with the airport. Remember that the Maldives, under its previous pro-China president Abdulla Yameen, joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Maldivian news reports say the current Ibu Solih-led government is trying to get out of at least some projects his predecessor had agreed the Chinese would build – such as the Joint Ocean Observation Station on Maldives’ western-most island of Makunudhoo, capable of keeping an eye on all the goings-on in the Indian Ocean, including the British-US base of Diego Garcia south of the Equator – but that $9 billion is still owed.
But what is significant about the recent Maldives-US defence agreement is not only that no one has raised a murmur inside the Maldives, unlike in 2013 when the US wanted to sign a defence pact with Male, but that it expands the potential of the so-called Quad navies – Australia, Japan, India and the US – to yet another corner of the Indian Ocean.
This has certainly been an exciting week for Modi’s foreign policy. Informally allying with the US in the Maldives, not hesitating to ask the Russians for help in talking to the Chinese and participating in the rejigging of your own extended neighbourhood is one way of expanding space to take action and protect your interests.
Fastening your seat belts is one sure way to enjoy what’s coming.
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