US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and India's Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrive to address a joint press briefing in the lawns of Hyderabad House in New Delhi on October 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Money Sharma

Third-country cooperation is a highly complex, unpredictable phenomenon. Not even the closest allies can pull it off easily.

Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, denied that oil interests influenced policy in Iraq, but archives show that the British government rushed troops to Mosul in 1918 to gain control of the northern oilfields in a sharp course reversal to recoup what had already been given away to France under the secret Sykes-Picot Accord of early 1916. 

Even before World War II had ended, Washington began wondering about how an exhausted Britain would adjust to a world where it had less power and influence vis-a-vis the US.

The US secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, wrote to President Franklin D Roosevelt: “Never underestimate the difficulty an Englishman faces in adjusting to a secondary role.” 

Matters came to a head with the Suez Crisis of 1956 when Britain and France sent troops to seize the Suez Canal and the US was not informed of the operation. President Dwight Eisenhower hit back, showing how power had shifted in the post-war world.

He blocked the International Monetary Fund from granting Britain emergency loans unless it called off the invasion. Britain, militarily, never acted again against the explicit wishes of Washington. 

Such lessons of history should not be forgotten as India becomes an ally of the US. The nascent signs of India’s “bloc mentality” first appeared within months of Narendra Modi’s government assuming power in May 2014 when it began discussing with Washington the ouster of Sri Lanka’s incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa by January 2015.

Rajapaksa later recounted with great bitterness that a high level of US-Indian political, diplomatic and intelligence coordination in that project had done him in. 

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and newly sworn-in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa meet Buddhist monks to receive blessings at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya in Colombo on August 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto

The intricate plot apparently involved splitting the Sri Lankan ruling party by cultivating pockets of influence in the Sinhala Buddhist establishment to weaken Rajapaksa’s political base. Rajapaksa, a tough politician himself, was completely outwitted. 

The regime change in Sri Lanka was the first of its kind in South Asia and bore a striking resemblance to the US’ playbook in Latin America to undermine legitimate governments by using comprador elements and put in power “our son of a bitch” – as FDR once derisively called Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.  

A great animus against China must have been incubating for long in the minds of India’s ruling elite, much before they came to power in May 2014. 

Indeed, it was a radical departure in India’s foreign policy to have dragged a small neighbor into becoming a platform for its “Indo-Pacific” strategy with the US – a daring move, too, given Sri Lanka’s robust record of non-alignment. 

The present ruling elite in Colombo will remain extremely wary of the US and India. The happenings in the next-door Maldives must have rung alarm bells already that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Plainly put, any form of entanglement with India or the US on the strategic plane will be anathema. 

This is the stark message coming out of the visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Colombo last Wednesday. Pompeo’s counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena said at a joint press meet: “As a sovereign, free, independent nation, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will remain neutral. Non-aligned and friendly.” 

Gunawardena was responding to Pompeo’s overtures. Importantly, the readout of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s meeting with Pompeo says: “Elaborating on the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, the president said it is based on neutrality. Relations between Sri Lanka and other nations are determined by several conditions. Historical and cultural relations, development cooperation are some of the priorities.” 

“[The] president stressed that he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be. Noting that China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war, the president reiterated that Sri Lanka is not caught in a debt trap as a result.” 

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before their meeting in Colombo on October 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Eranga Jayawardena

Simply put, the nadir has been reached for the “Indo-Pacific” strategy in the Pearl of the Orient. Without doubt, this constitutes a humiliating rebuff to the US-Indian fantasy that Sri Lanka could be frog-marched into the so-called Second Island Chain strategy in the Indian Ocean, alongside the Maldives, which signed for a few pieces of silver in September a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Pentagon to build US military bases there. 

In 2013, India resented the US efforts to sign a SOFA with Maldives, but in September when the American efforts fructified, New Delhi became ecstatic. This must be the first instance in diplomatic history when a regional power congratulated its tiny neighbor for granting military bases to a superpower from the other side of the planet 16,000 kilometers away. 

The obsession with collaring Maldives clouds New Delhi’s judgment. The ruling elite blithely assumes that having American military bases scattered over those 1,190 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, spread over roughly 90,000 square kilometers, serves India’s long-term interests. 

They suffer from dementia. They have forgotten the tragic story of Diego Garcia, which used to be part of Mauritius until 1965 and was rechristened British Indian Ocean Territory by London, only to be leased out to the US in 1967 to develop American bases. 

There was strong opposition from littoral states of the Indian Ocean area – including India – that wished to preserve a non-militarized status in the region. However, the US simply rounded up the indigenous inhabitants, put them in overcrowded boats and dumped them on the beaches of Mauritius and Seychelles. 

The United Nations overwhelmingly pleaded with the US to return Diego Garcia to its rightful owners but Washington, which swears by a “rules-based international order,” simply thumbed its nose at it. 

Tourists enjoying their stay in the Maldives, which is soon to host US military bases. Photo: AFP/Natalia Seliverstova/Sputnik

Do not rule out a similar fate awaiting the half-million Maldivians at some point. The great game in the Indian Ocean is only beginning. 

This geographical base is estimated to contain 62% of the world’s oil reserves, 35% of its gas, 40% of its gold reserves, more than 60% of its uranium and 80% of its diamond reserves. Any doubt who will want to monopolize this fabulous wealth? 

At best, the Americans might send a bagful of stones to Surat, a city in Gujarat state known for its diamond industry, for polishing before selling them in Midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District. 

Make no mistake, the military bases in Maldives will be a great asset for the Americans to keep India under check. They must have anticipated already that some day an authentic nationalist ruling elite might appear in the corridors of power in New Delhi elbowing out the pretenders and revert India to independent foreign policies. 

The mystique of geopolitics is such that you never know what lies in the womb of time. Just return for a moment to the closing moments of the Cold War. 

Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand were so deeply skeptical about the wisdom of Mikhail Gorbachev’s plan to disband the Warsaw Pact that they descended on Moscow to prevail upon the Soviet leader to go slow on the unification of Germany, while Washington on the other hand was lustily encouraging him to press ahead. 

Yet only 30 years ago, Lord Ismay, the first secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, thought the alliance was formed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” Already by the 1980s, the calculus had phenomenally changed. 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.