Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit was to Bhutan. Shortly, thereafter, he visited Nepal. Since taking over in 2014, Modi has visited all the countries in our neighbourhood except Maldives. Yet, the neighbourhood seems to be slipping away from us into the embrace of China. India is lurching from one crisis to another in its own backyard and the situation does not seem to be on the mend.
On the eve of the Army Day, Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat acknowledged that China was exerting pressure on India along the border. “I think we cannot allow the neighbourhood to be drifted away from us — whether it is Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. These nations have to be kept on board, and I think we have to put in our wholehearted effort to ensure that we continue to support them,” he said.
China has been trying to expand its influence in countries in India’s neighbourhood, which have traditionally close ties with New Delhi. “We are seeking support of other nations, group of nations in the region, to see that we are not isolated completely in a situation in Asia against an assertive China. That is the next step that is being taken and therefore you will find that a quadrilateral is formed,” said Rawat.
Last November, India, Japan, Australia and the US had set the ball rolling for forming a quadrilateral coalition in the Indo-Pacific region to pursue their common interests, a move seen as a measure to counter growing Chinese influence.
Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, Nepal’s new Prime Minister, sworn in on February 15, is seen as pro-China. In his second stint, Oli is regarded as the most powerful PM in Nepal’s recent history.
India-Nepal ties hit a new low in 2015 when India voiced concerns over Nepal’s then-newly promulgated constitution and instituted an unofficial blockade that prevented crucial supplies from entering the country. Oli vehemently criticised the blockade and signed a trade and transit agreement with China with the goal of ending India’s monopoly over Nepal’s supply of daily essentials.
“We have great connectivity with India and an open border. All that’s fine and we’ll increase connectivity even further, but we can’t forget that we have two neighbours. We don’t want to depend on one country or have one option,” he told an interview.
Two-thirds of Nepal’s trade is with India. In 2014, during his last visit to Nepal, Modi had expressed interest in visiting many places but the tour was abruptly cancelled. Many think this as a turning point in Nepal-India relations; the relationship began to deteriorate thereafter, writes Kamal Dev Bhattarai, a Kathmandu-based writer and journalist in The Diplomat.
Oli also wants to revive the China-backed $2.5 billion hydropower project, which was scrapped by the previous government. He had signed the Transit Treaty with Beijing during his first stint as Prime Minister to end dependence on India for his landlocked country to revive the Budhi Gandaki project. The dam project was scrapped by the previous government headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba, citing irregularities.
China has been investing heavily in Nepal, blunting India’s influence in the Himalayan country. Oli has justified his decision to build the dam with aid from a Chinese company saying that “our petroleum usage has been increasing but we import all of it. We urgently need to develop hydropower to reduce our dependence on petroleum.”
It is imperative for India to check the growing Chinese influence in Nepal and protect its interests. The sudden visit of External Affair Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu on February 1-2 was seen as an attempt in this direction.
In January, China ended India’s internet services monopoly in Nepal. Nepal has already signed up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
There are also efforts to improve rail and road network between Nepal and China through Tibet. China aims to extend the Qinghai-Tibet railway to the Nepal border by 2020 and has expressed interest in extending it to Kathmandu. Kyirong in Tibet is about 25 km from Nepal’s Rasuwagadhi border transit point, which is 50 km from Kathmandu.
Last month, when Indian journalists visited Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was curt. “We want investment and cooperation from whoever offers it. We want development of the country. We have to think about our people as they are the beneficiaries of the development,” Hasina told them.
Bangladesh’s growing ties with China is a cause of concern for India. Hasina pointed out that India, China, Japan and even the Middle Eastern countries were coming to Bangladesh for cooperation while suggesting that “India should have good relations with its neighbours, including Bangladesh.”
China has vowed to boost military-to-military relations with Bangladesh by stepping up defence ties, including broadening of personnel training and cooperation in equipment technology. Earlier, China said it planned to provide Bangladesh with a $9 billion low-interest loan to build six rail projects, including one close to the Indian border.
Hasina also sought India’s support in repatriation of over a million Rohingya to Myanmar, fearing that their prolonged stay in Bangladesh could create security risks.
“We want India to put pressure on Myanmar so they quickly take back their displaced people,” she said. The change of tenor has come despite India being aggressive on strengthening bonds with Bangladesh. In June 2015, Prime Minister Modi visited Dhaka, where he announced a credit line of $2 billion, signed documents related to the Land Boundary Agreement, tackling illegal immigration and fake currency, apart from the starting of trans-border bus services on the Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati and Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala routes.
Last April, when Hasina visited India, 22 pacts were signed. India also committed a credit line of $4.5 billion to cover costs related to various projects and another $500 million for Bangla military. Yet Bangladesh is more interested in collaborating with China.
India has traditionally been the biggest player in the tiny island chain 250 miles to its south but Maldivian President Abdullah Yameen has assiduously cultivated relations with Beijing. The extension of the emergency, even after New Delhi expressed its misgivings and concerns, as well as carried out military exercises, demonstrates how confident he is of China’s support.
This is India’s backyard and the dilemma New Delhi faces is not simply how it should respond to the challenge, but how the Maldives slipped away from its arms. For India, this is a seriously worrying development, especially since it has long considered the Maldives as a friend in the region.
Even more worrying is the manner in which the Maldives has allowed China to make strategic inroads, much to New Delhi’s discomfiture and disadvantage. The first real evidence was the arbitrary manner in which the airport project was handed over to the Chinese, even though the contract had been won by an Indian company.
This was followed by the opening of a Chinese embassy, the signing of a Free Trade Agreement and rumours that Beijing might be given the right to set up a naval base in one of the islands. What is more disturbing is that increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean would mean that Beijing would control yet another important shipping lane.
Anticipating that New Delhi might be provoked into intervening militarily, Beijing followed its stern warning with the dispatch of naval ships. Added to this is the disturbing manner in which the Maldives, under President Yameen, has emerged as an incubation hub for Islamic fundamentalists with the credible possibility that a military intervention might provoke retaliatory terror attacks in India.
The island nation is now amply making it clear that it is not relying entirely on economic assistance coming from India. Much to the chagrin of India, Sri Lanka recently handed over Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to the Chinese state-run company, China Merchants Port Holdings.
On the other hand, there has been virtually no progress on India’s comprehensive economic
partnership with Sri Lanka. But the Chinese FTA with Sri Lanka is under way and China has extended billions of dollars of loans to Sri Lanka for various infrastructure projects.
President Maithripala Sirisena visited India in February 2015 and Modi visited Colombo in March 2015. He again undertook a trip to Sri Lanka in May 2017. But Sri Lanka did not think twice before sending its Prime Minister to the Belt and Road summit in the same month, which India boycotted. Sri Lanka was offered $24 billion in loans in the summit.
Adding to India’s concerns, the pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party scored big in the recent local body elections in Sri Lanka.
Bhutan, which has always stood by India, especially in the context of Pakistan and China, seems to be slowly drifting away. Bhutan chose not to side with India and instead took an ambiguous position on the stationing of over 8,000 Chinese troops in the Chumbi valley. Bhutan also refused to green light the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) network citing “environmental issues.”
The Himalayan nation is increasingly making it clear to India that it cannot afford to anger the Chinese, since that would mean closing doors to immediate, tangible economic benefits.
“We have great connectivity with India and an open border. All that’s fine and we’ll increase connectivity even further, but we can’t forget that we have two neighbours. We don’t want to depend on one country or have one option,” KP Oli, Prime Minister of Nepal
“We want investment and cooperation from whoever offers it. We want development of the country… We have to think about our people as they are the beneficiaries of development,” Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
“I think we cannot allow the neighbourhood to be drifted away from us — whether it is Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan. These nations have to be kept on board, and I think we have to put in our wholehearted effort to ensure we continue to support them,” General Bipin Rawat, Army Chief