Modi 3.0 To Focus On Chinese Security And Strategic Challenges  

When Narendra Modi invited leaders of South Asian and Indian Ocean Region countries for the swearing-in ceremony of his government’s third term on May 9, 2024, it offered a significant clue about India’s plan to continue its engagement in the domain of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘SAGAR’ - the two crucial areas on which New Delhi’s long-term strategy for regional development and security depends

By Shankar Kumar

Opinion

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, Seychellean Vice-President Ahmed Afif, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay participated in the oath-taking ceremony of Modi and his Council of Ministers on June 9.

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“The participation of leaders from India’s neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean Region on the momentous occasion of swearing-in ceremony of the Prime Minister and Council of Minister, underlines India’s deep-rooted bonds of friendship and cooperation with the region,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement released on June 9.

Growing challenges from China 

Foreign policy experts see participation of these foreign leaders from a different angle, given sharp changes in the geopolitical situation in the neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific region. They see it as a diplomatic investment in relations with South Asian neighbours and IOR countries to counter China’s growing influence.

India under the Prime Minister Modi’s government wants to deepen New Delhi’s engagement with these countries by strengthening developmental agenda like capacity building, infrastructure building and people-to-people exchange and security cooperation.

Foreign policy experts see participation of South Asian and IOR countries’ leaders from a different angle, given sharp changes in the geopolitical situation in the neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific region

In fact, growing geopolitical competition especially with China has impacted India’s dynamics in the neighbourhood area. Beijing is massively investing in Bangladesh’s infrastructure; it is building ports, bridges, and roads in the country.

big bang

According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington-based think tank, China has invested about $7.07 billion in Bangladesh. Chinese companies have received construction contracts worth $22.94 billion in different sectors of Bangladesh. Further, facing an economic crisis, Bangladesh has sought $5 billion, as a soft loan, from China.

Similarly in Nepal, Chinese investment has surged up since 2012. Beijing has made investments in sectors such as infrastructure, hydro energy, telecommunications, tourism, services, and manufacturing. Although some of these projects, especially in infrastructure, are proving to be white elephants.

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The Himalayan country is struggling with China funded Pokhara International Airport. Mired in corruption, the $305 million airport has become a white elephant like China-constructed Matale airport and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Built by the China CAMC Engineering Co Ltd, Beijing has unilaterally declared Pokhara International Airport as a part of its BRI programme.  It has failed to attract any regular international flights since its inauguration on January 1, 2023 by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda.’

In spite of this hard fact, Nepal has given China a much-needed break to enter an area, which was forbidden to foreign players till now i.e. oil and gas exploration. For exploration, as per The Rising Nepal, an agreement was signed between the Nepal government’s Department of Mines and Geology and the Chinese government’s Geological Survey Company in 2019 for the financial and technical support for the exploration and extraction of petroleum products.

Nepal has given China a much-needed break to enter an area, which was forbidden to foreign players till now i.e. oil and gas exploration

It will be the first oil and gas exploration in Nepal since 1985 when a similar attempt to explore oil in the Himalayan country yielded no results. However, China is not in favour of limiting its approach to Nepal to projects related to infrastructure and energy only, it also wants to have a strong military-to-military engagement between the two countries.

On March 9, 2024, a Chinese military delegation headed by Major General Zhang Baoqun visited Nepal. Delegation members visited Nepalese military institutions and held discussions with Nepalese Army Chief Prabhu Ram Sharma on various military-related proposals.

Later, Beijing announced that the Chinese military delegation-led by Major General Zhang Baoqun visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives also. This is a clear indication about China’s intention to carry forward its military agenda along with ongoing infrastructure and developmental projects in the region.

Plans behind China’s unsustainable loans to South Asian nations

Experience suggests that the majority of China’s infrastructure related projects; especially those belonging to the Belt and Road Initiative have turned out to be debt-trapping tools. Sri Lanka is a case in point here. In Asia, the island nation became the first lower-middle income country in 2022 to default on its sovereign debt.

China funded large infrastructure projects, including an airport, a port, and highways, which pushed Sri Lanka to the precipice of crisis, allowing Beijing to gain strategic and military influence. In 2017, Chinese company China Merchant Port Holdings Co secured a 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port after Sri Lanka expressed its inability to pay $1.1 billion loans it had taken from Beijing. This has since then given China an opportunity to dock its warships and research-cum-spy ships at the Sri Lankan port.

Recently, a Chinese military visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives, giving a clear indication about China’s intention to carry forward its military agenda along with on-going infrastructure and developmental projects in the region

Invariably the same situation prevails in the Maldives, where China has trapped it in a huge debt by funding its infrastructure projects. An archipelagic nation, consisting of 1,190 coral islands grouped in a double chain of twenty-seven atolls situated in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt, as per World Bank data.

Since 2014, after Maldives joined the BRI, Chinese companies have invested a further $1.37 billion in the Indian Ocean country, data from the American Enterprise Institute think tank shows. However, as per the Maldivian Finance Ministry, as of June 2023, the Export-Import Bank of China owned 25.2% of the Maldives’ external debt.

It was the archipelagic nation’s single biggest lender, the Maldivian Finance Ministry said. The Ministry data further showed that in 2023 the Maldives foreign debt had jumped to $4.038 billion – about 118% of the country’s GDP.

This scary economic situation of the Maldives coupled with President Mohamed Muizzu’s pro-China leanings has enabled Beijing to seize a much-needed opportunity to push its designs for the archipelagic country.

In the withdrawal of 89 Indian soldiers from the Maldives, some analysts say, China had a hand. These Indian defence personnel were manning three aviation platforms gifted by New Delhi to Male. For anti-India forces, however, the presence of Indian defence personnel in the Maldives was like an eyesore and they wanted to get rid of them to serve their geopolitical interests.

It was evident when in March, the Maldives and China signed an agreement to provide free military assistance to Male. Earlier in February, it allowed the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 to dock at the Port of Male, despite objections from India.

How to counter China’s influence in the region?

Under the Modi government in its third term, India will in all likelihood take a consolidated move to counter China’s influence and for this, it will advance its developmental diplomacy, people-to-people, and cultural relations with the countries in the neighbourhood.

Under the Modi 3.0, India will in all likelihood take a consolidated move to counter China’s influence and for this, it will advance its developmental diplomacy, people-to-people, and cultural relations with the countries in the neighbourhood

There is also a hint about giving a boost to defence cooperation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka by scaling up training programmes and joint exercises. Beyond the South Asian region, India is enhancing its military footprint in the Indian Ocean Region.

Prime Minister Modi in his first and second terms had already laid the foundation for a firmer military engagement with the countries of the region. On February 29, Prime Minister Modi and Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth jointly launched a new airstrip and jetty on the Mauritian archipelago of Agalega, which lies 1,100 km north of the main island of Mauritius.

In 2015, India signed an agreement to develop the 800-meter airstrip into a full-length airfield capable of receiving larger planes. In next few years, as per reports, Agalega base will be fully ready to station P-81 aircraft and other naval assets.

Another important Indian Ocean Region country, Seychelles has closeted its ranks with India. Both India and Seychelles are ramping up defence cooperation.  In March, troops from India and Seychelles conducted a 10-day military exercise ‘LAMITIYE-2024’ in Seychelles.

India is said to be renewing its effort to get on lease the Assumption Island of Seychelles, which links Suez Canal and the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. To counter China’s dominance in the region, India feels the Assumption Island will work as a major military base.

Overall, the Chinese belligerence in India’s neigbourhood, both on land and sea, can be countered only by pursuing a proactive and neighbour-friendly policies, and ensuring to convey the fact that India is not acting in a big brotherly fashion, but as a friend, in the region for its smaller neighbours by not allowing them to fall into China’s trap of soft loan diplomacy and getting security-related concessions in return, which may even challenge the sovereignty of these nations in the IOR and elsewhere in the region.

–The writer is a senior journalist with wide experience in covering international affairs. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda