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China’s Conduct in Sri Lanka and Maldives Would Indicate how India-China Relations Would Shape up in the Future and Impact the Security Environment Not Only in the Two Island Nations but the Indian Ocrean Region as Well.

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By

Colonel R Hariharan

Introduction

Recently India’s Indian Ocean neighbours – Sri Lanka and Maldives – witnessed political crises after heads of state attempted to tinker with constitution to suit their political ends, plunging the country into chaos and uncertain future. This was due to fractious and personality driven domestic politics practiced in both the countries. However, they have managed to defuse the crises through democratic process, thanks to their own internal political dynamics and external pressure, mainly from the US and the European Union.

Both the island nations are important partners in India’s national and Indian Ocean security template. So it becomes imperative for India to understand the external influences, notably China, which played a part in the crises situation.

Sri Lanka political crisis and its aftermath

President Maithripala Sirisena in a dramatic move on October 26, 2018 installed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, and sacked his coalition partner PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), although it was the support of Wickremesinghe and the UNP that enabled him to, defeat Rajapaksa in the presidential election. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition had created the signature brand ‘Yahapalana’ (good governance) for their government to restore good governance and bring the perpetrators of corrupt acts during the Rajapaksa regime to book. So the President’s action was condemned as a betrayal of the people, who voted him to power.

The President prorogued the parliament till November 16, preventing Wickremesinghe from seeking a vote of confidence in parliament. After the President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United Peoples Front Alliance (UPFA) and the pro-Rajapaksa Joint Opposition (JO) group withdrew support to the Wickremesinghe government, he ordered the dissolution of parliament and holding of fresh elections in January 2019.

However, Rajapaksa government could not legitimize itself after a defiant Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of parliament declared the President’s action unconstitutional; he went ahead and convened the parliament to pass a vote of confidence in Wickremesinghe government twice.

The political developments in Sri Lanka stunned the US and the EU as they had supported the forming of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe coalition to keep Rajapaksa out of power. During his rule as President, Rajapaksa had defied their demand for investigating alleged war crimes during the Eelam War and other aberrations of governance and human rights violations. The Western powers and India were uncomfortable with Rajapaksa developing cosy relations with China. He had facilitated huge Chinese investments in infrastructure projects like the Hambantota port complex strengthening China’s presence in the IOR.

The US came out publicly in support of the speaker’s request to the President to constitutionally resolve the issue. After PM Rajapaksa could not muster majority support in parliament, he resigned when the supreme court held the president’s actions unconstitutional. President Sirisena had no option but to reinstate Wickremesinghe as PM on December 16, 2018 ending political uncertainty that lasted 51 days.

Though the crisis has been defused, there is uncertainty about the future as President Sirisena has openly expressed his aversion to work with PM Wickremesinghe after the latter assumed office.

India, which always haunts Sri Lanka politics with its “Big Brother” image, maintained a surprisingly low profile. There was probably an attempt by unknown anti-Indian elements when a news report hinting at the Indian intelligence agency RAW’s hand in a suspected plot to assassinate President Sirisena and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, surfaced. This had probably further aggravated Preident Sirisena’s suspicion about a conspiracy hatched by the UNP to rid of him. According to a media report, President Sirisena had talked about the plot at a cabinet meeting. Later he spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to clarify that he never alleged India was behind the assassination plot. India did not allow such provocations to affect its decision to keep out of any political controversy during the crisis period.

On the other hand, China was happy to see Rajapaksa, its favourite Sri Lankan leader, staging a comeback to power. China’s ambassador in Colombo Chen Xueyuan was one of the first diplomats to meet Rajapaksa soon after he was sworn in as PM. He presented a congratulatory message from PM Li Keqiang. After social media took China to task for supporting Rajapaksa, China clarified that it did not intend to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that China was closely following the changes in the situation in Sri Lanka. “We have maintained communication with the relevant political parties in Sri Lanka. The Chinese ambassador met Wickremesinghe and the new PM Rajapaksa” he added.

Maldives political crisis

The recent political crisis in Maldives, Asia’s smallest country of 26 atolls located in the Indian Ocean, ended with the election of President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih. He defeated the outgoing President Abdulla Yameen who had become increasingly autocratic. The presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the swearing in ceremony of President Solih indicated the importance India attached to his election. This was followed by President Solih’s maiden state visit to New Delhi during which he was warmly welcomed. At a joint press conference, PM Modi announced a grant of $1.4 billion in budget support, currency swap agreements, and concessional lines of credit to Maldives to tide over its financial crunch.

The political crisis has to be understood in the background of Maldives’ history of periodic political turbulence and faction fights in its inbred society ever since it became a republic in November 11, 1968. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled for three decades after he was elected for the first time in 1978, brought some stability and boosted international tourism, which is the country’s main source of income. However, his autocratic methods and suppression of dissent made his six terms of presidency controversial.

Gayoom managed to survive three coup attempts in 1980, 1983 and 1988. The 1988 coup attempt, organized by a Maldivian businessman, using mercenaries of former Sri Lankan Tamil insurgency organization PLOTE was crushed with the help of Indian army parachute battalion flown in to round up the plotters, who had occupied Hulule airport. However, during his last term Gayoom’s ruling Maldivian Peoples Party (MPP) was increasingly facing popular demand for political reforms.

Due to increasing pressure from Mohammed Nasheed, a journalist, who founded the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in 2003, President Gayoom allowed gradual reforms. A new constitution was approved in 2008 and Nasheed was elected president under the new constitution. .

However, Nasheed faced huge debt left by previous government, economic downturn dude to after-effects of 2004 tsunami leading to unemployment, corruption and drug menace. In spite of this, social welfare benefits were introduced for the aged and single parents. In 2011, President Nasheed faced increasing social and political unrest and demands for Islamic rule. He resigned after army and police elements mutinied in February 2012. Vice President Mohammed Waheed was sworn in as president. Nasheed was arrested and tried, under questionable circumstances, for terrorism and sentenced to 13 years in jail.

In the elections held in 2013, Nasheed was elected in the first count; however, supreme court annulled the election. In the re-run of the election Abdulla Yameen, half brother of former president Gayoom, was elected president.

However, President Yameen surprised India, which has been a traditional ally and security guarantor, by adopting an increasingly pro-China stand. Chinese investments which had been surging since 2012 made a huge leap during Yameen’s reign. President Xi Jinping made a historic visit to Maldives in September 2014, bringing China’s ties closer with the Maldives. President Yameen made a three-day visit to Beijing and signed 12 agreements including a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a tariff free import-export trade deal with China. China is supporting multiple housing projects, a power plant, a bridge costing $200 million connecting Male to the Hulule airport and a water and sewage treatment plant. The three projects alone are worth $1.5 billion, more than 40 percent of Maldives GDP.

These developments caught India off-guard. India was concerned when China was said to be looking to establish a joint ocean observation station at the westernmost atoll of Makhnudhoo not far from India. It will provide a vantage point to China overlooking the important sea route through which ships pass. Former president Nasheed has said China had already acquired 17 islands in Maldives and there was no clarity about China’s activities in these islands.

In the words of the Beijing tabloid Global Times, President Abdulla Yameen’s government had watered down the country’s traditional ‘India first’ foreign policy to successful court investment and assistance from New Delhi’s geopolitical rivals – China, Pakistan – and Saudi Arabia. It has also jailed several pro-India opposition figures, including former presidents Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

As political opposition against President Yameen gathered momentum, the supreme court ordered the release of nine political prisoners and reinstating 12 parliament members, which increased the potential to impeach Yameen. On February 5, 2018 President Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two judges of the supreme court including the chief justice. Mass arrests followed and many constitutional rights were suspended. Crackdown on the media and anti-government rallies was carried out across the country. India criticized the state of emergency, called upon Maldives to observe the supreme court ruling to release the political prisoners. China warned India not to interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives.

The rest is history with the election of President Solih. In a surprise U-turn, after the defeat of Yameen, China changed its tune on India’s role in Maldives. The Global Times said Beijing had come up with a constructive “two-plus-one” mechanism – China and India plus another South Asian country as a demonstration of sincerity. “The mechanism cannot not only enhance mutual trust between China and India but prevent other South Asian countries from being caught in between” the editorial said.

Way forward

It is not enough to study the recent crises in Sri Lanka and Maldives through the traditional template of India- China rivalry. India-China relations are undergoing possibly a reset after PM Modi and President Xi Jinping had an informal summit at Wuhan in July 2018 in a bid to mend the relations between the two countries frayed after the 2017 military standoff between their armies at Doklam.

A series of follow-up decisions are being taken by the two countries thereafter to maintain and develop cordial relations. However, China’s conduct in Sri Lanka and Maldives, two important partners in the BRI would probably indicate how the India-China relations would shape up in the near future and impact the security environment not only in the two island nations but IOR as well.

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