India gets foothold in Sri Lanka and the Maldives as China’s script is discarded

Shadow boxing between India and China seems to be going on with no end to the muscle flexing in the South Asian region. The political upheaval in Sri Lanka and change of guard in Maldives has a clear imprint of the two Asian biggies haggling for dominance in the region. The bid by Mahinda Rajapaksa, known to be pro Beijing, to make a comeback as prime minister in Colombo in connivance with President Maitripala Sirisena is a grim reminder to behind the scenes operation of Xi Jinping’s trusted lieutenants. Differences between Ranil Wikremesinghe and president Sirisena seem to have been exacerbated, thanks to Chinese operation with impunity. Otherwise, how does one explain overnight the appointment of Rajapaksa as prime minister.

What is now on show in the island nation is evidence that the political developments have gone off the script dictated by Beijing. Rajapaksa lost the vote of confidence twice in Parliament in less than 48 hours. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court refused to play along and dissolved parliament ahead of the trust vote and the Rajapaksa-Sirisena nexus did not prove effective in mobilising the numbers to get the backing of lawmakers in the show of power. All this would not have happened without Beijing’s machinations. Rajapaksa’s earlier regime saw the handing over of strategic port assets of Sri Lanka to Chinese companies and allowing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base in the country. Crushing the Tamil nationals’ movement against human rights violations also happened during his tenure as president. The concomitant delay in implementation of India funded projects in Sri Lanka was reportedly due to Chinese pressure on Sirisena’s presidency.

Meanwhile, outgoing president Abdullah Ameen’s defeat during September elections was seen as Maldives shedding the Chinese shadow. Though most opposition leaders in the South Asian archipelago were jailed and Ameen made every attempt to rig the elections, united opposition nominee Ibrahim Mohamed Alih’s election came as a surprise to the Chinese military establishment. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence at the swearing-in of President Alih let the perception carry that India has finally found a foothold in the Indian Ocean Island nation. The promise of PM Modi to deepen India’s support in Maldives infrastructure, healthcare and education reflects New Delhi’s urge to re-establish its pre-eminent position in the country.

Maldives is strategic to nourishing India’s interests in the region where China seeks to complete its long arc with its military and naval power while encircling India. Interestingly, Donald Trump’s administration has reportedly extended its support to India as a strategic partner in protecting its offensive and defensive interests vis-à-vis China. Chinese aggressive anti-India stance would only drive New Delhi more into Washington DC grouping. Perhaps there’s an element of realisation within the military command and President Xi Jinping’s core team. That seems to have propelled China to engage with India more actively on fronts where they have similar interests. Given that China and India share borders, water bodies and airspace, workable relations between the two giants are in global interest notwithstanding the developments in Sri Lanka or for that matter in the Maldives.