India’s neighborhood policy faces unprecedented challenges today

The Chinese foreign ministry has announced that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will pay an official visit to China starting April 6. The expectations in Colombo are that the four-day visit will advance the Sino-Lankan relations “to a new level”.

President Xi Jinping will receive Wickremesinghe, who will be accompanied by six cabinet ministers – in charge of foreign affairs, transport and civil aviation, special projects, city planning and water supply,housing and construction, development strategies and international trade.

The visit aims at charting out a new phase of economic partnership – especially in the infrastructure sector, which comes within the ambit of China’s Silk Road strategies. The two countries have also been negotiating a free trade agreement.

Interestingly, Chinese Communist Party is set to establish formal ties with Sri Lanka’s ruling party, the right-wing United National Party.

These are definitive signs that clouds over the Sino-Lankan relationship following the ‘regime change’ in Colombo last year (much to the elation of India and the United States) are lifting. The recent decision by Wickremesinghe’s government to give the go ahead for the controversial Chinese-funded $1.5 billion port city development project in Colombo testified to ‘business as usual’ in the bilateral ties.

The imperatives working on both sides are understandable. Sri Lanka faces acute economic difficulties. The West preaches democracy and human rights but is reluctant to loosen the purse strings to help the island’s economy. Sri Lanka is cash-strapped and needs all the investments that China can make.

China is not perturbed about Wickremesinghe’s ‘pro-West’ image. Beijing places confidence in Colombo’s record of non-aligned and independent foreign policies.

Arguably, China feels comfortable that Wickremesinghe is a votary of the free market. The more the market forces come into play, the merrier it becomes for Chinese businessmen in the Colombo environs.

What China really needs is a level playing field where it can give a run for the money to the West – and even to India. China’s One Belt One Road initiatives and Sri Lanka’s developmental priorities enjoy complementarity. Clearly, a zero sum mentality is unwarranted.

From the perspective of regional politics, Wickremesingh’s visit to China comes closely on the heels of Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Mishra Oli’s seven-day tour of China last month. Beijing has offered to help Nepal create trade and transit routes and build rail links bypassing India as well as supply petroleum products. All of that helps Nepal to stand up to pressure from India.

Indeed, Oli’s visit to China – and Wickremesinghe’s forthcoming visit – highlight that India’s neighborhood policies face an unprecedented challenge today. India can no more take for granted its pre-eminence in the region.

Importantly, Indian diplomacy needs to understand that respect and influence cannot be extracted but need to be earned, and the sort of crude pressure tactic that New Delhi instinctively resorted to recently against Nepal can prove counterproductive.

Wickremesinghe’s forthcoming visit to China underscores that in the final analysis even a regime change in Colombo provided no guarantee that India’s neighbors can be kept away from the attractions of the One Belt One Road.

Of course, in geopolitical terms, Beijing’s future moves in Sri Lanka are fraught with profound consequences for India’s security interests. The point is, there is a ‘big picture’ in all this.

Thus, China’s comfort level is noticeably high that the new government in Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi may give the green signal to the project approved by Naypyitaw last December for the construction of a deep-water port and special economic zone by a Chinese consortium in Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal, with a 1200 km roadway and railway linking it with Yunnan province of China. (Kyauphyu is also to be linked to Kunming by dual oil and gas pipelines.)

Kyauphyu (Myanmar), Chittagong (Bangladesh), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Gwadar (Pakistan) – these form a chain in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. And they dovetail with China’s Silk Road strategies.

But India has snubbed the One Belt One Road strategy. The Indian foreign ministry sponsored a Track II platform in New Delhi last month where India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar virtually admonished Beijing and explained how India would have gone about the One Belt One Road (if only it had the money.) Without mentioning Beijing or the South China Sea, Jaishankar hit out:

  • The interactive dynamic between strategic interests and connectivity initiatives – a universal proposition – is on particular display in our continent. The key issue is whether we will build our connectivity through consultative processes or more unilateral decisions… But we cannot be impervious to the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hard-wiring that influences choices. This should be discouraged, because particularly in the absence of an agreed security architecture in Asia, it could give rise to unnecessary competitiveness. Connectivity should diffuse national rivalries, not add to regional tensions…Indeed, if we seek a multi-polar world, the right way to begin is to create a multi-polar Asia.
  • A constructive discussion on this subject should address not just physical infrastructure but also its broader accompanying facets. Institutional, regulatory, legal, digital, financial and commercial connections are important, as is the promotion of the common cultural and civilizational thread that runs through Asia. Nurturing connectivity also requires a willingness to create arrangements which lead to higher levels of trust and confidence. A connected Asia must be governed by commonly agreed international norms, rules and practices. We need the discipline and restraint that ensure standards of behavior, especially by and between States that jostle to widen their respective spaces in an increasingly inter-connected continent. Respect for the global commons should not be diluted under any circumstances. Much depends on the commitment of nations to uphold freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. There should be no place for use or threat of use of force.

India’s mandarins are bristling because they have no Plan B, while China presses ahead with the Silk Roads in its backyard. There was always the option available to exploit the One Belt One Road to India’s advantage, but then, Indian diplomacy instead opted to retaliate by moving against Chinese interests in the South China Sea – and ganging up with Japan.

The efficacy of such an approach is debatable, since India has differences and disputes to manage with China, which calls for a robust bilateral track. It is discernible that Beijing takes note of the Indian ‘tilt’ toward the US’ rebalance strategy.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last held a bilateral meeting with Xi in July during the BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia. They probably made eye contact at Paris in November (Climate Change Conference) and at Washington last week (Nuclear Security Summit). But there was no ‘bilateral’.

(Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001. This article was published in Asia Times Online on April 7, 2016)

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