[One is Maldives signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China and second, Sri Lanka handing over the Habantota port to China on 99 years of lease. (Photo: Maldives Times)]
The Left alliance coming to power in Nepal’s general election is worrisome news for India. The victory of the left alliance that is seen as close to China seems to indicate that now its not the New Delhi but Beijing that is going to call the shots over Kathmandu and it is China and not India that is going to have an upper hand in the battle for influence in Nepal.
Traditionally, India has shaped the contours of political apparatus, putting its weight behind one or other political party serving its interests in the erstwhile Himalayan Kingdom.
However, this time its China that has outflanked India in its own game playing kingmaker in Nepal. Beijing working behind the scenes bringing the Maoists and the Communists together cobbled a winning combination to bottle Nepali Congress party supposedly had backing of India.
The left alliance victory has demonstrated that India cannot take Nepal for granted. It also means India has to live with the reality of increased presence of China in its neighborhood, something New Delhi so has not encountered in Nepal.
With former Prime Minister K.P. Oli tipped to be the Prime Minister, India’s worries has compounded. New Delhi may find management of diplomatic relations with Nepal not only becoming difficult but even more complicated.
Last time, India had a difficult time dealing with Nepal when KP Oli was the Prime Minister. Oli in the wake of India’s economic blockade of Nepal, went to China where he signed a transit agreement that included access to Chinese ports as well as the potential construction of rail links between the two countries. He also explored the possibility of China supplying some essential products to Nepal that include petroleum supplies.
This development was seen by New Delhi as an attempt by Nepal to reduce its dependence on India especially for trade and commerce and for essential supplies.
Well this is not an isolated event but a part of the on-going narrative in the South Asian region, where Beijing is seen busy vying for influence in the countries that are in India’s immediate neighbourhood.
Except for Bhutan and Bangladesh it seems at the moment all other countries are under the Chinese influence. What is seen is Chinese economic assistance and infrastructure projects in many South Asian countries that are pulling them away from India’s influence.
The development in Nepal is actually just the beginning of a larger South Asian story that is unfolding and one by one India is loosing its friendly neighbors.
How New Delhi is going to stop its neighbors from falling into China’s economic embrace is something that remains hazy at the moment. What is clear is two other developments in the region that call for the attention of India’s foreign policy makers.
One is Maldives signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China and second, Sri Lanka handing over the Habantota port to China on 99 years of lease.
These two events have raised India’s security concerns in the Indian ocean region and put a question mark on India’s friendly neighborhood policy.
The Maldives-China Free Trade Agreement has already aroused concerns in New Delhi because more than 70 per cent of Maldives foreign debt is owed to China, which gives Beijing a huge leverage over the archipelago nation that holds a strategic position in the Indian Ocean. Besides signing the FTA, Maldives has also pledged support for China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
These developments do not auger well for India- Maldives relationship as it will have its security implications for India, and that means it will have bearing on the future diplomatic ties between New Delhi and Male.
India has expressed its concern over the developments emanating from Maldives but the tiny island nation has its own national interest to safeguard.
The second development is in Sri Lanka that has completed the formalities of handing over of the strategic port of Hambantota to China. The Chinese companies handling the project have taken control of the facilities of the port on a 99-year lease agreement.
The Hambantota port, overlooking the Indian Ocean, is expected to play a key role in China's Belt and Road initiative, which will link ports and roads between China and Europe.
Hambantota, which sits on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, provides access to critical Indian Ocean sea lanes. The acquisition of the port by China has spurred particular alarm in India, which is concerned about Beijing’s growing strategic footprint on the Indian Ocean region.
Even though Colombo has given assurances to India that China’s acquisition of Hambantota port is purely for civilian purposes, New Delhi is wary that Beijing may operationalize the port as a re-supply node for Chinese Navy.
Even as China is expanding its footprint in the countries in India’s neighbourhood and also in the Indian Ocean region, India has not yet evolved a policy that can turn the tables for India.
It seems India is busy giving special thrust to its Act East policy, and is neglecting its neighbors first policy. It calls for a scrutiny of India’s “neighborhood first” policy.
The task cut out for New Delhi is to revisit its neighborhood policy first and cox and cajole its neighbours and stop them from drifting to the Chinese side.
India’s foreign policy may be successful in other regions but it for sure that it’s neighborhood first policy is in complete disarray at the moment.
[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]