New and emerging concerns in Indian Ocean neighbourhood

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WILPF An aerial port bow view of the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60)

N Sathiya Moorthy 25 March 2019 

In the midst of the post-Pulwama air-strikes and bilateral tensions involving Pakistan, most of India missed out another critical news item. In an ‘advisory opinion’ as different from a verdict, The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) said the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean belonged to Mauritius, and not to the UK. Looked closely over the medium and long-term future, it may have implications for the prevailing/perceived ‘rules-based’ system prevalent in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, where nations like Sri Lanka, Maldives and India are the other shared stake-holders.

Mauritius is not known to have taken the next logical step towards pressing the ICJ’s legal opinion in other fora, including the UN.

The UK is too busy with ‘Brexit problems’ that it may take some time before the nation takes a closer look at the ICJ’s observations, which are anyway only in the form of a non-binding ‘opinion’. Long ago, India backed Mauritius on the issue. In the current context, the Indian need may be even more, what with ‘China in the IOR’ and the ‘String of Pearls’ becoming New Delhi’s strategic pre-occupation – and for the right reasons.

For its part, Mauritius has long since declared that it would sign a separate treaty with the US on continuing the American military base in Diego Garcia, in the place of the 50-year Washington-London Accord, which lapsed anyway in 2016. Granting that the UK honours the ICJ ‘opinion’ one way or the other and granting that Mauritius too honours its declaration to let the US base to continue in Diego Garcia, there is still no knowing how Port Louis may act/react in the decades to come. A lot may depend on the relative political and economic muscle of the US, China and India, at any given point, in the medium to long term.

The question remains how the ‘Chagos issue’ could play out for India and its Indian Ocean neighbours, especially Mauritius and Sri Lanka, in the decades to come.

If nothing else, the next time Sri Lankan fishers are ‘arrested’ in BIOT waters (or, of British Indian Ocean Territory) abutting Mauritius, Colombo may want to talk to Port Louis, and not London and Whitehall. Even without it, after Brexit, it remains to be seen if EU norms on fishing and poaching would apply to Sri Lankan fishers arrested in BIOT, off Mauritius and Chagos Islands.

On a more serious note, sitting across Diego Garcia off Indian Ocean is Hambantota, where China is in possession of Sri Lankan real estate, for developing a port and SEZ. Maldives is caught somewhere in between, literally for now — and much more, possibly later on. All of it can cause a paradigm-shift in global understanding and acceptance of emerging heat -– not warmth — in the Indian Ocean waters, not far away from the Indian shores.

What if a future government in Mauritius grew closer to China, even if for purely economic reasons, at the cost of promised US relations viz Diego Garcia, especially if Washington were to become economically stressed, as apprehended and became stingy over foreign aid than already? Already, India has been having problems establishing maritime/naval presence in Mauritius and also Seychelles, where the Governments keep changing, and also keep changing their positions and commitments.

No such reversal seems to be happening to China in these two nations, or even in Sri Lanka – if not in Maldives.

It needs to be noted that in the South China Sea issue, the world, especially the US and to a lesser extent, India and Japan, are upset and anguished, but the so-called affected nations in South-East Asia seem to have re-adjusted themselves to a ‘new normal’, without acknowledging it.

Almost since the end of the Cold War and the realisation about the emergence of China as more than a regional power, if not outright global super-power, South East Asian nations have been acting smartly and in self-interest, if only to continue keeping the temperatures in the neighbourhood seas low. The Philippines, which was at the centre of the ICJ case on the artificial Chinese island in the neighbourhood, has since been more antagonistic towards the US, and closer to China, in turn.

Revisiting Hambantota

Past/recent global and Indian discourse on China’s near-permanent presence in Hambantota have centred near-exclusively on strategic and security issues, and nothing else or more. The more recent perception is that in financial and economic terms, Sri Lanka has already lost, owing to a proclaimed ‘debt-trap’ that incumbent elected rulers have laid at the doors of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Related unilateral assessments also claim that China too would lose sooner than later.

Similar is the case with China’s deals and dealings with jailed former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen. In this case, the replacement government of rival MDP President Ibrahim Solih has been in office only for five months, and is faced with domestic re-organisation and the upcoming parliamentary polls, slated for 6 April. While India has committed a $ 1.4-b aid to Maldives, none of it, or foreign aid from other sources would possibly go to repay the ‘China debt’ incurred by the Yameen dispensation.

Until otherwise happens, there is nothing to suggest that the Solih dispensation would go the Sri Lankan neighbour’s way and would incur fresh Chinese debt as the incumbent government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has done.

After shouting from roof-tops that the Rajapaksa regime had pushed Sri Lanka into a ‘debt-trap’ vizChina as justification for the ‘debt-equity swap’ on Hambantota, the Wickremesinghe Government has continued to borrow big from China, for developing other infrastructure projects like highways and poor-housing, the latter in the social sector. The world has also not looked at claims that Chinese credit amounted to only 14-percent of Sri Lanka’s total debt, and possibly before the Hambantota swap-deal.

Though the Wickremesinghes and the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka have been blaming each other on the China front, in terms of ‘debt-trap’ and ‘equity-swap’, respectively, there seems to be an urgent and real-time acceptance by all stake-holders in Sri Lanka on the need to pump in large amounts of foreign funds for ‘development projects’. They do not seem to be worried too much about the end-benefits to their own populations from such projects, which is what a ‘foreign investor’ like India seems tied down to. In the case of Maldives, Yameen as President was more forthright while in power that for the nation to shed its ‘political dependence on one nation’ (read: India), it had to become economically prosperous and independent.

The question is if India and the international community should be tied down to the perception that China was investing in India’s IOR neighbours only with a strategic perception for the future.

They may be wholly or partially wrong, if China has had other plans and programmes, centred on shared economic prosperity, which could also make small island-nations in India’s neighbourhood ‘politically independent’, too. In the recent past, China has invested heavily in African nations, for their agricultural produce and exploratory minerals. It is not unlikely, thus, China may have invested in India’s IOR neighbourhood to exploit their marine wealth, comprising both fish and more so, exploratory minerals underneath.

With global negotiations still on an expanded EEZ for individual sea-abutting nations, India has settled future disputes only with one neighbour, namely, Bangladesh. Indian and Sri Lankan EEZs may overlap under the proposed scheme, and New Delhi should take a faster and closer look at impending issues, to be able to arrive at an earlier solution before it became a political talking-point, especially in Sri Lanka. It may be so, with Maldives, too, but with China already on the Indian Ocean’s mouth at Hambantota, and Diego Garcia’s distant future possibly becoming tentative, there may be more on India’s hands in the future on the water-front than on the land-front just now.
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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University