China wants Modi at BRICS summit. Jaishankar’s South Asia tour shows India won’t back down

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VSChinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had just left Delhi for Kathmandu, en route to Beijing on March 26, when Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar ditched his stuffy suit for blue ikat Fabindia cotton sleeveless jacket and flew to the Maldives for his own encounters with President Ibou Solih and Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid.

Jaishankar’s foray into the Maldives and Sri Lanka in recent days has been noted as much for its sartorial elegance as to India’s swift return to this part of the Indian Ocean.

From Malé, Jaishankar traveled to Colombo, where he meets Sri Lankan leaders – he puts on a canary yellow vest for his first meeting with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa – and attending a virtual meeting of nations around the Bay of Bengal.

For deaf Chinese, who believe that India will be prepared to forgive and forget the fact that Chinese troops have sat on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh for the past two years, thus violating with all the peace and tranquility accorded in the book – as Mr Wang indicated during his visit to Delhi – Jaishankar’s travels in the Indian Ocean may have come as a surprise.

Recall that in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, the Chinese have significantly expanded their footprint in recent years. Maldivian opposition leader Abdulla Yameen has orchestrated an “India Out” campaign in recent months and had courted the Chinese heavily when he was in power until 2018.

Certainly, in the meantime, India has not cooled its heels. Jaishankar’s confidence in asserting India’s paramount place in the Maldives and Sri Lanka was echoed not only by the various bruises cotton jackets he sported at various venues in Addu City and Gan (where he paid tribute to 72 Indian soldiers killed in World War II), but also matched his parasols reflecting the bright sun in these equatorial regions.

So even as Wang Yi renewed his credentials with Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in Kathmandu – urging him to keep the promise to reinvigorate China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) made by his predecessor KP Oli – Jaishankar in the Maldives inaugurated the Police academy built in India and miscellaneous other projects with Solih and Shahid.


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A return to South Asia

Jaishankar has carefully chosen his stopover in the Maldives, outside the capital Malé, in the atoll of Addu. The southernmost atoll of the Maldivian archipelago, Addu, along with Fuvamulah, lies south of the equator – it has both Buddhist ruins and whale sharks for easy company. But Addu is also within a whispering distance of the One and a Half Degree Channel, a major sea passage in the Indian Ocean.

It is significant that the Minister of Foreign Affairs handed over the Extended coastal radar system built in India to the Maldivian Defense Force chief during his visit, which essentially means that India will now keep a close and constant eye on the Maldives.

For those watching South Asia closely, the past week has seen a fascinating reversal of several recent Indian foreign policy debacles in its neighborhood. It is important to take a moment to understand what is going on, to clearly see how India has returned to the region, where not so long ago the ground was under its feet by much wealthier Chinese and stronger.

A classic example is Nepal. It was not until 2020 that Oli’s government raged against India over sovereignty issues, seeking to incorporate the Indian territories of Kalapani, Limpiadhura and Lipulekh. But Oli’s leftist government has since lost power to Nepal’s Deuba Congress and the mood has changed dramatically in Kathmandu, even if sovereignty issues have not been ironed out. Deuba is now coming to Delhi on April 1 for a three-day visit, days after Wang Yi left Nepal.

From the Maldives to Nepal, from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, India seems determined to regain its former leading position in South Asia. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is lost to the Taliban, who refuse to allow girls into school, Pakistan undergoes another attempt at political transformation, while Bhutan is still largely in quarantine.


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Gains ahead of the BRICS

Jaishankar’s visit to Sri Lanka, also to participate in the BIMSTEC meeting – which is attended by the generals of Myanmar, having ousted Aung San Suu Kyi – is a fascinating case study. As Sri Lanka’s external debt skyrocketed and foreign exchange reserves plummeted for a variety of reasons over the past decade – including an overnight switch to organic farming, the repayment of huge Chinese loans and the focus on the domestic economy rather than an export-oriented economy – India stepped in to save Sri Lanka by extending $1.4 billion in trade credit.

This includes a $400 million RBI currency swap, a $500 million loan deferral, and a $500 million credit for fuel imports.

Earlier in March, Basil Rajapaksa flew to Delhi again – his second visit in four months. In meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India released another $1 billion in emergency financial aid. A “four-pronged approach” to dealing with Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has since been put in place – lines of credit from India to import food, medicine and fuel, a currency exchange to help raise Colombo’s foreign exchange reserves, the early modernization of the Trincomalee oil farm and a reiteration of Colombo’s commitment to facilitating Indian investment, reported The Hindu.

Monday, Jaishankar walked around downtown Colombovisiting an outlet of Lanka IOC, a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation, with its Managing Director Manoj Gupta briefing him on the fuel supply situation.

Less than four months ago, on January 6, Lanka IOC, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Sri Lankan government had signed three agreements to jointly develop the Trincomalee oil park in the east of the country, while NTPC agreed to put set up a solar power plant, also in Trincomalee. The Adani Group has also signed an agreement to set up two renewable energy projects in northern Sri Lanka.

What had been unresolved for 30 years, when Jaishankar was first in Colombo during the final days of the war between Indian peacekeepers and the LTTE, as a young diplomat at the Indian High Commission, has gone through the twists and turns of history, finally come to fruition.

Jaishankar will take part in a BIMSTEC meeting in Colombo before returning home later this week, while Wang Yi will likely discuss his time in South Asia – through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nepal – back in Beijing.

Obviously, the Chinese want Modi to come to the BRICS summit later this year in China, which is why Wang Yi invited himself to Delhi. According to world times“China and India should not let the border issue define or affect the overall development of the bilateral relationship”, which basically means that India should learn to live with Chinese troops in their forward positions along the LAC in Ladakh.

Certainly, this is not acceptable for Delhi. But as border disengagement negotiations continue in the coming months, leading up to the BRICS summit, India holds an ace in its hands, which is Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at the BRICS summit.

Should the Prime Minister visit China or not if Chinese soldiers remain threatening on the LAC in Ladakh? Can Modi, buoyed by South Asia’s bolstered support for India, play for higher stakes with Beijing?

Jyoti Malhotra is a consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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