Change in Leaderships in small South Asian Countries: Their Implications are understood with reference to India and China

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, 30 September 2018

The ripples of change in leadership have traversed from Nepal to Bhutan onto the Maldives. However, their implications have been understood primarily with reference to India and China given their size, economy and predominant roles they have been playing in these strategically vital countries. These countries are not only small in size and population, but they have also had continuously looked for capital, investment and a reliable security provider.  India and China have looked upon these states primarily from a strategic perspective given their prized strategic location in the Himalayas (where both shared land frontiers) or in the Indian Ocean (where sea-routes for trade pass through and naval strategies could be developed) and competed for influence through aid, investment and coercive measures as well.

Political developments in Nepal have been projected to be favoring China. India’s arm-twisting in the shape of the economic blockade as a pressure tactic to bring in political influence in Nepal and stem Kathmandu’s slide towards Beijing contributed to the souring of bilateral relations in 1989-90. Rather, the communist leadership in Kathmandu implicated and criticized New Delhi for its alleged unofficial role in forcing an economic blockade in favor of Madhesi population as a way to exert influence on the constitutional developments in Kathmandu. While K.P. Oli became Prime Minister of Nepal for the second time at the beginning of 2018, his leadership, however, did not take any steps that could stem Kathmandu’s drift towards Beijing rather his regime declined to participate in the New Delhi-proposed first-ever joint military exercise within the framework of BIMSTEC while at the same time, expressed its readiness to participate in a 12-day long joint military exercise with China termed as Sagarmatha Friendship-2. Further, Chinese and Nepalese officials finalized the protocol of Transit and Transport Agreement (TTA) which would allow Nepal access to four Chinese ports in Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang, and Zhanjiang including access to dry ports and roads facilities. These developments are projected carrying negative implications for India as it would go a long way in diminishing Kathmandu’s trade dependence on New Delhi.

In Bhutan, political developments remain uncertain. Since 2007, with the revision of 1949 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, Bhutan has not only diversified its diplomatic relations with many countries with the slackening of Indian control over its foreign policy, India guarded cautiously against any Bhutanese move to court China. Indian concerns as regards Chinese influence has prevented Bhutan from allowing a diplomatic presence to China. However, the earlier Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley’s suspicious move to court China and discuss with the Chinese counterpart on issues allegedly pertaining to formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal involving the strategically located areas in the tri-junction of India-Bhutan and China led India to withdraw subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas as a measure to pile up pressure on Bhutan to force it to change its stance which was subsequently withdrawn and the succeeding Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay maintained close relations with the Indian leadership by putting a pause on diplomatic overtures and made Bhutan the only country in South Asia apart from India who did not join Chinese-sponsored BRI. As Bhutan is switching over to fresh leadership, India would try to preserve its influence and prevent it from slipping towards China as Thinley did, on the other hand, China would try to swing the change in leadership away from India’s orbit.

In the Maldives, political developments are projected to be favoring India. The archipelago state’s opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih won the presidential election and defeated Abdulla Yameen. It is not the country’s slipping away from democracy when the ex-President Yameen declared Emergency in the country on February 5, 2018, that has strained its relations with India, the leader had courted huge investment from China since coming to power in 2013 and signaled his proclivity towards Beijing and sent across ripples of tensions in New Delhi. It is noteworthy that Yameen also signed a free trade agreement with Beijing towards the end of 2017 the Maldives’ imports from China have increased to 18% compared to India’s 11% from January to June 2018. In 1988, India had a successful military mission in the Maldives exemplifying a commendable effort by New Delhi in dislodging an authoritarian regime in the neighborhood which brewed a tide of rising expectations among the pro-democratic forces in the Maldives that India would replicate its previous role and oust the Yameen regime and release the democratic leaders from jail. However, India was cautious this time because it was not a case of the coup like the past instance and secondly, there was growing Chinese influence in favor of the current leadership.

This time around, while the change in leadership is projected to be unfavorable to China, there are wide-ranging speculations that it would not be easy to suspend or cancel the many of the Beijing-sponsored projects which range from infrastructure projects to upgrade and maintain economically important airports and ports, housing estate projects, and the lease of islands to Chinese companies for tourism development. The Maldives also owes around $2 billion in debt to China. While in the beginning of 2018, China and the Maldives announced plans to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo, there were speculations and Indian concerns that China would build a military port in the Maldives. The new leadership while most likely would find it difficult to roll back the Chinese projects; it may insist the activities being limited to commercial purposes alone and alleviate Indian concerns.

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