By Maila Baje
This hasn’t been a good time for India’s geo-strategists appraising their recent ebullience.
Consider the latest confluence of events. US President Donald J. Trump turns down an invitation to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations as the chief guest, as Japan and China step up cooperation on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative all but in name, and Sri Lanka’s supposedly India-friendly president sacks the prime minister to appoint a known hawk vis-à-vis New Delhi.
In the general tumult, it is easy to miss the import of the declaration by our Deputy Prime Minister, Ishwar Pokharel, in the Chinese capital that Nepal would never again have to endure an Indian blockade because of the new connectivities established up north.
True, the Indian news media are covering Trump’s latest decision with careful caveats. Somebody somewhere in Washington DC said something about this to someone high up in New Delhi. Regardless, the message is unambiguous. You can’t hobnob with the Russians, Chinese and Iranians at the same time and expect to get away with it – not in Trump’s America. When strategic autonomy keeps looking and sounding like unadulterated Nehruvian sanctimony, America can still act.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for his part, seems to have taken a leaf from the Indian playbook. Sure, Tokyo is locked in an inexorable grand contest with its traditional rival, but China is also a neighbor geographically closer to Japan than India is. If economic cooperation with Beijing can help Tokyo manage its political disputes, maybe the BRI shouldn’t be deemed as dangerous as, say, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Moreover, it’s not as if Japan is going to drown in Chinese loans anytime soon. Of course, Abe didn’t say that to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in Tokyo, a day after Abe returned from China.
Closer to home, when news reports surfaced a couple of weeks ago that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena had accused India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, of plotting to assassinate him, everyone expected Sirisena to come out and deny it. His denial didn’t answer the underlying question. How could such a severe accusation leak if something ominous wasn’t afoot in Sri Lanka.
As New Delhi rejoiced in pro-Chinese President Abdulla Yameen’s failure to win reelection in neighboring Maldives, there was little indication that it would be Sirisena who would go to the extent of provoking a constitutional crisis to put anti-Indian Mahinda Rajapaksa in the premiership.
It’s certainly fascinating to see some prominent Indian hyperrealists jump for joy every time a recipient country reconsiders the anticipated benefits from proposed Chinese-aided projects, irrespective of whether they are indeed part of the BRI or not. As much as it might be gratifying, rooting for the BRI’s failure has a flipside: overt insensitivity to development needs of the country concerned. Those warning of Chinese debt entrapment the loudest aren’t rushing in to build projects for free, are they?
Does all this warrant the kind of rhetoric Pokharel deployed regarding India on Chinese soil? Rubbing it in certainly won’t help. We all know that Indira and Rajiv Gandhi got away with their blockades because Nepal was not a democracy then. New Delhi could separate the people from their government. Modi’s government failed to acknowledge how Nepali democracy had changed the dynamics to the point where damage control impels him to invite himself here at least once a year. Still, the last thing we should be doing is underestimating India’s capacity for creativity at a time when China’s viability as a solution to our landlockedness remains vague.
That’s why sentiments such as those Pokharel conveyed in Beijing – even as statements of fact – should not be part of our leaders’ public pronouncements, especially in contexts where others are more likely to construe them as a deliberate and emphatic declaration of an inconvenient reality. Leave those to blokes like yours truly.