Back-to-back reciprocal presidential visits seldom happen between nations of the world other than to avoid or defuse wars. That too are rare in this era of remote-controlled aerial warfare on the one hand and the 21st century advances in personal communication.
Hence, the peace-time quick exchange of visits between Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in just three weeks of August-September 2014 should have caused eyebrows to rise not just in India (with legitimate interest, inquisitiveness and concern), but also across the world as a whole.
Chinese media reports that President Xi’s decision to drop Pakistan from his list of three South Asian countries to visit – India and Sri Lanka being the other two – provided space and time for him to include Maldives in his itinerary. Diplomatic visits, that too by heads of government, are undertaken not because someone had the time or some other engagement got cancelled, particularly when there was still time for him to delay his departure from his nation.
President Xi’s was the maiden visit by any Chinese president to Maldives, and that should take the cake. Previously, President Yameen had become the first Maldivian head of state and government to visit Japan only weeks before he flew off to Beijing. China has had problems with Japan for long, and they have been revived in recent times, over maritime border issues.
Like his recent predecessors in office, President Yameen had made India his first overseas destination for an official visit (January 2014) after taking over in November 2013. As Indian media reports indicated at the time, the delay owed to overlapping appointments earlier, and nothing else.
It’s too early for Indians to jump to conclusions about President Xi’s Maldives visit or the decisions taken during the visit – or, in the preceding China visit of President Yameen. At this stage, it’s a merry-go-round for the Maldivian leadership to re-position the country in the emerging South Asian context, and possibly viz the larger Indian Ocean context. At best nations of South Asia, including Maldives’ other Indian Ocean neighbour Sri Lanka, are exploring the possibilities and experimenting with the options.
India, in whose ‘traditional sphere of influence’ all of this has been happening cannot complain. On the one hand, India did not bat an eyelid when in the post-Cold War global scenario it moved quickly into the all-American fold after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neither at the time, nor later over the past two decades, had India sought to explain its position to its ‘dependent neighbours’ — if nations like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh could be called so – even after leaving out Pakistan from the list, for obvious reasons.
What’s true of China in India’s neighbourhood is true, to a greater or lesser degree to the nation’s American friend in the post-Cold War era. The US’ decision to continue with high-voltage military presence in India’s neighbourhood ocean even after pulling out of Afghanistan in the post-9/11 regional context has consequences. China may be slow but may still want to catch up with the US in the emerging ‘arms race’ in the Indian Ocean Region as a whole, and the all-important Indian Ocean sea lanes, off the tri-nation seas.
China-India pow wow
India does not have the kind of money that smaller neighbours want urgently and continuously for some more years to come, to fund their development projects. China is possibly the only country with the kind of big money to invest. The Xi visit showed that India needs as much Chinese investments as Maldives or Sri Lanka need in their relative circumstances. So does the US and the rest of the ‘democratic’ West. China does not ask questions. Nor has it been seen so far as arm-twisting those nations to take a particular political stand on issues – domestic or international.
Yet, like India and Sri Lanka – Maldives too seems to have hedged its relations with China, by turning to Japan in recent years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Japan before President Xi’s South Asia visit. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Sri Lanka only days later. The political message is also clear, if there is any message that the ‘excessive’ Chinese investments in India’s neighbourhood have had to convey over the past years.
Revisiting GMR row
Despite everything else, there is still an area of hurt and concern in India as far as the emerging Maldives-China relations are concerned. When the erstwhile government of president Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik cancelled the two-year-old controversial modernisation-cum-concession agreement with Indian infrastructure major GMR in 2012, senior leaders of the present ruling dispensation had cited sovereignty and national security as among the causes for their not wanting to hand over the nation’s only major airport to an overseas entity.
That has changed. Among other bilateral agreements, the Xi visit witnessed the signing of a MoU for handing over the Male airport contract to a Chinese firm. None of the earlier arguments seem to apply now. It is possible that the Chinese did ‘due diligence’, which President Yameen said had not been undertaken effectively by the GMR group before signing the contract. India’s discomfort is also known all along in Male.
India should also be concerned about China’s recent perception of a ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR), which has revived forgotten references to the ‘String of Pearls’ around India. It does not seem to be about Maldives – and Sri Lanka – readily committing themselves to the same during President Xi’s visit, at least as yet.
What holds India and Maldives together (along with Sri Lanka) more from the past on the shared Indian Ocean front up to this point is the trilateral maritime security agreement of 2012. Though confined now to non-traditional security concerns like piracy and pollution, it has the potential to be upgraded to something bigger. It’s then that the conflict, if any, with the Chinese Maritime Silk Route would become visible – that’s if India continues to show disinterest and display discomfort.
It is in this context, the Xi visit and accompanying independent agreements with Maldives and Sri Lanka, on undefined maritime issues and cooperation, have the potential for causing greater concern not only in India, but in the shared neighbourhood and beyond. It’s more so if one were to consider simultaneously the Chinese re-escalating border tensions with India, when President Xi was in the country, meeting with a new and supposedly hardline prime minister in India.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)