by Indrani Bagchi, Times of India, January 21, 2022
China will never “bully” its neighbours in the South China Sea, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi promised the Philippines this week. Instead, he preached: “Stressing only one side’s claims and imposing one’s own will on the other is not a proper way for neighbours to treat each other and it goes against the oriental philosophy of how people should get along with each other.” Why doesn’t Philippines believe China so much anymore?
Wang’s homily came weeks after China blocked Philippines’ resupply ships in the South China Sea, prompting the US to threaten to invoke the US-Philippines security treaty if China interfered again. Much more interesting, even as Wang Yi was preaching good behaviour, Manila awarded a $374-million contract to India to buy what is known as the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile, Brahmos, to equip the Philippines navy against Chinese incursions into its territorial waters.
The Philippines is the first export destination for the Brahmos missile, which in the past has been deployed against the Chinese in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, particularly in the wake of China’s incursions and land grab in eastern Ladakh. It’s also the first step towards attempting to correct a huge imbalance in the South China Sea, where China uses its navy, coast guard and even its armed fishing militia to conduct “swarming” expeditions to intimidate its neighbours. The Brahmos may not be enough, but it’s a start. Its also shows countries in the region can explore non-China, Non-US options for the very few defense items that India can make. Unspoken is the fact that a Brahmos sale would not have been possible if both India AND Russia were not on the same page.
Other countries in the region are watching. Indonesia, for instance, uses the Russian Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, but could be a potential Brahmos buyer. Thailand is also said to have expressed interest in them. To the West, the UAE is a prospective Brahmos buyer as well. Contrary to popular belief, Vietnam, which uses Russia’s Bastion-P systems, is not an interested country at present, and a previous attempt by India to sell them the Akash missiles went nowhere. But Vietnam is a close strategic partner for India in that region.
The Brahmos export should not be burdened with too many strategic expectations, but the fact is, it has opened a doorway for India to put its foot through in the contested South China Sea. That carries its own implications for the future.
In the Indian Ocean region, China has resumed its big diplomatic outreach enterprise in India’s neighbourhood, after almost two years of being isolated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. China brings the same force, the same overwhelming largesse (albeit followed by debt), and the same promise of diplomatic manoeuvring space to large and small countries in the region, particularly in India’s neighbourhood.
But China hasn’t had it all her way in recent times.
Last week, Wang Yi was in Colombo trying to paper over recent problems with Sri Lanka after contaminated fertilisers from China created a furore in the small island nation.
But a bigger threat looms over Sri Lanka, of economic insolvency. Sri Lanka is deep in the suds, largely due to a tragic combination of poor policies and economic mismanagement and huge external debt mainly to China, racked up recklessly over the years. China owns almost $3.5 billion of Sri Lanka’s $35-billion of external debt. That’s huge. As one official explained, it’s not the quantum of the debt, but the servicing conditions that are onerous. It wasn’t long ago that Sri Lanka had to give an equity stake to China in Hambantota Port after they failed to repay debt.
Sri Lanka has to make $6.9 billion in debt repayment this year and no white knight is in sight. In a sign that China continues to be an economic marauder — Wang Yi was silent when his Lankan hosts asked Beijing to restructure their debt. But the Chinese foreign minister used his visit to Colombo to push them to sign an FTA with China, which is impossible for Sri Lanka to accept.
In a sign that the normally pliable Rajapaksa government was still miffed, the Lankan transport minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi chose the day of the Yi’s visit to inaugurate a luxury train service between Colombo and Jaffna, built with Indian assistance.
India came in with a last-minute rescue package to help Sri Lanka tide over the next few months. India offered to defer a $500 million Asian Clearing Union (ACU) payment by three months (it was due in the first week of January), as India did in 2019. India also allowed Sri Lanka to avail $400 million in a currency swap under the SAARC facility, which it had done earlier in 2020. In the coming months, India will extend a $1 billion credit facility for food, medicines and essential supplies as well as a letter of credit of $500 million for fuel.
For the first time, India got something in return from Sri Lanka. In December, India got Sri Lanka to prevent the Chinese from building power projects in three islands off Jaffna, creating a security problem for India. India will now build those energy projects.
But more importantly, the new year kicked off with Sri Lanka finally completing the Trincomalee oil tank farms agreement with India, hanging fire for decades, that gives India control over 14 of the oil tanks and create a strategic storage facility. https://twitter.com/IndiainSL/status/1479119115566530561?s=20
India cannot match the deep Chinese pockets or the low-cost infrastructure offerings, but it has other tools to further its own outreach to the Indian Ocean region. It may have been coincidental, or not — but Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to Comoros islands at the mouth of the strategically positioned Mozambique Channel coincided with the visit of INS Kesari at the port of Moroni, Comoros, to undertake some repairs and technical assistance that the Comorian Coast Guard needed for their ships. Wang Yi blitzed through the Indian Ocean-island countries with a promise of a new China-Indian Ocean development forum bringing all of them under one platform. The model is the same — cash for infrastructure projects under the BRI.
The same INS Kesari had supplied medicines and protective kits to Comoros in June 2020 as the pandemic broke out, including a 14-member Indian Medical team to help the tiny island address a dual emergency of Covid and dengue.
In the Maldives, where China lost her staunch ally Abdulla Yameen when he lost the election to Ibu Solih, Beijing has been trying to claw back. They have recently been accused of covertly funding an “India out” campaign by Yameen himself. India has been hard at work in the Maldives, particularly during the pandemic. India agreed to “develop, support and maintain” a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island nation, ostensibly for use of the Maldivian defence forces.
The Indian Ocean and western Pacific are becoming keenly contested spheres for strategic influence. In the coming years, India will win some, lose some. The key is to stay in the game and use opportunities as they appear. Diplomacy and geopolitics in this region have never been more exciting.