Influencing other nations with mammoth debt for one’s geopolitical objectives has been the play of world powers for a long time in history. China, as many analysts point out, is a master of such an approach, being the latest entrant into this game. However, history also tells that this game runs its course and soon the small nations may find different ways to counter this neo-imperialism.
In our article No Nation is Small – How India is Unique in Its Approach to Neighbours we had briefly examined the Indian approach against the ‘debt trap’ diplomacy of China. In the past few days, developments happened which validate the approach of India. Many neighbours of India who at one point of time arguably allowed excessive Chinese influence by seeking investments and loans are now talking about balanced approach and signalling a correction of balance, pivoting towards India.
A tweet from the Maldives President recently is perhaps a quick commentary on two approaches. Though the tweet on August 13, 2020 was meant for thanking India, the Maldives President evidently took a dig on ‘debt diplomacy’ as well without naming any country.
The super low cost development assistance announced by @DrSJaishankar today is exactly what Maldives needs. Genuine help from a friend, to help us build critical infrastructure. Rather than eye-wateringly expensive commercial loans that leaves the nation mired in debt. @PMOIndia
— Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) August 13, 2020
In another instance, Sri Lanka has become more vocal about its bond with India. The situation was not like this till a few years back. Back in 2008, when the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota went to Chinese control, analysts largely interpreted that India lost its sphere of influence.
Slowly, things have changed under the Modi government. In fact, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the President of Sri Lanka, he acknowledged that giving away the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease was a mistake by the previous government.
The way India approached Sri Lanka by building homes for the displaced and the tea picker community, and hash helped the island nation with intelligence sharing have strengthened the bond between two nations, account of which we have covered in our article Things That Have Strengthened the Relationship Between India And Sri Lanka.
What is the recent development? This headline from The Economic Times says it all.
The words that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister said are reassuring for India. He said in an interview,
“Sri Lanka cannot afford, should not afford and will not afford any particular country to use it as a staging area to do anything against another country – especially so India. As a matter of fact, Sri Lanka had offered India Hambantota first. India did not undertake it for whatever reason, then it went to a Chinese company. Now we have given 85 per cent stake of Hambantota port to China Merchant Holding Company. That should be limited to commercial activities. It is zero for military purposes.”
Vietnam has been at the forefront in attracting companies that are shifting their base from China. The relationship between India and Vietnam have strengthened further after the 17th Meeting of the India-Vietnam Joint Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation. Vietnam’s willingness to play a bigger role in Indo-Pacific affairs is a welcoming sign for India.
India’s approach of not competing with China’s debt model, instead shaping the path of cooperation and mutual respect seems to be proving its worth.