India has rightly called Maldives’ bluff for what it described as Male’s “duplicitous behaviour”. Maldives’ decision to poke India in the eye by refusing to renew a ‘Letter of Exchange’ (LoE) agreement for one of the two Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) gifted by India was bad enough. Its pretence that it wanted Dornier aircraft instead is blatantly false. In fact, India had offered Dorniers two years ago and the current Abdullah Yameen regime in Male has been sitting on the offer ever since.
India is right to point a finger at the China angle. Male’s demand for a Dornier seems like nothing but a fig leaf intended to candy-coat its decision to get rid of the ALHs, which operate in the Laamu Atoll, an area where the Chinese are said to be considering building a port.
What now? India has, for several years now, invested heavily in the Maldives, providing military aid, training and “capacity-building”. In 1988, India even foiled a coup in Male with its Operation Cactus wherein Indian troops flew in and rescued then Maldives President Gayoom. New Delhi must emphasise the benefits of continued engagement with India to Male and caution it against cosying up too much to Beijing, lest it ends up in a Sri Lanka-like situation.
In December 2017, Colombo lured with what seemed like easy Chinese money, handed over a portion of its sovereignty — or at least psychologically, a big chunk of it — to Beijing on a platter. Crushed under as much as $8 billion it owes China, the island nation gifted Beijing its strategic Hambantota port on a 99-year lease. The port, which is vital to China’s ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ (OBOR) initiative, was developed with funds borrowed from several state-owned Chinese firms. And in the end, Lanka had to pay the price for its development with no immediate tangible benefits for itself.
This and other similar cautionary tales are what India needs to highlight to countries in its immediate neighbourhood that are showing a sharp tilt toward China, especially the nations of Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. And in lockstep with this kind of persuasive velvet glove diplomacy, India needs to stand firm on crucial bilateral issues with both its neighbours, much in the way it did with Canada on the Khalistan issue.
That the manner in which Canadian PM Justin Trudeau was firmly shown India won’t tolerate the stoking of separatism was, by and large, a success is something most would agree on. That’s exactly what India must do with Nepal and the Maldives.
Avoiding ill-judged acts like the tacit blocking of goods to Nepal in 2015, India needs to persuade Kathmandu that a Sri Lanka-like fate may well await it if it continues to allow untrammelled Chinese foreign direct investment in infrastructure projects.
The same goes for Bhutan – where the Doklam incident — shows the kind of inroads China is now making inroads into what was once areas that India considered within its own security influence. While China has bagfuls of money and carries greater clout, India too is not without options.
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