- Feb 14 2018
If India is unable to call the shots in Maldives, who will even take it seriously as a player in the region?
For a country with big power aspirations (or at least pretensions), India has been remarkably negligent about the need to control and shape the strategic environment around it. India never tires of proclaiming that its sphere of influence extends from the Straits of Malacca to the Gulf of Aden, encompassing the entire Indian Ocean region (IOR). And yet, India hasn’t quite built the military sinews, the economic interlinkages, the political leverages and networks, and the covert capabilities, with and within countries in the region, that would allow India to exercise its influence and make its ambitions a reality.
Strangely, a few decades ago, when India's capabilities were much more modest than what they are today, India was able to assert and exert itself more effectively than what it is able to, or even willing to, do now. Perhaps, one reason for this change lies in the fast-changing power differential between India and China, which is steadily expanding its sphere of influence to the IOR.
The growing footprint of China in the IOR certainly complicates India’s strategic environment. Partly because India cannot match China’s chequebook diplomacy, and partly because China has managed to build capabilities and capacities that allow countries in India’s proverbial backyard to use China as a counterweight to India.
The ground is fast slipping from under India’s feet. But the rise of China aside, in recent years, India’s reluctance, even diffidence, to punch according to its weight has also steadily undermined India’s standing in the region.
The failures of India’s policy wonks and strategists to anticipate and then preempt and prevent, the Chinese from spreading their influence in the IOR, is emblematic of the slothful thinking and lack of strategic foresight that has been characteristic of the Indian mind for millennia.
We tend to be so full of ourselves and our past accomplishments, that as a people we fail to anticipate and prepare for handling the challenges that either stare us in the face or will confront us in the future.
If India was really serious about playing the big boys' game, then over the years it should have at least gamed the possibility of having to intervene in some of the countries in the neighbourhood. A recent article revealed that in 1988 when India intervened in Maldives, the armed forces had to plan their operations on the basis of tourist maps and brochures! Three decades later it isn't entirely clear if we have done our homework on places like Maldives or will now depend on Google Maps to figure out our battle plans.
Ideally, having known that relations with Maldives have been going south for nearly a decade, India should have prepared for contingencies, including physical intervention. This would mean mapping the entire place, putting in place assets, building constituencies covertly, cultivating politicians, officials and security force personnel. The same thing should have been done in Nepal and other countries.
China, on the other hand, has already started preparing for its presence in the Indian Ocean. It has started building bases, carrying out oceanographic studies to study the waters in which its ships and submarines will operate, cultivating countries and peoples by throwing money at them. Even when China wasn’t as big a player as it is today, it had already started making inroads in the region.
China’s relationship with Pakistan, which got strengthened after the 1962 War with India, was forged primarily with an eye on India. By the turn of the century, the Chinese had not only the Pakistanis in their pocket, but they had also started making inroads in other countries around India. In Bangladesh, they started supplying defence equipment and replaced India as the largest trading partner. In Nepal, China not only inserted itself in domestic politics and positioned itself as a counter to India, but it also started funding projects that will reduce Nepal into a vassal state.
In Sri Lanka, they massaged the ego of the then strongman, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and funded clearly unviable and unaffordable projects, eventually taking control of a strategic port. In Myanmar, they funded projects that virtually bind Myanmar to China. In Bhutan, they not only encroached on Bhutanese territory but also dangled the carrot of better terms than what Bhutan gets from India. And, of course, in Maldives, they funded projects and negotiated a military base that allows China to sit astride the shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
India, meanwhile, was so busy wooing and becoming the toast of the West that it ignored, or at least neglected its own backyard. The tragedy is that even as India had started achieving the economic heft that could be used to create dependencies in the region, the opportunity was frittered away. Worse, even when India became pro-active and promised stuff, its delivery has been underwhelming. Of course, it wasn’t all bad. For instance, in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, the Indian track record of development projects is second to none.
While the lament that India doesn’t have or hasn’t developed sufficient leverages and pressure points that will allow it to use its influence in the neighbouring countries is often voiced, the trouble is that India seems chary of using even the leverages that exist.
India's failure to translate its dominant position in the region into effective power on the ground is quite glaring. Clearly, there is something seriously wrong in the way India operates in the region that even countries like Maldives think they can cock a snook at India without any fear of retribution. Part of the problem lies in the fact, or perhaps the perception, that India seems to have taken the fairy tale of non-interference and non-intervention, especially of the unsolicited or uninvited kind, in the affairs of other countries so seriously that it has even refused to exercise its natural influence in many of the countries of the region.
Over the years, in the region, India has gained the dubious reputation where its friends have no faith in it and its adversaries do not fear crossing its path. Thus, it has come to such that the prime minister mentions Balochistan in his Independence Day address, but doesn’t follow up with any concrete action to help the Baloch. The result was that the Baloch, who were greatly enthused by his speech, were left hanging out to dry, with the Pakistan Army carrying out unspeakable brutalities against them.
According to a former chief of the Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), this is because the policy framework (for whatever it is worth) is geared towards appearing as nice guys who are respected out of love and not out of fear. While repeatedly mouthing inanities like ‘friendly, historical, cultural and civilizational relations’, India seems to have actually internalised this tripe, and in the process forgotten that merely possessing soft power isn’t enough to win over and influence countries. Unless soft power is backed by hard power, it is quite useless in tailoring the strategic environment in India's favour.
For many years now, India has pranced on the world stage as a ‘net security provider’ in the region. But somehow this term has never been explained clearly. What does it even mean if India speaks endlessly about Indo-Pacific but remains a bystander when a clearly hostile leadership in a country like Maldives feels bold enough to invite India's adversaries to set up a base in the country, thereby making a serious dent in the security and strategic environment of India in its very backyard? And if India is unable to call the shots in Maldives, who will even take it seriously as a player in the region?
In recent years, most of the West (read the US, because the rest of the West really doesn’t count for much anyway in terms of hard power, and merely rides on US's shoulders) has looked to India to take the lead in the region. For instance, in Nepal, the US deferred to whatever India thought was necessary to bring stability in that country. That India has finally managed to botch things up and allowed a situation in which a rabidly anti-India person is going to lead the next government in Nepal, doesn’t really do much for India’s reputation as a power player.
In Maldives too, the Americans and other friendly countries have indicated that they would like India to take the lead. But India appears to be vacillating. There is a lot of talk of using diplomacy and other non-kinetic means to fix the crisis in Maldives. But time is of the essence. Although the Chinese have for now begged off underwriting the security of the Maldivian strong-man, Abdulla Yameen, they could very easily decide otherwise in the coming days. This would then mean game, set, match to Yameen and his Chinese sponsors because if India is hesitant to take on a guy like Yameen, it is highly unlikely if it will take on China if it assumes the role of a security provider to Yameen.
In a way, by constantly harping that India's intervention in Maldives in 1988 is qualitatively different from intervening today, India is digging itself into a hole.
After all, if India accepts this as a principle, then if tomorrow the Chinese enter Maldives on the invitation of Yameen, India will have no choice but to lump it. Even otherwise, given that Yameen has done everything possible to undermine Indian interests, if he is allowed to remain in office he will ensure that Maldives is hypothecated to China, what with the Chinese plans to set up a naval base and the free trade deal that has been pushed down the throats of Maldivians.
The niceties of diplomacy and international law aside – these have never stopped powerful nations from what they need to do to protect and even expand their interests, and the Chinese moves to convert the South China Sea into a Chinese lake is a prime example – if hard action is what it takes for India to make a horrible example of Yameen, then so be it. Some countries will make a song and dance about it – the same countries that will in all likelihood snigger if India does nothing – but finally everyone will pipe down. Within Maldives, there will be some opposition, but there will be many others who will welcome the Indian intervention.
The fear that Islamists in Maldives – it has the highest per capita ISIS recruits – will gain if India intervenes is the typical bogey of those who prefer a pusillanimous India. If anything, the Islamists who have got a free run under Yameen will finally receive their comeuppance once Yameen is consigned to the rubbish bin. On the plus side, India will have demonstrated its capacity, capability and commitment to protect its backyard. If this spooks some of the countries in the region, then it need not necessarily be for the worse. If India plays its cards well, it will send a message down the line not to rub India the wrong way.
Ultimately, Maldives is a strategic test case for India. It is nothing if not a metaphor for how India will assert and exert itself to protect its strategic and security interests. If these interests can be protected through non-kinetic means, so be it; but if the only option is to deploy hard power, then hard power it must be.
Allowing the proverbial chips to fall where they may, will tantamount to reconciling to strategic fatalism, which will be fatal for India.
This commentary originally appeared in Newslaundry.