In recent weeks, there has been disquiet in New Delhi over a perceived loss of strategic leverage in the maritime neighborhood. After Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency in March refusing to heed diplomatic pressure by New Delhi, Indian commentators sense a decline in New Delhi’s authority and agency in maritime-South Asia.
For many foreign policy watchers in India, Maldives is but a symptom of a larger malady afflicting the sub-continental littorals. From Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, a string of South Asian states seem politically and economically beholden to Beijing, many falling victim to debt traps created by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. What has rankled even more is China’s propping up of regimes unfriendly to India, following which many smaller island states are choosing to overlook New Delhi’s interests.
A panel discussion at the ORF on April 2, 2018 sought to unpack the emerging dynamics in maritime-South Asia. Moderated by Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow and Head of Maritime Policy, ORF, the discussion sought to address three important issues: the perception of an irreversible decline in New Delhi’s strategic leverage; the emerging strategic alignments in littoral-South Asia; and a possible counter containment strategy in the near-seas.
Dr. Abhijnan Rej, Fellow, ORF, adopted a hard stance against the Maldives government. In Dr. Rej’s telling, China’s maritime deployments in the Indian Ocean Region in late February were a subtle signal of their implicit support for the President Yameen. He noted that such events do not reflect well for a country that seeks to dominate South Asian security dynamics. Dr. Rej was particularly pessimistic of the purported ‘strategic reset’ between New Delhi and Beijing. The way forward, he asserted, was not strategic appeasement, but an aggressive Indian ‘counter-containment’ strategy’ with specific focus on sea-denial and forward presence in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific.
In his presentation, Admiral Raja Menon (Retd.) spoke about the strategic dimension of maritime security for India – in particular, the need for New Delhi to treat the Indian Ocean as a sphere of influence. He advised Indian strategists to undertake a net assessment and determine the probability of China fighting a war in the Indian Ocean. India, Menon averred, still had a window of opportunity during which it could deter Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean. He was similarly confident about how a military intervention in the Maldives was very much within the capabilities of the Indian armed forces.
In her remarks, Indrani Bagchi, Diplomatic Editor, The Times of India, took a more balanced position vis-à-vis China. Bagchi argued against any Indian intervention attempt against Maldives, positing that New Delhi cannot expect its neighbours to play by its rules, and needs to respect their internal politics. The speaker instead emphasised on the need for naval capacity building, especially a bigger tri-services base in the Andamans. She additionally spoke about the need for New Delhi to oppose projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but not use it as an excuse to fuel the strategic rivalry with Beijing. While, Bagchi praised India’s engagement with partners across the board, she lamented the ‘lack of political will’ in India’s neighborhood diplomacy.
The final speaker, Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF underscored the importance of Maldives, given its proximity to India. “India’s future security grid”, he observed, “has to encapsulate all of Maldives.” Dr. Joshi bemoaned the absence of public national security strategy and inadequate inter-agency processes as reasons for India’s current predicament. What was required with respect to India-China relations, he observed, was a modus vivendi via the strategic reset. He advocated for a wait and watch approach, as countries hampered by Chinese predatory economics will themselves turn to India for support in the future.
In the Q & A session, experts offered varied perspectives on the crisis and cross-examined the panelists with sharp queries about the long-term outlook for Indian foreign policy in the region and historical reasons behind our declining leverage in the neighborhood. Relations with other littoral South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were of particular focus, and questions were raised about India’s inability to contribute to the developmental projects in these countries. The highlight of the conversation was China’s debt trap diplomacy and how it will lead to the creation of a new security paradigm in the region.
The moderator summed up the conversation by addressing the three important issues initially raised. Maldives, he averred — it was clear from the discussions — represents a tipping point, which did not mean that India’s decline influence was irreversible. Second, the changing geopolitics of the region demands India to construct favorable alliances to achieve balance of power. India had an imperative to forge closer ties with its Quadrilateral partners. Lastly, it appeared from the discussions that India needed a counter-containment strategy to arrest China’s growing military rise in South Asia. The way to do this, he noted, was not so much to play a defensive game in the Indian Ocean but to expand Indian naval presence to the Western Pacific.
This report was prepared by Tuneer Mukherjee and Premesha Saha, Junior Fellows, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi