The Maldives conundrum is an opportunity for India to craft a better policy towards India’s smaller neighbours.

India, neighbours, external powers, balance, aid, capacity, willingness, Beijing card, understanding, craft, appropriate, sensible, response, Maldives conundrum, opportunity, better policy, smaller neighbours, Rajesh Rajagopalan
Flickr user Dying Regime

No one would wish to be in the shoes of India’s key foreign policy decision-makers today, as they try to grapple with what to do about Maldives. They face three unpalatable choices, with unpredictable consequences stemming from each. They could seek to talk to President Abdulla Yameen, hoping he will understand India’s security concerns. They could order a military intervention, with all its unpredictable consequences. Or they could wait in the hope that President Yameen’s intentions become unambiguous, taking the risk that New Delhi will run out of options if Chinese personnel move into Maldives.

But the Maldives conundrum is also an opportunity for India to craft a better policy towards India’s smaller neighbours. This requires India to first understand the logic that drives their behaviour and then to design a calibrated response that includes military intervention but also other options that, applied in time, could limit the prospect of India facing the kind of bad choices it faces today.

First, understand the strategic imperatives of smaller states. India, as the dominant power in the region, is a natural threat to its smaller neighbours. This is not because of India’s behaviour or its intentions. It is simply a reflection of the gross imbalance of power in the region, in which India holds more than 70 percent of the GDP, territory, population, and military power. And this is not peculiar to South Asia or India. The same phenomenon can be seen along China’s periphery: as China’s power grew, its neighbours have become increasingly alarmed, though, in China’s case, its aggressive behaviour has made the situation even worse. This can also be seen in the responses to American power in the Western Hemisphere, and to Russian power in central and eastern Europe. This is the lot of dominant regional powers. New Delhi should get used to it.

Second, expect that India’s neighbours will seek to balance India by playing the China card. None, not even Pakistan, has the capacity to balance India on their own. The natural tendency then is to seek to balance India with powers from outside the region. This is hardly new. Pakistan has sought such balancing alliances since independence. Many of our smaller neighbours have too: Nepal has periodically played footsie with China, as has Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But until now, no external power has shown any consistent desire or capacity to help India’s smaller neighbours balance India. During the Cold War, the US had little interest in allying with India’s neighbours (Pakistan excepted, of course), even blessing India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka. The Soviet Union was allied with India, making it an unlikely source of support. And China, unlike today, did not have the capacity to do much, making it an unattractive partner.

With China now having both the capacity and willingness, the temptations for India’s neighbours to play the Beijing card is both natural and understandable. Understanding, of course, is not the same as accepting, but understanding is still necessary for India to craft an appropriate and sensible response. While protecting Indian interests, which includes, most importantly, limiting the extension of China’s military power to India’s neighbourhood, Indian response should be carefully calibrated so as not to increase the insecurity of India’s neighbours, which will only drive them into China’s embrace. This is a mistake that China has foolishly made in its own neighbourhood. New Delhi should not return the favour.


With China now having both the capacity and willingness, the temptations for India’s neighbours to play the Beijing card is both natural and understandable. Understanding, of course, is not the same as accepting, but understanding is still necessary for India to craft an appropriate and sensible response.


This does not mean that India should sit on its hands either. But a calibrated response requires grading threats, with the clear understanding that the most serious threats will require a military response, while lesser challenges should be handled politically and with sympathy. Moreover, New Delhi also needs to communicate unambiguously what its red lines are for military intervention so that its neighbours, in particular, understand what India will tolerate and what it will not.

Giving China a military base should be at the top of this threat list, which should be a trip-wire to automatically trigger an Indian military intervention. (Obviously, this is possible only in the case of India’s smaller neighbours, not Pakistan, which has already given China military facilities and which will have to be handled differently.) A complication is that it may not be clear when the wire has been tripped. It is possible for states to hide their intentions and salami-slice their way around the trip-wire. Maldives has sold an island to an unidentified Chinese firm supposedly for tourism development, but if this is later converted to a military base, it will be too late for India to intervene. So a slightly broader trip-wire will be needed: India should state clearly that no long-term lease of territory or critical infrastructural facilities to hostile powers will be tolerated.

Any military intervention carries with it huge risks. Even a regime that is domestically unpopular will be able to garner support against a foreign invader and occupying foreign territory will not be easy. These risks can be mitigated by keeping the intervention as brief as possible, putting local allies in power and subsequent economic and other assistance to assuage as much as possible the ill-feelings of the intervention. But ultimately, these risks need to be weighed against the risk that will be posed by an expansion of China’s military presence in India’s neighbourhood. Moreover, once India outlines (even confidentially) its red lines, India’s neighbours will also have a responsibility to assuage India’s security concerns.

A calibrated response means that India can also justify such intervention if it had acted earlier to stave off such an outcome. India must work hard to ensure that, as far as possible, its neighbours do not feel the need to call in external powers to balance it. This means providing greater aid and responding with greater alacrity to demands from its neighbours, in essence engaging in a foreign aid competition with China. This is unfortunately unavoidable, but again, not unprecedented. During the Cold War bipolar era, much of the ‘non-aligned movement’ became a foreign aid extortion racket, in which third world countries — especially India — played off the two superpowers against each other to get as much as possible from both. In South Asia today, whether we like it or not, India and China are in a bipolar competition. New Delhi should expect to play by bipolar rules and be ready to be exploited by its smaller neighbours.


India must work hard to ensure that, as far as possible, its neighbours do not feel the need to call in external powers to balance it. This means providing greater aid and responding with greater alacrity to demands from its neighbours, in essence engaging in a foreign aid competition with China.


This means that New Delhi needs to devote more aid to its neighbourhood and be more flexible. For example, Maldives has reportedly leased out an island to a Chinese firm for 50 years for just four million dollars. India should offer Maldives a similar amount to buy out the lease. Any Maldivian refusal should provide additional indicator about its intentions and be a factor in any Indian decision to intervene militarily. By the same token, India should offer aid to allow its neighbours to pay the loans they have taken from China so that they are not forced to barter away territory or critical facilities such as ports. These will be expensive, but in the long run a lot cheaper than facing the choice of either having a Chinese military presence in the neighbourhood or having to militarily intervene to prevent it.

A calibrated response can prevent even this eventuality by providing Indian economic and other assistance to prevent Indian neighbours from even going to China in the first place. So far, India has been singularly inept in meeting the financial and other demands of its neighbours, with the possible exception of Bhutan. India has been far too stingy or slow, and usually both. In a bipolar competition with China, India cannot afford this.

Such a calibrated strategy would suggest that India is fast running out of options in Maldives. India can still seek to buy out Chinese investments, not so much because President Yameen will agree but more to rule out any possibility that India has misunderstood his intentions. India can also offer Maldives a significant financial package in return for an Indian military base and a firm commitment that Maldives will not allow any Chinese military presence, including transit or port visits. If such offers are turned down, as they are likely to be, New Delhi will have little choice but to order a military intervention. That will be expensive, but the alternatives will be even worse.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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