Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu. Source: Business Today, India. - Photo: 2024

Is a “Muscular” India Alienating Neighbours?

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE | 16 January 2024 (IDN) — After returning from a week-long trip to China on January 14, the new Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu told journalists in Male: “We may be small, but that doesn’t give you the licence to bully us”. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was referring to India, not to China.

In the September 2023 elections, Muizzu ran on a campaign slogan, “India out,” and immediately after taking office on November 7, he ordered the 70 Indian military personnel based in the Maldives to leave. The Indian military personnel were deployed in the Maldives during the previous pro-Indian regime to operate and fly two Dornier aircraft and a helicopter gifted by India to the Maldives for emergency evacuation of people from the islands spread over the vast ocean.

Breaking tradition, he made his first state visit to China this month instead of India. Maldives and China have signed some 20 economic cooperation agreements during his Beijing visit.

In recent years, India’s other neighbours, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh have also hedged their bets by reaching out to China, in spite of Indian pressure not to, as India begins to show a muscular side of its foreign policy in the neighbourhood while India’s status as global power surges. India’s recent moves to cement military alliances with the United States, France and the United Kingdom are also unsettling the neighbourhood.

In Sri Lanka, there are strong sentiments among the Buddhists, in particular, that the regime change uprising in July 2022 to oust the pro-China Rajapakse regime was precipitated by India’s intelligence arm, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in concert with Western powers. But the President it installed, the supposedly pro-Indian and pro-western Ranil Wickremasinghe, visited China in October 2023, attending the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.

During a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s official media reported, that the two leaders have agreed to make every effort to push forward the Chinese-funded Colombo Port City and Hambantota comprehensive development project, making them flagship projects of China-Sri Lanka Belt and Road cooperation—a project that India (and the West) loathe.

In September 2015, when India was upset with the newly adopted Nepal Constitution, New Delhi imposed a harsh six-month blockade—much of the trade between the two countries crossed via the land borders—was imposed on a hapless, landlocked country which caused immense suffering. As Nepal increasingly became wary of India, China has dramatically increased its economic footprint in the Himalayan republic. In 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping made a historic state visit to Nepal, during which the bilateral relationship was elevated to a Strategic Partnership of Cooperation.

Economic footprint with Nepal

But recently, India has been pushing hard to increase its economic footprint with Nepal, and indirectly, it is assisted by the controversial US State Department-linked Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). In September 2017, MCC signed a $500 million compact with the Government of Nepal. The compact aims to maintain road quality, increase the availability and reliability of electricity, and facilitate cross-border electricity trade between Nepal and India.

Yet, In September 2023, Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal made a long-awaited state visit to China. During the visit, the two sides agreed to expand economic cooperation linking to Chinese highways to turn Nepal from a “land-locked country to a land-linked country”, according to a Chinese government statement. China and Nepal are reportedly working on a feasibility study to build a railway across the Himalayan mountains—with tunnelling—to establish Nepal’s first major railway network linking it to China. Beijing will train Nepalis to run the railways, as they have done in Laos.

In Bangladesh, India was reprieved when long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won the country’s general elections this month. She is considered pro-India, though she has also pursued economic cooperation with China during her 15-year reign. India even asked its ally, the US, to keep off from interfering in the Bangladesh general elections when they were seen to be trying to destabilize the Hasina regime during an election that was boycotted by opposition parties, which the US seemed to favour.

In November 2023, when the US expressed concern about the democratic process in Bangladesh, an Indian External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi, said at a media conference in New Delhi that Bangladesh “is a close friend and partner” of New Delhi and that India “respects the democratic process in Bangladesh and it is for the people to decide their own future”.

Interestingly, India and China were in the same camp backing the re-election of Hasina.

Bangladesh is strategically important for China as it shares a land border with India. Chinese companies have invested $26 billion in Bangladesh in the last six years. Their bilateral trade is reported to have grown by 58 per cent in the last 12 years. While China’s growing inroads into Bangladesh is certainly an area of concern for India, Hasina has been encouraging Indian businesses to invest more in Bangladesh, pointing out Bangladesh’s advanced manufacturing capacity.

Total Indian investments in Bangladesh add up to more than $3 billion, with big Indian companies such as Tata Motors, Hero Motor Corp, Aditya Birla Cement, and Sun Pharma investing heavily in the country. Hasina has invited Indian companies to invest in the country’s infrastructure sector, which requires investments of about $20 billion a year till 2030, promising to dedicate at least three of the 100 proposed special economic zones exclusively to Indian investors. In the fiscal year of 2021-22, foreign direct investment to Bangladesh totalled $1.37 billion, with India accounting for only $15.7 million, or 1.15 per cent.

A fantastic juggler

“Hasina has been a fantastic juggler and leveraged Bangladesh’s geostrategic importance, unlike any other small country,” Dhaka University professor Shantanu Majumder told India Today. “She has secured deals for Bangladesh from all parties without annoying New Delhi, Beijing, or Washington”.

But, he notes that the extraordinary pressure from the US on human rights issues will push Bangladesh further towards China. “The level of the Bangladesh-China relationship is at an all-time high right now. Although not always visible, any keen observer can sense Beijing’s backing for the current government,” notes Majumder.

Meanwhile, the Modi government has been pressuring the Maldives to backtrack on its pro-China stance. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an extraordinary photoshoot for the Indian media, emerged from a snorkelling exercise in Lakshadweep—which is an archipelago of 36 atolls off the coast of Kerala in Southern India—in a subtle message to the Maldives that Indians should be visiting these islands instead of the Maldives.

It is estimated that Indians contributed $380 million to tourism in the Maldives in 2023, and currently, spearheaded by social media, there is a concerted campaign to discourage Indians from visiting the Maldives. According to tour operators, there is reportedly a 40 percent decline in bookings to Maldives.

But as Deccan Herald’s Bharat Bhushan notes, there could be a backlash on India because 50 of the 60 weekly flights to Maldives from India are operated by Indian airlines. “Amidst this boycott hullabaloo, why should Indians take affront if the Maldivian President asks China to send more tourists to his country?” he asks.

Pointing out India’s backlash from Nepal from the 2015 blockade, Bhushan argues, ”Foreign office mandarins must know the utter futility of coercive diplomacy against the Maldives. Yet, like the Prime Minister, they seem ultimately at sea about the ineffectiveness of coercive diplomatic measures to promote India’s global stature”.

“Though we have small islands in this ocean, we have a vast exclusive economic zone of 900,000 square kilometres. Maldives is one of the countries with the biggest share of this ocean,” Muizzu said on his return to Malé from China.  “This ocean does not belong to a specific country. This ocean also belongs to all countries situated in it,” he added, echoing an argument often espoused by China. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu. Source: Business Today, India.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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