Former Nepali Ambassador to China Tanka Karki espies a ‘troubling pattern’ in South Asia. “The common thread that binds the current events in the Maldives and blockade-time Nepal is that both were manifestations of India’s nervousness at China’s rise in this sub-region,” he says.Karki is referring to the ongoing political crisis in the Maldives that was set in motion when the Supreme Court there decided to annul charges against nine opposition figures, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, who has been living in exile in Britain since May 2016. In response, the current President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two offending Supreme Court judges as well as of some opposition members.
As the tiny island country with a population of under 400,000 has been thrown into political turmoil, Yameen has reached out to China for political support. Meanwhile, Nasheed, who is seen as traditionally close to New Delhi, has gone so far as to ask India to militarily intervene to ‘save democracy’ in the Maldives.
It is true that China has stepped up its engagement in the Maldives: buying islands, building roads and sending its warships for ‘special training sessions’ with the Maldivian defense forces. China fears that without these ‘gestures of goodwill’ its room for maneuver in the strategically important Indo-Pacific seas would be fatally reduced. But India is as convinced that Chinese activism in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives is part of China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy to surround it in the Indian Ocean.
Ports of call
In Pakistan, China has committed over a billion dollars for the construction of the deep-sea port of Gwadar. This is part of the US $62-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Sri Lanka, after its inability to service Chinese debt, had to recently hand over the Hambantota, another deep-sea port on the Indian Ocean, to China on a 99-year lease. In 2016, President Xi went to Bangladesh, another strong Indian ally, and committed a whopping $21.5 billion for 26 different projects. Even in Bhutan, whose security is overseen by New Delhi, China wants to pry the tiny kingdom out of India’s clutch.
All these investments and muscle-flexing by China in India’s near neighborhood—in an area Jawaharlal Nehru famously described as falling under India’s ‘sphere of influence’—troubles the Indian establishment. Perhaps this is why Indian commentators have started openly talking about the ‘red lines’ that India’s close neighbors cannot cross with China.
“Even during the recent Nepal visit of Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, Indian commentators were warning that Nepal should not cross these red lines,” former envoy Karki says, “This red-line formulation is loaded with meaning.’’
One of the Indian commentators who had been consistently invoking the red lines is SD Muni, an old Nepal hand in New Delhi who is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA). When this correspondent asked him if there was a lesson for Nepal on what is happening in the Maldives, Muni replied: “Nepal’s only lesson from this could be: avoid crossing red lines on India’s security sensitivities in dealing with China”.
The problem, as former envoy to China Karki points out, is that India does not clearly say what these red lines are, so they can be defined as New Delhi wishes. Nepal was deemed to have crossed one such line when its political leadership pushed ahead with (what India thought of as China-backed) constitution without consulting India, resulting in nearly five months of border blockade.
For Muni, one way KP Sharma Oli, the prime-minister-in-waiting, can avoid crossing India’s red lines is by not “roughing up India” over China. “Swaraj visited Kathmandu primarily in response to Oli’s request to Modi for support [for his prime ministership],” says Muni. If Oli crosses India’s red lines, he knows the left alliance remains fragile and India “always has the option of leaning towards his rivals both within and outside the alliance”
Former Foreign Secretary and Nepal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Madhu Raman Acharya, for his part, thinks that while there are similarities between the Indo-China rivalry in the Maldives and their geopolitical battle for supremacy in Nepal, unlike in Nepal, “India does not have extensive leverage over the Maldives, partly because of the distance between the two countries, and partly because of the growing Chinese footprint there.’’
But, then, does he too believe Swaraj’s recent Nepal visit was motivated by China? “Definitely, the Chinese have been more active in Nepal and Swaraj came to put a lid on it.’’
In Acharya’s view, Swaraj’s visit, which was undertaken without consulting Nepal, also had a sinister message: if it serves Indian interests, India will not desist from breaching established diplomatic norms and, in fact, “going to any extent.’’
Nevertheless, as Muni hinted, India’s intervention in Nepal is not a one-way street. Pramod Jaiswal, author of several books on Nepal-China relations, likewise, believes Swaraj was sent to Nepal only when Modi got a clear signal from Oli that he wanted to mend frayed relations with India.
Waiting and watching
“Yet New Delhi remains wary of Oli,” Jaiswal adds. After all, he says, Oli is someone who until the time of the blockade was reputed as one of India’s most trusted friends in Nepal. But then he suddenly “jumped ship and went into China’s camp.’’ The blockade-time prime minister came to be seen as courageously standing up to the ‘Big Brother,’ and Oli’s brand of anti-India nationalism proved to be a smash hit at the hustings.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also an old political fox. In the lead up to the 2019 Lok Shabha election, he sees an opening in Oli’s recent overtures. Going into national elections, Modi would like to project himself as someone who has the support of not just the majority of his people but also of other countries in the region. “This is why India will make every effort to woo Oli,” says Jaiswal. The problem is, China too considers Oli as one of its own.
All these are indications that this old geopolitical game in Nepal, and in South Asia at large, could get curiouser and curiouser .