Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Lankan counterpart Ranil Wickramsinghe in Colombo

by Sreemoy Talukdar

One of the elections planks that propelled Narendra Modi to power for a second consecutive term as the Prime Minister was national security. It is widely believed that Pulwama terror attack and its aftermath, that saw India launch airstrikes deep inside Pakistan territory at Balakot to neutralise terror infrastructure, cemented his status as a "strong leader" who could ensure India's security. This, political analysts have said, was one of the reasons behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trouncing rivals and retain power in 2019 with an even bigger mandate than in 2014.

But is India's national security policy tied only to its ability to preempt, respond to or neutralise terror emerging from across the border? There is no denying that Pakistan poses a sticky problem for India — a quasi-democratic, recalcitrant, revanchist nation that suffers from an inferiority complex and uses terrorism as a tool to lodge a low-cost, asymmetric war against 'Hindustan'.

What makes the problem trickier is that Pakistan's ‘perpetual war’ against India is not the means to an end (as wars usually are) but an end in itself where to stop fighting is to acknowledge defeat. For the Pakistan military, that runs the nation by proxy, the never-ending war is also a ploy to project itself as the nation’s ‘protector’ against an "aggressive India", justify its corrupt ways and undermine democracy.

Obviously, Pakistan is a big blip on India’s security radar. Of equal concern is the naval dominance posed by China in the Indian Ocean Region through its network of military and commercial facilities as well as installation of dual-use projects in developing nations to propagate its Geo-Strategic designs.

As strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellaney writes, "Through its $1 trillion “one belt, one road” (OBOR or BRI) initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence."

These projects — designed to turn developing nations in the Indian Ocean region such as Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka or Maldives into Chinese client-states reeling under ever-increasing and interminable debt burden — give China enormous economic and strategic leverage, increase its ability to project power across the Indian Ocean and lay the foundation for eventual naval supremacy.

As this article in South China Morning Post notes, "The vision that global influence hinges on naval supremacy was most clearly articulated in China’s 2015 defence white paper, which demanded that the navy move from “offshore waters defence” to “open seas protection”."

Many of these Indian Ocean island nations lie on what India considers as its strategic backyard. Situated on the busiest of shipping lanes and lines of communication that control global trade, states such as Sri Lanka or the Maldives also fall within India’s traditional area of influence — sharing a deep cultural and civilisational bond with India.

As these finance-hungry nations accept Chinese loans and slowly become ensnared in a vicious debt-trap cycle, they end up selling stakes to Chinese firms or handing over territory to China.

Former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa, for instance, subjected the island nation to a ballooning Chinese debt burden that eventually saw Colombo handing over a strategically located port to China.

The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, as has been widely noted, is a textbook case of China’s Belt and Road Initiative yielding strategic dividends for China by impoverishing the host nation. Rajapaksa remitted office in 2015 but the Chinese-financed port, that struggled to draw traffic despite being located in one of the busiest global shipping lanes, imposed an onerous burden on the nation’s economy.

As this article in New York Times argues, "Sri Lanka’s new government struggled to make payments on the debt he (Rajapaksa) had taken on. Under heavy pressure and after months of negotiations with the Chinese, the government handed over the (Hambantota) port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years in December. The transfer gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of a rival, India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway."

We now understand why Modi, as soon as getting re-elected for the second term, chose to emphasise on India's "Neighbourhood First" policy and made the Maldives his first port of call abroad followed by a pit stop in Sri Lanka. Not to be missed is the fact that while he was touring these nations, Union external affairs minister S Jaishankar went to Bhutan — another nation that experienced China’s provocative behaviour leading to an intense militarised face-off between India and China in Doklam plateau of high Himalayas in 2017.

Though 'Neighbourhood First' policy has a strong component of regional economic integration with India playing the ‘generous big brother' and boosting connectivity with neighbours in the Indian Ocean littoral, the Geo-Strategic implications of the policy is as relevant, if not more.

To put it simply, India needs to project power in its traditional areas of influence and restore a sense of balance in the greater Indian Ocean Region for smooth facilitation of trade, commerce, stability and national security. Here, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy dovetails beautifully with the ‘Indo-Pacific Policy’ of the US that sees a central role for India.

In a recent briefing to the US Congress on India-Pacific Strategy, the Pentagon has been quoted, as saying, "Both countries (India and the US) recognise the importance of the Indo-Pacific to global trade and commerce and acknowledge that developments in this region will shape the larger trajectory of the rules-based international order."

This is why, while addressing the Maldivian Parliament Majlis, Modi had said: "Indo-Pacific region is an inalienable part of our existence. It has been our lifeline, and also the highway for trade and prosperity. In every sense, it is the key to our shared future. Therefore, I had said in June 2018 in Singapore that everyone will have to work together for ensuring openness, integration and balance in the Indo-Pacific. Only this will ensure trust among nations. Only this will ensure continuation of rule-based order and multilateralism."

It is remarkable how explicit Modi was during this speech — that marked only the second time a foreign leader addressed the Majlis — on the threat posed by China to strategically located small Indian Ocean nations. He obviously didn’t refer to Beijing, but in stressing that India’s “development partnerships are to empower people, and not to weaken them”, Modi made clear that India does not seek to “enhance their dependence on us. Nor indeed to impose the impossible burden of debt on the shoulders of generations yet to come.” The reference is clear.

Former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed — considered a pro-India leader who had to remain in exile while Maldives tilted heavily towards China under ex-president Abdulla Yameen — has now returned, fought and won the elections and holds the position of the Speaker in Maldivian Parliament. During the period of his exile, he had said how China is engaged in a land grab in the Indian Ocean atoll nation within a "shroud of secrecy".

"It always starts with a real estate project, but it can be turned into something else… As I watch my country in exile, I fear that piece by piece, island by island, the Maldives is being sold off to China."

President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, whose electoral win has seen the ouster of dictatorial Yameen and restoration of democracy, has stressed on returning the nation to ‘India First’ policy. The joint statement, released following Modi’s visit, states that “President Solih reaffirmed his government’s "India-First Policy” and pledged his government’s full support towards deepening the multifaceted, mutually beneficial partnership between India and the Maldives, which has traditionally been characterised by trust, transparency, mutual understanding and sensitivity."

India has neither the resources nor the will to counter China’s cheque-book diplomacy. Nevertheless, it is aware of the gamut of the problem. The Maldives still remains heavily under Chinese debt. Modi’s visit coincided with India extending "generous financial support" to the atoll nation.

The joint declaration mentions the details that include "budgetary support, T-bills, currency swap, and Lines of Credit", as well as "prompt disbursement of the budgetary cash grant and subscription to Government of Maldives’ Treasury Bills." The defence component of the ties remained strong with both leaders inaugurating a ‘Coastal Surveillance Radar System’ and a training facility of the Maldives National Defence Force.

However, Modi’s calling card in retaining the Maldives within India’s strategic orbit is not by throwing cash but doubling down on the civilisational ties that both nations share. He mentioned during his speech that the relationship between the two nations is "older than history."

He touched upon the shared values of democracy, shared culture and ancient trade ties and also terrorism — issues that India routinely stresses on while differentiating its approach with the neighbouring states vis-à-vis China.

The last point, however, deserves expansion. Terrorism remains a shared global concern but not something that China emphasises on though it strives to sound politically correct in global fora. Beijing, especially, can’t afford to when it counts the world’s top terror exporting nation Pakistan as its ‘iron brother’.

Little wonder that Modi emphasised on terrorism during his visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, which recently emerged from a series of devastating terror attacks during Easter Sunday resulting in the deaths of over two hundred people. By referring to terrorism inside Majlis and while interacting with Sri Lankan leaders, and underlining why world needs a concerted, cooperative effort to tackle the menace, Modi was, once again, highlighting how India stands for a moral, rule-based international order as opposed to China’s approach where realpolitik justifies amorality.

Modi’s approach was confident, and it carried the imprimatur of a leader who has the backing of a nation in foreign policy. In National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, he has organised a team that he trusts. Expect India to be assertive in the future.