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Taking Russia’s help on China and US on Maldives — a new Indian realism is underway

This has been an exciting week for Indian foreign policy as Modi’s India seeks post-ideological help to forge new ground.

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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.

Also read: China is an enemy of freedom of thought. It wants the same from other powerful nations

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.

Also read: As Taliban-Afghan govt talk peace, lessons from an Afghan hero killed 19 years ago

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.”

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.

Also read: ‘Standing up against China’ — India set to step into another minilateral within Indo-Pacific

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.

Views are personal.

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  1. It was sad week for Indian diplomacy…………..India arch enemy Talibans were being feted in Doha……….India’s presence was admission of acceptance of defeat…………..In Moscow Pakistan National Security Tzar spoke under a new Pakistani map showing Indian lands as Pakistani territory……..despite repeated objections of Indian diplomats & Doval Russians allowed Pakistan to have its own way…………Chinese foreign minister made India erase LAC from Indian diplomatic memory meaning that the thousands of km of Indian occupied land is now Chinese ownership……………yet this article terms it as realism !!!

  2. Reality check: Indian Ocean is firmly under US thumb from its Diego Garcia military base; the ocean is but Indian in name only. To argue that US sought Indian blessing prior to dealing with the Maldives attributes imaginary humility to the Americans and fantacized might to India; India’s conspicuous absence from the US-Maldives deal signing says it all.

  3. Reality check: Indian Ocean is firmly under US thumb from its Diego Garcia base; Indian Ocean is Indian in name only. To assume that US asked for Indian blessing to sign deals with the Maldives amounts to attribution of imaginary humility to the US and fantasized might to India. India’s conspicuous absence from the US-Maldives deal signing says it all.

  4. What is a new Jyoti? Left is quite uncomfortable taking help from the US. They would like India to be subservient to Chinese CCP and Russian politburo. Left was against any liberlization and modernization in India when China was fiercely modernizing and liberalizing its economy. Leftists will not like US presence in Maldives or Indian Ocean. They would welcome chinese with open arms and they cheered chinese when they invaded India in 1962 war.
    The title of the article says new and I see nothing new. Modi is more tilted towards west and that is what the opposition does not like. Congress went and signed party to party agreement with China and no one in the world what that agreement about. So do not peddle this non-sense. We are on track with our new and bold foreign policy approach after Modi is elected and nothing is new in the last couple of weeks. Misleading title and narrative.

  5. India should take a leaf off German, Otto Van Bismarck. We should sign treaties of War Support with Japan, USA and Australia. If there are other nations in South Asia that want to get in, we should do it. This should include weapons and participation in any war that will be forced upon India. We should corner China at every turn. That is the only way ahead.

  6. For some time, the West, led by the US, was content to let India lead in the neighbourhood, go by its assessments. So when the Opposition boycotted the previous election which Sheikh Hasina won, despite initially calling for a fresh election that would be more representative, the US came around to India’s endorsement of the result. That also held true for Nepal, where India’s influence and equities were greater. America is reaching out to Sri Lanka and in the Maldives there is a formal pact. Would it be fair to say the US now considers South Asia too deeply under the growing shadow of China to let India be its regional protector of geopolitical interests. 2. On Afghanistan, it is evident that India is coming to terms with its diminished role. One of the results of six years of not talking to Pakistan and seeking to “ isolate “ it. 3. A welcome course correction with Russia. It sells so much military hardware to us, leases nuclear submarines, punches above its weight in the region. 4. Whether these are exciting or interesting times for Indian foreign policy is hard to say. However, a school child learning online would understand that a substantive rerating of India has been underway for some time, now with Ladakh as well.

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