Obsessed with international recognition, winning friends and
outwitting adversaries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed a baffling
global itinerary and travelled to 53 countries covering five continents during
his 46 months in office. Claiming to propel the economy and burnis India’s
reputation, Modi has travelled five times to the US, three times each to China,
Russia, France and Germany and twice to 10 other countries, besides 38 maiden
visits to as many countries. Signing a plethora of strategic treaties, hugging
heads of governments and delivering spellbinding speeches before Non-resident
Indians at landmarked foreign locales have become the familiar spectacle of
On June 27, 2016, speaking about India’s foreign policy to Times Now, Modi stated: “The world didn’t know me and Modi through the eyes of the media would be delusional. For that unless I meet all those leaders and engage them one to one, they wouldn’t know about India’s head of state.”
With a $2.4 trillion economy—the sixth largest in the world—a huge working population and a growing middle class, India is an attractive marketplace for many stagnating economies. Converting domestic potential into opportunity and profit is a foreign policy challenge. Although the impact of his global blitzkrieg is still to be seen, Modi’s signature “neighbourhood first” and “act east” initiatives have so far failed to show results. Despite the “neighbourhood first” policy, India is forced to face the age old Kautilyan maxim that “an immediate neighbouring state is an enemy; and, a neighbour’s neighbour, separated from oneself by the intervening enemy, is a friend”.
The 21st century has brought changes in the nature of India’s relations with its neighbours. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives have adopted a policy of deliberate hostility. These poorer neighbours wanted economic development but India proved to be an unreliable companion. As a rising economy, India could provide cheap labour, skilled manpower and a vast market, but the neighbours wanted an infusion of hard credit into their economies and quick implementation of projects. Performance was well below expectations and existing cultural relations, sometimes more than a century old, failed the economics test. Gradually, our neighbours stopped viewing India with respect, fear or forbearance.
Paul Kennedy, the Yale University scholar, in his seminal Rise and Fall of the Great Powers stated that “new technology” and “economic transformation” can alter the balance of power over time. At the turn of the 21st century, China possessed both and successfully utilised its colossal currency reserves and technological advancement to expand influence among India’s neighbours through cash assistance for infrastructure development, and other investments. With its industrial base, large surpluses and trained manpower, China secretly initiated an ambitious plan to “engage and colonise Asia, Africa and Europe” and “economically overwhelm the world”.
In 2005, US Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld engaged defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to prepare an internal report about “Energy Futures in Asia”. In the report Hamilton coined the term ‘String of Pearls’, which also explains China’s grand geopolitical ambition in a line from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, to the Arabian Gulf. India sits in the centre of this maritime economic zone where strings of ports and pipelines dominate water.
Hamilton’s term gained currency and received a tremendous response from scores of scholars and strategists across the US and India. Seasoned academics and veteran military strategists jumped to the conclusion that China was erecting a ring fence around India. This was a mistake that still dominates Indian strategic thinking. China’s grand plan remained a secret and as China won more and more countries over with cheque-book diplomacy and infrastructure development, Indian strategists treated it as a “mere military overture intended to encircle India” (former navy chief Arun Prakash in The Indian Express, September 5, 2007). There is no reference to the term ‘String of Pearls’ in the Chinese vocabulary or in any Chinese military-strategic literary work. It is essentially scholars from the US and India who have exaggerated the theory with myriad interpretations and explanations.
China’s “encirclement of India” theory has become a fixed notion in the minds of many people. Students of the University of Delhi frequently tell me China’s encirclement policy is one of the primary elements of India’s foreign policy challenge.
The fact is that China never intended to encircle India and its secret grand strategy was nowhere close to this theory. It is a US-fed contention that intends to arouse paranoia in India’s strategic circles and draw them into a battle against Chinese hegemony, which is a threat to American supremacy. In simple words, the US wanted a proxy to fight China on her behalf. India took the bait.
The dispute over the South China Sea and the US position throws light on its Asian strategy. The US wants India’s support as “55 per cent of Indian maritime trade passes through the area” (Gen. V.K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, Rajya Sabha, February 9, 2017). Washington is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which ruled against China’s maritime claims in the case of Philippines Vs. China in July 2016. When the Trump administration warned China against blocking access to man-made islands in the South China Sea, Beijing’s foreign ministry warned that “unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish” (Global Times, January 13, 2017).
Considering the handicaps the US is suffering in Asia, it wanted a reliable partner to counter China’s rise. India fit the description. The String of Pearls was envisioned as a trap to ensnare New Delhi long before the South China Sea dispute.
The veil over the fallacious encirclement theory fell in September 2013, when President Xi Jinping unveiled the grandiose Chinese Belt and Road Initiative at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Xi hinted that China had been working on the project for 20 years and the “ancient Silk Road is becoming full of new vitality with the rapid economic development of China’s relations with Asian and European countries”.
The framework and principle of the initiative, released in March 2015, dwarfs the String of Pearls. China’s economic assistance to India’s neighbours along with a promise to build ports and roads proved to be a small segment of a grand geopolitical scheme. If one gives any currency to the encirclement theory, the Belt and Road Initiative proposes to encircle most of Southeast Asia, the whole of Central Asia and the Middle East and two-thirds of Europe, together covering 60 countries.
As the western world woke up to China’s economic imperialism, President Xi invited more than 100 heads of state to Beijing in May 2017 to tell them how China was keen to open “the transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa”. Although analysts consider Xi the father of the Belt and Road Initiative, it was a long-held Chinese dream developed in secret in bit and pieces for decades. Xi combined a number of schemes into the grand narrative and made the geopolitical plan public.
The greatest advantage of this initiative is that there is no co-owner, nor any need to worry about finance, although Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank funding is part of the scheme. Parts of the project are proceeding at lightning speed and it looks unstoppable. Moreover, it has no rival. China’s strategic aid and cheque-book diplomacy is directly aligned with the Belt and Road Initiative. The money for poor, cash starved and vulnerable countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Pakistan is aimed at maintaining friendly relations and gaining access to natural resources and markets.
ndia’s response lacks a proper appreciation of the scheme and is devoid of a viable riposte. For one, the Chinese economy is about five times larger than India’s. During 1987-1990, when India was busy sending a peacekeeping force to Sri Lanka to challenge the Tamil homeland insurgents and placing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in danger China was developing its economy. It waited for the fighting to stop and then invested in the country’s infrastructure.
The bloody engagement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the long civil war (1983-2009) devastated Sri Lanka’s economy. The US-based Asia Economic Institute says it cost the country over $200 billion. The civil war halted economic development and disrupted foreign investment.
The end of civil war in 2009 left President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who assumed power in 2005, with no choice but to rebuild the infrastructure on the back of massive foreign debt. By 2018, its external debt stood at $64.9 billion—$8 billion of which was owed to China. In return, it has won virtually all big-ticket project contracts in Sri Lanka.
China provided cash at a time when the infrastructure badly needed renovation as the West threatened sanctions over alleged human rights abuses. Among the projects it delivered are Hambantota deep-water port, Mattala Airport, Colombo Port City, Colombo-Katunayake Expressway and Magampura Port, to mention the most prominent. China embraced the island nation to pursue its own Silk Road agenda.
Sri Lanka is a piece of prime real estate for the Chinese grand design, a crucial staging post in the Indian Ocean and an element of its Belt and Road Initiative. That may be why it has gone ahead with some projects that are plainly unviable. At the same time, however, many projects are overpriced and the interest rate is 6.3 per cent compared to 0.25-3 per cent of the Asian Development Bank and World Bank and the 1 per cent rate of India’s line of credit. It is evident that the country has been manoeuvred into a debt trap. The total national debt of $64 billion is 76 per cent of the GDP.
Chinese debt has other strategic consequences. In October 2014 global media reported the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo. The Indian Navy counted seven Chinese submarines in the 2013-2015 period. In April 2016, during a track-II conference in Colombo, senior Sri Lankan naval officers informed me that period saw not less than a dozen visits, including by nuclear attack submarines, to Colombo port. Given its debt load, Sri Lanka could hardly refuse the Chinese, despite concerns raised by India.
President Maithripala Sirisena, after coming to power in 2015, suspended some of the badly priced China-funded projects. But he realised it was impossible to run the cash-dependent infrastructure projects without Chinese money. He admitted that 90 per cent of the debt or more than US$58 billion had been incurred by the previous government, which kept him from acting against China’s economic imperialism. He not only cleared the stalled projects but also sent Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe to represent Sri Lanka at the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing in May 2015.
After completing the Colombo South Container Terminal, making Colombo port one of the biggest in the world in August 2013, China proceeded to develop Hambantota port and Mattala airport, 40 km from Hambantota. Located approximately six nautical miles from the major Indian Ocean East-West shipping route, Hambantota, at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, falls on the maritime Silk Road, which explains Chinese interest. It plans to build bunker and refuelling facilities along with a cargo terminal and harbour. The Chinese presence is a cause of great concern to Indian interests.
Before the ink dried on the 99-year lease agreement to develop and run Hambantota in December 2017, India woke up to the reality of a foreign policy failure. Although military use of the port by China is prohibited, Hambantota is a rest stop for Chinese vessels. Naval strategists agree that prohibitions are respected only in peace time. During a conflict or in commercial competition, China may not hesitate to use its presence in Sri Lankan ports and airports against India.
The external affairs ministry’s website states: “India is among the top four investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments of over US$ 1 billion since 2003.” Last month, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said India had invested $1.5 billion in Sri Lanka in demand-driven projects. The significance of India’s commercial interest can be understood from the fact that it is the destination for transshipment of nearly 70 per cent of cargo to and from Colombo port. Colombo and Hambantota are far more important for India’s strategic calculation than even Chennai. Playing into the hands of the US, India it seems is more accommodative of American apprehension than her own tactical considerations.
Responding to the looming Chinese presence, foreign policy strategists have proposed the takeover of the loss-making Mattala airport. India could also build a petroleum refinery and other industries at Trincomalee port in northern Sri Lanka. A memorandum of understanding signed during Modi’s visit in May 2017, his second in two years, agreed to set up a joint working group to finalise the projects. Joint ownership of Trincomalee port by India and Sri Lanka is claimed as one policy success.
Mattala airport, built with Chinese assistance, is running into losses and Sri Lanka is handing over the airport to India with the explicit motive of repaying China’s $190 million investment. So India is paying China just to gain a foothold in the southern region where China is stationed profitably with no cost to its exchequer. Sri Lanka’s open China-tilt ended with the departure of Rajapaksa in January 2015.
Sirisena is more accommodative of Indian concerns but his tenure is about to end and Rajapaksa’s return looks imminent. So neither Modi’s two visits nor a friendly government at Colombo have made a dent in China’s influence. Foreign policy objectives cannot be achieved by piecemeal engagement. India’s neighbourhood first policy needs consistent commitment.
uring a visit to New Delhi in April 2016, Maldives President Abdullah Ameen Abdul Gayoom said, “If the Indian Army had not come to our rescue, we would have lost independence during the past 50 years.”
Situated in India’s backyard, Maldives is of strategic significance in guarding its maritime interest in the Indian Ocean. In 1988, when pro-Eelam Sri Lankan Tamils attempted a coup by seizing a cargo ship Progress Light and taking Maldivian officials hostage, the Indian Navy launched Operation Cactus. On November 3, 1988 India airlifted soldiers to Male to flush out the mercenaries who were escaping with the ship carrying the hostages. INS Godavari intercepted Progress Light and captured the mercenaries and rescued all hostages. It was first ever combat operation in history by Indian defence forces initiated far from home shores.
Since 2009, at Male’s request, India maintains a naval presence. But Maldives has been in turmoil since its first democratically-elected President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign on February 7, 2012 after a series of coup-like events. Although Maldives opened a full Chinese Embassy only in November 2011, since Abdullah Ameen was elected president in November 2012, the archipelago has started tilting heavily towards China.
China generously funded infrastructure projects, the most notable being a 10 km bridge connecting Hulbumale island, where the airport is situated, and Male Island, where the capital is located. The distance at present is covered by ferry. China has included Maldives in its Maritime Silk Road project. Although there have been no agreements, intelligence reports claim the Chinese plan a submarine base on one of the outlying islands.
Relations between the two countries have deepened enough for three Chinese warships to dock at Male in August 2017. Confident of Chinese support, Yameen has bolstered his power by removing the chief justice, police chiefs and by arresting vice-president Ahmed Adeeb and former defence minister Mohamed Nazim. Former president Nasheed is taking shelter in Sri Lanka.
India could do little when Yameen imposed an emergency on February 5. Yameen’s decision came after the Maldives Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of 12 members of parliament and the immediate release of high-profile prisoners like former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Nasheed.
The emergency has been extended despite India’s warning and when India tried to show muscle by sending a naval fleet, China responded with its own naval combat force. Global Times, the state-run mouthpiece of China, reported: “If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi.”
In contrast, Modi called for “respect for democratic institutions” and “playing a constructive role in the Maldives”. After the imposition of emergency, the Indian Navy launched “operational exercises” in the western Indian Ocean involving 40 warships, including an aircraft carrier, Modi refused permission for military action. Rather, the prime minister despatched foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale to Beijing to resolve the crisis.
The entry of the Chinese flotilla, which included an amphibious Type 071 vessel for troops to make a marine landing, at the end of January 2018, well ahead of the the emergency in Maldives indicated a deeper plot.
China, in the name of protecting its economic interests, is pursuing a “sensitive and proactive” foreign policy. It is employing military muscle and diplomatic offensive to overawe India in its own backyard. The archipelago is just 400 km from its shores, but Male prefers befriending China, which is 4,000 km away. In the long-term the Chinese presence will deprive India of its primacy in the archipelago. Signalling the withdrawal of Maldives, Mohamed Shainee, a senior minister and chairman of all-party talks to resolve the impasse, finds a similarity in between India’s troubles in Kashmir and Maldives’ present crisis.
ndia’s most urgent foreign policy challenge is China. Ever since Xi became president in 2013, it has had to deal with growing Chinese assertion in trade, diplomacy, military and foreign policy. Described by American intelligence as “exceptionally ambitious, confident and focused”, who always fixed his “eye on the prize from early adulthood”, Xi’s grandiose vision and mission have surpassed everybody’s calculation.
On October 24, 2017, Xi coerced the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to codify “Xi Jinping Thought” in the organisation’s Charter. The Charter is the guiding ideological principle of CCP, which previously canonised the thoughts and ideas of only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Doctrinal detail and ideological principle as envisaged by “Xi Jinping Thought” is a mystery but closer analysis of available materials shows his ideas as “a myriad mix of ensuring one-party rule for infinity” and “ruthlessly leading China to proclaim global supremacy”.
A few months later on February 25, 2018, Xi swayed CCP politburo members to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the country’s Constitution.
Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which brought death and displacement for a generation of Chinese and forced the country into civil war, compelled the CCP to limit the tenure of its ruler. Since 1978, only collective leadership and two-term-10-year-limits for the top job were enshrined to restrict the rise of another Mao. Exactly four decades later, Xi successfully overwhelmed constitutional constraint to prolong his reign.
Considering the secretive functioning of the Chinese Communist Party, it is nearly impossible to know how Xi succeeded. However, one of the provocations was the enormous power amassed by regional leaders who were beyond the control of the central authority. Annoyed politburo members ceded more power to Xi who promised to arrest the degeneration in the party.
American diplomatic correspondence leaked by Wikileaks states, “Xi is supremely pragmatic and a realist, driven not by ideology but by a combination of ambition and self-protection”. During his five-year rule Chinese witnessed a surprising curtailment on openness in governance; a considerable reduction in freedom and liberty; and a ruthless crackdown on the slightest sign of dissent. The use of artificial intelligence has enabled Xi to implement a social credit system that monitors the daily behaviour of Chinese. Xi’s rise and continuity have enormous consequences for India.
Chinese policy toward India under Xi operates on contradictory assumptions, namely, that it is necessary to “unite” with Modi to access the Indian market and at the same time to “struggle” against Modi on strategic issues. Xi’s tenure shows a China that is calculating yet cut-throat on strategic issues vis-à-vis India. A month after assuming power in March 2013, Xi ordered the People’s Liberation Army to engage in a show of strength at the strategic Daulat Beg Oldi sector below the Karakoram range overlooking India, Pakistan and China. Officers deputed by India to assess the crisis privately admitted the killing of Indian intelligence agents by Chinese troopers. The crisis continued for a month and was resolved in May with the withdrawal of Chinese troops. Then in August 2013, in a show of strength, the Indian Air Force landed a C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft to demonstrate its capabilities.
In September 2014, Xi’s policy remained the same and the People’s Liberation Army again erected military tents in Chumar Sector of eastern Laddakh inviting a 16-day-long eyeball-to-eyeball faceoff. The provocation was resolved but Xi’s forward policy continued. The three-month-long Doklam crisis of August 2017 is too fresh an incident to be recalled again.
Xi’s India policy remained to work for a rapprochement with New Delhi, to treat India as still nonaligned, and to avoid personal attacks on Modi but continue the belligerent stand without a break. Xi is following Mao’s strategic dual policy of “unity and struggle” against India where providing some leeway to the opponent during struggle is envisaged. The policy is flexible, which requires sometimes taking a hard line and at other times a soft line.
Considering Modi’s penchant for the limelight, Xi has adopted the personal diplomacy route to make him amenable to Chinese sensitivity and strategy. Other than that, Modi has included an international dimension to formulate India’s China policy. The weakening of the nonaligned movement and Russia’s cold shouldering of India’s Sino-specific concerns have pushed him into the suffocating embrace of newer western allies like the US and France.
Declassified Central Intelligence Agency papers confirm that Americans were implementing an “encircling of China” strategic programme since the late 1950s and “the arc of US bases encircling’ China would be extended through India”. The US strategic scheme in Asia and India’s tactical calculations to counter China’s rise pitted the Indo-US alliance against Xi’s China. Befriending the US is not free of risk as it has a long track record of using allies when in need and throwing out the same partner when not required.
China has countered with export of capital, technology and infrastructure. Although India, as categorically expressed by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale before a parliamentary standing committee, is “working on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and the Chabahar port development”, progress in these sectors is at snail’s pace. In comparison, Chinese modalities include “free money or cheap money as well as the quick execution of projects” leading many neighbouring countries to sign up strategically with it.
India has responded with greater engagement with France by signing reciprocal logistics support between their armed forces. Stretching beyond the diplomatic shackles of the US and Russia and expanding its options outside the “Quadrilateral agreement with Australia, Japan and US”, India has signed an action oriented Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region with France. But France has endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a major thorn in diplomatic relations between India and France. It is also a warning not to rely too much on France.
Part of India’s strategy is to wait for Chinese strategic initiatives in the neighbouring countries to crumble. Through diplomatic channels and track-II initiatives, it is sensitising neighbours about the dangers of Chinese capital. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar have adopted a pause on the Hambantota, Chittagong and Akhab projects respectively.
Nevertheless, beyond Modi’s state visits, hugs, handshakes, photo ops and hashtags, there is no systematic follow up on strategic concerns. Senior diplomats in the government speculate that Pakistan has granted sovereign rights to China to conduct business at Gwadar port. In other words, China may use the port as a military base to facilitate the sandwiching of India. Its contact with Pakistan is limited to the unannounced annual National Security Advisors meeting at Bangkok.
The Indian Military Doctrine prepared by the integrated headquarters, ministry of defence, states that there are 723 islands off the east coast, including the Andaman and Nicobar chain, and 474 islands lie off the west coast, including the Lakshadweep chain in the southwest. More than 10,000 ships, fed by 12 major and 187 minor Indian ports sail through the northern Indian Ocean area and Malacca Straits annually.
The maritime Silk Road could be a major threat to India’s energy supply arteries. But India’s strategic-military response to Chinese aggression looks inadequate. For instance, the South China Sea lanes and the Malacca Strait carry over 55 per cent of India’s trade, so the region is of great significance. To ensure the safety of its maritime trade, India undertakes various activities, including cooperation in the oil and gas sector with littoral states. However, the efficacy of cooperation with littoral states is still to face a ground test.
Fifty per cent of the world’s container shipments, 30 per cent of bulk cargo traffic and 65 per cent of oil shipments run through the Indian Ocean, making it one of the vital maritime transport links in the world. The Indian Ocean carries 90 per cent of our trade and 100 per cent of oil imports.
China has already acquired a base at Djibouti and Maldives. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are on the way to offer such bases. Chinese dominance of this region could choke India’s energy supplies in times of need and during conflict. To keep the Indian Ocean safe and open is thus a major, if not the sole priority for continued economic growth. So, far, however, various schemes have been proposed without a commitment to any one of them.
Prime Minister Modi’s brainchild “Security and Growth for All in the Region”, which the foreign ministry describes as a “high-level articulation of India’s vision for the Indian Ocean” remains something of an orphan. Instead of explicit provisions to enhance capacity for the security of land and maritime interests we have bureaucratic papers and plans. Instead of concrete action we have talk.