In Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government was replaced by that of Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential election held in January this year. On coming to power, Sirisena decided to strike a balance in his country’s foreign policy by giving up the pronouncedly pro-China and anti-India stance. He has ordered a ‘review’ of the $5 billion investments offered by the Chinese, including the Colombo port city project. His newly appointed Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, announced in February in no uncertain terms – to India’s intense relief – that Chinese submarines would no longer be allowed to dock in Sri Lankan ports. Obviously, whether the ‘review’ would lead to the cancellation of the projects, would depend on India’s willingness to fill the gap.

In Afghanistan, however, the reverse happened. In the presidential election held in September last year, Ashraf Ghani replaced Hamid Karzai. He also introduced a change in his country’s foreign policy: from being overtly pro-US and pro-India, he began to give emphasis on coming closer to Pakistan and China. In fact the US now finds that it is getting marginalized in Afghan affairs.

Nothing highlights this better than the fact that on assuming power, Ghani made a marked departure from the normal practice of every new president – to visit Washington first. He visited Beijing instead. There he declared that China is Afghanistan’s strategic partner “in the short, medium, long and very long term.” His sentiments were warmly reciprocated by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. Not only that. Ghani sought the good offices of Beijing to facilitate peace talks with the Taliban. In the past few months, a Taliban delegation visited Beijing twice.

Meanwhile, Beijing has offered $327 million in economic aid to Afghanistan. It may be mentioned that eight years ago, during the Karzai regime, the consortium formed by the Metallurgical Corporation of China and the Jianxi Copper Corporation, won a $4.4 billion contract for mining copper at Aynak near Kabul. Four years later, China National Petroleum Corporation, set up a joint venture with the Afghan Watan Oil and Gas and won the contract for developing three oil blocks in north-western Afghanistan with an investment of $400 million. So, Afghanistan’s economic cooperation with China began during the previous regime. Under Ghani, it is likely to get a fillip.

At the same time, Ghani has ‘suspended’ Karzai’s request to India for supplying heavy weaponry, including heavy artillery. What does it signify? Does not Afghanistan need to strengthen its armed forces? A member of the staff of Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, made a cryptic comment: “If the President has rejected this (the request earlier made to India), there is the possibility that he has thought of another place to get these arms from.” As Ghani is also trying to mend his country’s relations with Pakistan, speculation is rife whether the official hinted at Pakistan or China by ‘another place’.

Sino-Indian rivalry is also centring on Maldives, an archipelago comprising 1190 islands of which only 198 are permanently inhabited. The strategic importance of this small country of about four lakh people lies in its close proximity to the major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Both China and India are interested in setting up a naval base here.

The internal politics of the country has undergone a change in recent years with the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The young people who go to attend madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, come back thoroughly indoctrinated by radical Islam. Article 142 of the Constitution says that on matters where there is no codified law, the Shari’ah will decide.

Lately, the country has departed from the policy of friendship with India followed by the ousting of president Mohammed Nishad who has since been charged with terrorism. If convicted, he may be sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment. Nishad’s arrest and prosecution was a travesty of justice. When New Delhi expressed its ‘concern’ the reaction of Abdulla Yameen’s Government was: “We will not take instructions from a foreign government.” India responded by freezing all aid promised to Maldives.

In 2012, Maldives summarily cancelled a $511 million contract (the country’s biggest foreign investment project) awarded to an Indian company for building an international airport at Male and the company was served with a peremptory order to get out of Maldives in seven days. The company said the decision was ‘unilateral and completely irrational.’

Indian High Commissioners in Maldives have been targeted time and again. In 2012, an official spokesman of the Maldivian Government made an unprovoked verbal attack on the then incumbent D. N. Mulay, following which New Delhi withdrew him. Later, Malldives tendered an official apology. A year later, in 2013, his successor, Rajeeve Sahare’s car was damaged by a stone-pelting mob..

By contrast, Li Changchun, a politburo member of the CPC, visited Maldives and assured the country that China would continue to help promote Maldives’ social and economic growth in every way possible. In September last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Maldives and held parleys with its president Abdulla Yameen.

India will have to tread carefully in Maldives. A show of pique will be counter-productive and against India’s larger and long-term strategic interests. (IPA Service)