Dragon Dance in India’s Ocean


By Neena Gopal

Barely six weeks after a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo port in mid-September this year, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is clearly cocking a snook at Delhi, in allowing a second Chinese submarine to dock in Sri Lankan waters this week.

It may not be a nuclear attack submarine, but it is part of the Chinese Navy’s growing fleet, many armed with long range missiles, one of which surfaced in these waters earlier this year while on its way to the Gulf.

CHINA_DEFENCEThe fact that it showed up at all, for the second time, when it could have stayed underwater, undetected for months to come, underlines China’s immediate intent to flag its displeasure with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and as part of its long-term strategy to undermine India in its own waters. In India’s Ocean.

Unlike the previous Manmohan Singh government, Mr Modi has swiftly conveyed his displeasure in the strongest terms to Colombo, where ties are already tested by a Sri Lankan court’s decision to award the death penalty to five fishermen from Tamil Nadu, charged with drug trafficking. The court ruling, only adding to the long list of irritants between the two countries, with India voting against Sri Lanka in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruling on human rights violations against the separatist Tamil Tigers in their death throes on the battlefield. It’s something, the Rajapaksa government has clearly not been able to get past.

The arrival of the Chin-ese sub, despite strong words to Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabhaya Raj-apaksa when the first sub docked on September 15, (even as Indian President Pranab Mukherjee was in Vietnam and Mr Modi had instructed troops to hold their ground when the Chinese destroyed Indian Army tents in Chumar) therefore, is indicative that the Chinese leadership may have found more than a willing partner in Colombo, to score points off its larger neighbour.

Beijing was furious with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung leaving our shores after an official visit, with the Indian made BrahMos anti-ship, supersonic cruise missile deal tucked, metaphorically, under his belt.

Given Hanoi’s propensity to give China a bloody nose in battles past, this is Mr Modi’s India, finally turning Hanoi into Delhi’s eastern vanguard, part of the grand plan to make the new leadership in Beijing, think twice before it barrels its way into the disputed South China Sea, appropriating any more islands than it already lays claims to.

The submarine is Beiji-ng’s activation of its cat’s paw in Mr Rajapaksa’s Colombo, a wake-up call that our new Prime Minister ignores at his peril.

The Indian leader’s priority therefore, as he heads for a landmark visit to Burma for an Asean meet on November 12-13, and then on to the G-20 in Australia the week after, and the Saarc summit in Kathmandu on November 22, must be to carve out his own “coalition of the willing” as a first step towards securing India’s maritime boundaries.

Mr Modi has the opportunity here to overturn the previous government’s pussy-footing on Beijing, and craft a new strategy to tackle the Chinese’s barely concealed hostility and belligerence couched in platitudes, that is part of the foreign policy matrix towards its key Asian rival. It is only Mr Modi who can snap the noose of pearls that China tightened around India’s neck as the Manmohan Singh government dozed.

The fall-out from Mr Modi’s newly muscular foreign policy with another Chinese patsy, Pakistan, where Indian soldiery have for weeks now met fire with fire over cross-border firings — hitherto not a part of India’s strategy to counter Pakistan — has, it must be said, had the unintended consequence of gravely weakening the standing of the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The Sharifs had predicated their “third coming” in the hope that trade with India, on the cusp of an economic boom, would strengthen their support base in a Pakistan, where the military had seemed to take a back seat.

However, faced with the prospect of reclaiming its clout in Afghanistan and where India has much goodwill — the Pakistan Army is done with sitting in the barracks.

As its covert support to its pawn, the Imran Khan-led Tehreek-i-Insaf demonstrates, and the multiple fronts it has opened up on its own territory against a home-grown Taliban, as well as Afghanistan, and now Iran, the “deep state” will do everything in its power to limit the rise of the Sharifs, on the back of a resurgent India.

In fact, if Sunday’s suicide bomber on the Wagah border had detonated himself on the Indian side as he had apparently planned, ties between India and the civilian government in Pakistan, would have been irreparably damaged. If, it isn’t already.

The suicide bombing, incidentally, coincided with the arrival of a new ISI chief at the helm, appointed with scant disregard to the India-leaning Prime Minister Sharif, who attempted to run with the Indian hare as well as the Chinese hound.

Most Sri Lanka hands believe, similarly, that the Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa’s playing ball with the Chinese has a great deal to do with India’s own feeble diplomacy, its unwillingness to turn a skewed trade imbalance in Colombo’s favour, pushing Colombo to reach out to the Chinese to revive their war-ravaged economy. The buzz is that President Rajapaksa also believes he can win re-election on an anti-India plank and could push for an early presidential poll this coming January.

Through 2005-2012, ever since Mr Rajapaksa was elected President, China, pumped in $4.7 billion into major infrastructure projects including building and operating the South Container Terminal at the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project.

Chinese funds into Sri Lanka for the last two years alone is set at $2.18 billion, with analysts saying that of the total assistance in 2005-2013, only two per cent is a grant. With the rest, a loan, Lankan Opposition leaders, including the powerful Buddhist clergy have already started a whisper campaign against the government on the dangers posed to the nation’s independence and sovereignty, if the government cannot service its debt.

While Sri Lanka says there is no Chinese military involvement on the island, India would do well to reach out to the Rajapaksas, particularly the powerful defence secretary, the President’s pointman on India, and make it clear that unlike the time when former Pre-sident reportedly allowed the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Pakistan Navy free transit to Dhaka, at the height of the 1971 Bangladesh war, India under Mr Modi, no longer an absentee power, will not countenance an enemy in its waters.