GP Insights # 69, 15 June 2019
The rhetoric behind Modi’s visit to the Maldives, Sri Lanka
After a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi reiterated the importance of India’s Neighbourhood First approach by completing his visit to two crucial Indian Ocean countries the Maldives and Sri Lanka on 8-9 June 2019. Continuing with India’s First Neighbourhood policy, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar simultaneously completed his visit to Bhutan.
During the visit to the Maldives, Modi addressed the Majlis (Maldivian Parliament) and became the second Indian Prime Minister to do so. Agreements reached during the summit are: first to assist the Maldives in its development, second MoUs were signed for projects like water supply and sewerage, high impact community development projects, customs and white shipping, third, to consolidate people-to-people relations through cricket diplomacy and last, to enhance connectivity India planned to start a ferry service from Kochi to the Maldives.
In his visit to Sri Lanka, Modi showed solidarity with Colombo on the recent attacks on Easter Sunday and held discussions with the Prime Minister, President, Leader of Opposition and the Tamil leaders.
What is the background?
Modi’s visit to the two island countries is a continuation of India’s neighbourhood policy. Ties with South Asian neighbours has always remained a priority for India with the earlier message being the invitation extended to all SAARC leaders to attend Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony in 2014. However, the selection of the Maldives and Sri Lanka over any other South Asian countries could be understood to indicate the transformation that India-Maldives and India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations have undergone in the five years.
Former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen pursued a rigorous pro-China stance in his foreign policy, and the result has been for Modi to wait till the domestic politics took its course and with the election of President Ibrahim Solih, Modi could visit the Maldives again in November 2018 briefly. Even then, Solih has undertaken a policy to balance old friends and a new friend - to balance India and China. However, Maldives relation with China underwent a shift after the Maldivian Finance Ministry took count of the $935m direct loans owed to Beijing over the four-lane China-Maldives Friendship Bridge. Now, as Modi visited the Maldives, Male is more receptive of India. Similar has been the case with Sri Lanka. The debt-weary has led Colombo to sign a deal with India and Japan to now jointly build a deep-sea container terminal at the Colombo port after China took it on a 99-year lease.
What does it mean?
In this background, Modi’s visit is full of rhetoric from the past and messages to the future. The visit indicates the cementing of the south and eastward tilt that India’s First neighbourhood policy has taken. To start with, this year’s swearing-in saw the invitation extended to the BIMSTEC countries who are also members of the SAARC. This was in line with the deteriorating relationship with Pakistan after the Pulwama and Balakot incidents. As against this, India’s cooperation with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Myanmar has been relatively on track. As a result, consolidating relation with the BIMSTEC countries was not a surprise. This received its end with Modi’s visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka when Indian leadership indicated a second message directed to China. The visit to the two countries came amid the deep inroads made by China. With the second visit in hand being the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Bishkek, on the one hand, Jaishankar by visiting Bhutan took stock of the current thinking in Thimphu about Chinese overtures, Modi looked at the Indian Ocean neighbours.
The visit also demonstrated how India is now looking to invest more in short and impact-driven projects without hesitating to collaborate with other partners like Japan. This is in sharp contrast to China’s focus on infrastructure development and India extending ample financial assistance in the line of Credit basis and focus on people-centric welfare measures. Thus, when Modi said that India’s financial assistance to the nation would not push the future generations of Maldivians into ‘debilitating debt’, the veiled reference to China was evident.
The timing of visiting Sri Lanka was also prudent. The rhetoric of terrorism bore well with both the countries. Sri Lanka became the victim of serial bombing by National Thowheed Jama’ath on the Easter Sunday. Similarly, Maldives has faced the problem of radicalisation in youth.