Two recent changes in government – one in Maldives and the other in Sri Lanka – serve to illustrate the current political and economic battle for influence between India and China in an Indian Ocean that is “Indian” in name only. Although China and India are partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), they are vying for influence in a region that the United States considers one of its “Areas of Responsibility.” Formerly called the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, the military structure was renamed the Indo-Pacific region, an acknowledgement of Washington’s heightened military interest in the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean politico-military chess board began to see some rapid movement on September 23, 2018, when, in a surprise, Maldives opposition presidential candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated pro-China incumbent president Abdulla Yameen by 58 to 41 percent of the vote. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended Solih’s swearing-in ceremony in Malé, the Maldivian capital, on November 17. Marking the new close relationship between India and Maldives, Solih announced that his first foreign visit as president would be to India during mid-December 2018.
Under Yameen, China had been generous to Maldives with loans and development aid in support of China’s marquee Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the “One Belt, One Road initiative” and the “Maritime Silk Route.” Maldives was considered an integral part of China’s modernized and global commercial maritime, overland, and airborne commercial routes. For that reason, China spent almost $1 billion on modernizing Velana International Airport and another half-billion dollars building a bridge linking the airport, which is on the island of Hulhule, to the capital, on the island of Malé. To put it mildly, China invested heavily in Maldives under Yameen, to the tune of billions of dollars. After Yameen’s defeat, the Chinese ambassador to Maldives reminded Solih that Maldives owed China $3 billion for the loan it granted to the Yameen administration. With the eclipse of Chinese influence in Maldives, China lost one of its “string of pearls” in protecting its maritime links to the Middle East and its vital oil sources.
One vexing issue for China is Solih’s appointment of former president Mohamed Nasheed as his adviser. In 2012, Nasheed was ousted in a coup and succeeded by Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, a disciple of Nasheed’s authoritarian predecessor, President Maumoon Gayoom, the half-brother of Yameen. In 2015, Nasheed, one of the many acolytes around the world of global hedge fund tycoon George Soros, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after conviction on anti-terrorism charges. In 2016, Nasheed was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom. In 2018, Nasheed’s original conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Nasheed, while in exile in Europe, rubbed shoulders with the international celebrities who promote “global village” concepts, including, to China’s chagrin, human rights groups who champion the rights of the Tibetans and Uighurs.
With China losing its valued base of operations in Maldives, it turned its attention to Sri Lanka, to the north of Maldives. In October 2018, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena sent a political shock wave through the entire Indian Ocean region when he fired the pro-Indian prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with the former pro-Chinese president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. During Rajapaksa’s decade of rule, from 2005 to 2015, China invested heavily in the country and he incurred suspicions from New Delhi that he was in China’s pocket.
The sudden change of power in Sri Lanka was not without controversy. For a time, Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa both claimed to be the prime minister. The stunning nature of the quick change of government in Sri Lanka was even more surprising when considering that one of President Sirisena’s first acts as president was to investigate Rajapaksa for kickbacks and other fraudulent schemes involving construction projects funded by China, including Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which Rajapaska named after himself, and the seaport of Hambantota. Rajapaska was also accused of siphoning off billions of dollars of state funds to offshore bank accounts in Seychelles.
The Indian Ocean chessboard saw China lose Maldives to India, but it gained Sri Lanka in a period of merely two months. Such rapid-fire change in the geopolitical chessboard was a concrete example of the United States losing influence around the world, especially in what it calls the Indo-Pacific region. In the past, such political developments were known in advance by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which would either prevent them from occurring or co-opt them to suit its own Washington-centric agenda. The events of October and November 2018 proved that the Trump administration, mired in scandal and intra-government dystopia, was unable to deal proactively or reactively to the events in Maldives and Sri Lanka.
In the cases of Maldives and Sri Lanka, China was accused by the Western corporate media of luring the nations into a “debt trap,” from which they could not recover without granting China influence over their affairs. Yet, when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank lured nations into debt traps, the resulting punishing austerity measures were viewed by the West as “necessary” and “just.” Hypocrisy like this was best summed up when U.S. Vice President Adlai Stevenson I once said, “A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”
Warnings about Chinese debt traps fell on deaf ears in Tanzania. On November 27, 2018, Tanzanian president John Magufuli opened in Dar es Salaam at $40.5 million Chinese library and cultural center that was funded by the Chinese government. Magufili welcomed Chinese aid with open arms, especially after the World Bank decided to withhold tens of millions of dollars of aid to the East African nation. China sees Tanzania, with its port of Dar es Salaam and islands of Zanzibar and Pemba as integral parts of the Belt and Road Initiative.
While India viewed with glee the change of government in Maldives, it had reason to worry about what was happening on its northern border as much as it was concerned about the pro-China tilt of Sri Lanka. In June 2018, Nepali prime minister K P Sharma Oli traveled to Beiing, where he brought Nepal within the Belt and Road infrastructure. The Chinese agreed to build a rail line from Kerung, on the Tibetan border, to the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, with intermediate rail stations in the ancient Nepali city of Pokhara and the birthplace of Buddha, Lumbini. The reaction in New Delhi was that Nepal, like Sri Lanka and Maldives, was falling into a Chinese debt trap. The same argument is being used about a new $6 billion Chinese-built rail line into Laos. Where was all the angst when the IMF and World Bank subjected Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Greece, Philippines, Peru, Turkey, and other nations to confiscatory “debt traps?”
India is worried about landlocked Nepal having an alternative route through China to conduct commerce. For a similar reason, India is loath to permit Bhutan, also landlocked, to establish closer ties with China. Other Indian Ocean nations are eyeing the scramble for influence in the region by India and China. Mauritius, Seychelles, and Madagascar are content to play off Beijing and New Delhi to see what sort of best deals they can receive from each of them. Comoros has decided to triangulate beyond China and India. Amid the Sino-Indian jockeying for positions in Maldives and Sri Lanka, Comoros foreign minister paid a November 2018 working visit to Moscow, where several joint initiatives were signed with Russia. One agreement establishes a program for Russian training of Comoros law enforcement personnel.
During the Cold War, the United States would be seen in every Indian Ocean littoral country competing with the Soviet Union and China for influence. Today, the competition exists but often without an American team.