The decision by the Sri Lankan government to sell the deep sea port in Hambantota to a Chinese state-owned company should not have come as surprise to India. Since April at least, the topic was under discussion as a measure to reduce the country’s debt burden.
Yet, the surprise lies in India’s failure to forestall the deal. Some fundamental questions arise regarding the regional policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
A full-fledged, permanent Chinese “presence” in Hambantota cannot but affect the geopolitics of Indian Ocean region.
At its most obvious level, Hambantota becomes a hub of China’s proposed Maritime Silk Road in Indian Ocean. By the way, Colombo also proposes to hand over 6100 hecatres of land near Hambantota Port on long lease to a Chinese company as an exclusive “investment zone.”
Hambantota is located only 10 knots away from the Europe-Far East Line, one of the busiest international sea lanes.
Only 1300 kilometers separate Hambantota from each of India’s two strategic naval bases in the Bay of Bengal – Visakhapatanam and Andaman & Nicobar Islands – from where Indian Navy sets out occasionally to make its presence felt in the South China Sea.
Also, Hambantota is just 500 kms to the south of Sriharikota, India’s super-sensitive spaceport from where it launches military satellites and conducts missile tests.
In a nutshell, Chinese presence in Hambantota will end the “privacy” that India enjoyed in the Bay of Bengal as strategic backyard.
Indian diplomacy has suffered a massive setback. Coming on top of cascading tensions with Pakistan and downhill slide in relations with China, India’s security environment gets very cloudy.
The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS), which mentors Modi government, has choreographed India’s policies toward Sri Lanka and owes an explanation.
The RSS estimated that Sri Lanka could be sucked into the Indian orbit by putting rings of engagement around its elites.
RSS prompted Modi government to abandon the traditional leverage of Sri Lankan Tamil problem to exert influence on Colombo and instead deploy “soft power,” overlooking that the Sinhala narrative pits Hindu nationalism as existential threat.
Indeed, Delhi was in triumphalist mood when the “regime change” was accomplished in Colombo in January 2015. Delhi elites celebrated that the new “pro-Indian” government in Colombo would exorcise Chinese influence.
However, twenty months down the lane, the opposite happened. The RSS’s blind faith in Sri Lankan elites to act as India’s proxies proved to be naive and delusional. This tragic miscalculation – not Pakistan, not Kashmir, not Taliban – turns out to be Modi’s most disastrous foreign-policy legacy.
Yet, Colombo cannot be faulted. Sri Lanka stares at a debt trap. The debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 75% and over 95 percent of government revenue goes toward debt repayment.
On the other hand, Chinese diplomacy has outclassed India’s. China has the financial muscle to back up a robust diplomacy, whereas, India punched above its weight.
As rising global power, China will not be deterred by India’s archaic thesis of Indian Ocean being its “sphere of influence”.
China’s stated preference so far has been to work with India in the larger interests of regional stability – be it in Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. China invited India invest in its flagship project known as Colombo Port City.
India could have taken up the intellectual challenge in a spirit of pragmatism with long-term objectives in mind. But given their zero sum mindset, Hindu nationalists insist that India cannot cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China probably expected Modi to see the light of reason at some point. At any rate, it so far chose to sidestep Modi government’s patently uncooperative approach.
In Nepal in July, Beijing didn’t resist the overthrow of “China-friendly” prime minister K. P. Oli, just as in January last year in Sri Lanka, it didn’t get agitated when US-Indian moves drove “pro-China” Sri president Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power.
Why is Indian diplomacy looking so disoriented in its natural habitat? Primarily, India never before descended into such an abyss of intellectual bankruptcy. The contrast with China couldn’t be sharper.
Whereas RSS and Modi count on the sayings of India’s ancient Machiavelli, Chanakya ( 4th century BC), to co-relate the country with the twenty-first century world order, China resorts to the intellectual tools of dialectical materialism.
Fundamentally, the Modi government lacks a sense of proportion. When Modi visited Ulaanbaatar in May last year, with an eye on China, he made a stunning announcement of $1 billion as low-interest credit to Mongolia.
Yet, in a bizarre, ironic turn, US$1 billion is roughly the amount China’s Red Chip company, China Merchants Port Holding Limited, will be spending to buy up strategic assets in Hambantota.
Again, only two weeks ago, India organized a BIMSTEC ‘outreach’ at Goa during the BRICS summit in an act of one-upmanship against Pakistan and China. BIMSTEC is touted as a “sub-regional grouping” bringing together Sri Lanka, Bangaldesh and Myanmar under Indian tutelage.
Now, hardly a fortnight later, Colombo bolts away, selling a vast swathe of land to Chinese companies.
Nonetheless, despite the latest setback, the RSS will not be shaken out of the belief that India is strongly placed to tap into the Sino-American rivalry and make a good living out of it. The RSS strategists believe that this was what China did in the Cold war era, too.
They overlook that if China could exploit the American market, it was largely because it was also willing to reform and globalize its own economy.
Equally, China could take advantage of its vast reserves of human resources, thanks to the social formation created through decades of communist rule. India is a far cry from where China stood in the eighties.
A defining moment is approaching in India-China ties. Beijing warned last week that the move by Delhi to invite the Dalai Lama to visit the disputed region of Arunachal Pradesh – hot on the heels of the US ambassador to India – “will only damage peace and stability of the border areas and bilateral relations.” Beijing “demanded” that Delhi should “adhere to its political commitments on Tibet-related issues.”
Indeed, India’s relations with China and Pakistan have lately become intertwined, bringing into the matrix, inevitably, the whole question of China’s presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Therefore, the thing to be watched closely is how China proposes to utilize the strategic assets in Hambantota.
India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Colombo last week within a couple of days of the visit by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Maithripala Sirisena to Goa for the BIMSTEC outreach where he had met Modi.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera is due now to arrive in Delhi in the weekend on an unscheduled visit.
To be sure, alarm bells are ringing in Delhi. India’s hush-hush assets, which it had safely hidden away in its strategic backyard of Bay of Bengal, face the startling prospect of privacy invasion.