Maldives elections and China-India ties

Maldives elections and China-India ties

Afsan Chowdhury,

afsan Neither China nor India are in any ideological conflict over any issues. Both are dedicated trading nations, and both have gained from globalisation. China has done better with its infrastructure, skilled labour and management. It’s a one-party state with no political problems on its hands. India has many legacy problems, including an incompetent bureaucracy, but also has to deal with several states and a multiparty political system. However, India is beginning to wake up too and is achieving high growth.

India had always aligned itself according to her economic and strategic needs vis-a vis Pakistan, its main enemy on the border. Each knows that the other can’t be conquered but the fight is beneficial internally for several reasons. For India, hatred for an enemy that stretches back to 1947 when it became a state is politically useful. It acts as a mobilising force within. For Pakistan, it’s more complex as the army’s dominance rests almost entirely on the Kashmir conflict as it claims to be the guarantor of the state. So, for slightly different reasons, both need Kashmir.

This has played a role in how the two countries have chosen their respective allies, with India pitching for Russia and Pakistan favouring the US. At some point in history, the US turned closer to Pakistan as India went “socialist” a la Nehru style, making the tilt relatively easy.

The best example of this are the 1971 alliances. India signed a treaty with Russia while Pakistan was supported by China and the US. However, since then much has changed and the US is now India’s great ally and not happy with Pakistan which is blamed for not being tough enough on the terrorists on its borders.

China, India and US pressure

Meanwhile, India has rapidly become a major economic player just as China has moved into the South Asian neighbourhood where both now face each other as rivals. China has been quite aggressive in this initiative. It has become a major stakeholder in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, with heavy presence in Maldives and a strategically economic foothold in Bangladesh as well. Bhutan, of course, is in a unique position being so close to Doklam where India-China face each other militarily.

But if conventional wisdom is to be accepted, the trouncing of the pro-China party in Maldives, where both New Delhi and Beijing had come to verbal blows, shouldn’t have occurred as it was already well within China’s sphere of influence. It’s speculated that China stepped back because it saw no advantage in pushing hard politically for what was not worth the trouble.

Both countries are, interestingly, facing pressure from the common source – America which has embarked on a strong anti-China and anti-Iran initiative. China is certainly managing well but it’s undeniable that it is under some pressure. Meanwhile, India also sees huge pressure building up on its oil deals with Iran, which the US disapproves.

The Indian daily, Business Standard, reports that the “oil ministry has asked refiners to prepare for a ‘drastic reduction or zero’ imports of Iranian oil from November, two industry sources said, the first sign that New Delhi is responding to a push by the United States to cut trade ties with Iran. India has said it does not recognize unilateral restrictions imposed by the US, and instead follows UN sanctions. But the industry sources said India, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil after China, will be forced to take action to protect its exposure to the US financial system.”

Thus, both India and China benefit from Iranian oil and yet both are hurting. It’s becoming difficult to remain practical when the US trade policy, including its tariff war with China, is packaged with ideological decorations.

Practical Sino-Indian relationship?

China has been less sensitive to the nuances of South Asia in its dealings. While this was best manifested in its backing of Myanmar against Bangladesh, such a move has hurt its image as a counter-balance to Indian influence in the region. Thus, both countries are being imaged as more selfish than they would like to admit.

However, China is also seeking to master regional politics and its retreat from political powerplay in Bangladesh and letting India have a free hand here does show some acceptance of “realpolitik”. Its backing down from total support to an unpopular government in the Maldives is another step, it seems.

China can afford to drop this stake as its relationship with Myanmar, including access to the sea, is firm. But given the international stigma Myanmar has earned, it will need some Chinese bulk to lean on, a situation that is of recent cooking. It’s not alarming for the major players in the region yet, though it is certainly not as comfortable as it was earlier.

The noise raised by the US as part of its foreign policy drill cannot be entire ignored as its economy remains strong and is indeed getting stronger. India was encouraged by the European powers to ignore US pressure on Iran, but New Delhi had to give in. China will certainly survive the tariff war, but prices will have to be paid and belts tightened.

In such a situation where both are facing US pressure, the chances of accommodating each other where the stakes are not high—Maldives and Bangladesh for India—seems in the realm of possibility.