The Seychelles President, Danny Faure, has commenced his five-day state visit to India. The visit comes as India has slowly begun losing its grip on the country and seeks to re-establish its image. India had signed an agreement in 2015 to develop a naval facility on Assumption Island on a 25-year lease. The agreement was subsequently modified early this year. It also included positioning military personnel on the island. The facility was to be jointly managed by the two nations.
This base would have given India an immense advantage in the Indian Ocean region, would enable it to ensure safe shipping in the region, monitor the Mozambique channel, thwart piracy and counter the Chinese presence. Opposition politicians in Seychelles opposed the deal, which was leaked to the media, preventing the President from approaching the parliament for approving it. The view of the opposition was that the country was surrendering its territory to India as also undermining its sovereignty.
Seychelles would now be developing the facility on its own as a coast guard base. As Danny Faure stated, “It is important for us to ensure we have a military post in the area.” There are reports that China is behind the decision of opposition parties to reject the Indian proposal.
India is now looking at regaining lost ground in the country. Presently India supplies weapons and equipment (India already supplies 60 per cent of their equipment), trains senior members of their defence forces and has military advisors in the country. Indian equipment includes naval ships, Dornier aircraft and coastal radars. It would seek to enhance its cooperation with the country, during this visit.
In the Maldives, India has been pushed back, with China taking the front seat. The Maldives government has gone to the extent of asking India to withdraw its gifted Dhruv helicopters. It has given India till the end of the month to withdraw them. To insist on its decision, if had initially refused to extend the visas of the pilots who operate these helicopters which expired in end May. It was only post the direct intervention of the MEA that visas were till 30 June.
The latest row between the two countries stems from the Maldives’ refusal to grant work permits to about 30,000 Indians who work in different fields in the country. Clearly, India is being pushed away, while China is being drawn in. The continuous criticism of the country’s policies by India have ensured this.
In Sri Lanka, Hambantota port has already been handed over to China on a 99-year-lease. While the present government in Sri Lanka led by Maithripala Sirisena is pro-India, his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was pro-China and invited them in. How long would India’s hold remain in Sri Lanka is a question, as shifting alliances could soon bring Rajapaksa back into the driver’s seat. In Myanmar, China is to obtain a controlling stake in the strategic Kyauk Pyu port, which will impact Indian security concerns.
India is slowly losing the diplomatic battle for domination in nations in its near periphery. The loss is due to its strong stand against political wrongdoings as in the case of Maldives, lack of influence over multiple political parties as in Seychelles or a big brother approach as in the case of Sri Lanka. The fact is that Indian diplomacy is proving to be a failure in areas where it should matter most. Or is it because India took the support of these nations for granted or failed to read the writing on the wall?
In all these nations, security forces have remained the power behind the throne. Engaging them should have been the task of the concerned Indian military service which has had the maximum interaction with counterparts; after all they train in Indian military academies. Diplomatic and military diplomacy should have been moving hand in hand in these nations, where India traditionally had multiple military engagements including provision of equipment, training and joint operations. Ignoring military aspects of diplomacy has reduced the levels of influence of the MEA.
In either case, the fact remains that once we began losing in Maldives, we should have immediately changed tack, but we ignored it, expecting the nation to fall in line on its own. Chinese support ensured that it could ignore Indian influence and power. Chinese forays have now become so deep in the country that India will not be able to regain any foothold, even if an alternate dispensation comes to power. Chinese investments have eaten the Maldivian economy, which no government would be able to reverse. The same has been the case with Sri Lanka and would also be the case in Myanmar.
In Seychelles, India still has an opportunity to regain its hold. It cannot let this nation to slip into Chinese control. Though Indian linkages are deeper with Seychelles and it is not a member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but Chinese influence and pressures are on the rise. Hence this visit assumes importance. Every nation which pushes India away for China adds to own security concerns.
China establishing bases in these countries would in the long-term impact Indian security and add to costs of countering increasing threats. Possessing bases in Indian Ocean nations enhances our outreach and permits monitoring shipping in crucial areas.
India needs to move fast, possibly even climb down from its high pedestal and seek to rebuild relations with nations with whom they have gone awry at a fast pace. It must seek to engage with all sections of politicians and political parties and be the power these nations must look up to for assistance, rather than China. It cannot afford to let its own backyard be dominated by China. Close coordination between the service HQs and MEA would push forth a more successful foreign policy.
India may be adopting a ‘move East’ policy to challenge China, but ‘neighbours first’ is more important to enhance our security concerns.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.