China’s aggressive play in the Indian Ocean region has prompted US and India to coordinate closely in Sri Lanka and Maldives — two countries strategically vital for India. This is a far cry from the years when India worked hard to keep the US out of South Asia, now US and India are working together to counter expanding Chinese influence.
Maldives is a matter of particular concern. China has consolidated its hold on the island, building infrastructure with its standard predatory pricing methods. Unlike in Sri Lanka where the Sirisena government is trying to fix its books, president Yameen in Maldives seems perfectly comfortable with growing amounts of debt to China. China’s infrastructure push is natural given that China is possibly a world leader in land reclamation — its the add-ons that are of concern to India+ . China’s financing mechanisms mean that China could be controlling large areas of Maldives fairly soon. There is a real concern about China’s presence in iHavan project on Maldives’ northernmost atoll, sitting in the middle of the busiest transit point between the Middle East and Southeast Asia — and very close to Lakshadweep islands.
Chinese submarines+ want to use the only viable channel in that region for their forays into south-central Indian Ocean — allowing them control over this channel would be against Indian interests, said sources.
In August, Yameen disregarded India’s request to deny permission to three Chinese warships — as retaliation, India invited Mohamed Nasheed to Delhi, his first visit here since his exile. Yameen is playing his version of hard ball — Maldives repaid GMR’s dues earlier this year, and India suspects China put up the amount, although when it comes to SOS on drinking water, Yameen dials New Delhi.
India and US are also teaming up to monitor returning ISIS fighters into Maldives — this country of 3,50,000 has sent almost 400 ISIS fighters to Syria and Iraq (as comparison, Sweden with 10 million people is contending with 300 returnees). Given restrictive conditions and remote atolls, these radicalised 18-30 year-olds could spell disaster. “There has been an explosion of extremist preachers in Maldives,” remarked a diplomat.
From a time when India persuaded the US to not bid for a monitoring station in Maldives for maritime surveillance for fear of attracting China, India and US have come a long way, largely because China has barrelled its way here, seriously impacting security concerns.
In Sri Lanka, Hambantota and Chinese presence there has spurred Washington’s interest — so its not for nothing that the US aircraft carrier Nimitz visited Sri Lanka last week, without a murmur from India. Sources said, “Indian and US warships keep the oceans free.”
India and US are trying to wean Sri Lanka away from the debt trap created by the Chinese — here Japan has played a big role as well, enjoying a huge cache of goodwill in the island. A diplomat familiar with developments said, “we have great complementarity and coordination between New Delhi, Washington, Tokyo and Colombo.”
India’s more robust presence in countries like Sri Lanka would have normally spooked the local population. But the US and Japan in the game makes it easier for these countries as well. This was alluded to by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar at a think tank last week.
The aim, said, sources here, is to transform Sri Lanka from a “consumer of net security to a contributor to net security in the Indian Ocean region.” In fact, Sri Lanka is being prodded to use its influence with the Buddhist leadership in Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis+ .
India’s policies in the Indian Ocean region are undergoing a sea change. (TOI)