Rivalry In Indian Ocean


Dr. Narad Bharadwaj

The seemingly smooth post conflict political transition in Sri Lanka received a jolt last week when its President Maithripala Sirisena unceremoniously sacked his Prime Minister Ranil Wikramesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksha to the hot seat. This has increased the fear that the fragile power equilibrium attained after a violent suppression of Tamil separatist movement nine years ago might be in for turbulence because of the internal political dynamics and international power games taking place in the Indian Ocean.

Power dynamics
Though President Sirisena has tried to transmit the message that he is in firm command of the situation, the evolving power dynamics within the beleaguered island country shows that the unfolding political drama is yet to enact its last scene.
Prime minister Ranil Wikramesinghe was ousted on the charge that one of his ministers had conspired to assassinate the president. But the accusation appears to have cut little ice as most of the political stakeholders of the unfolding political charade raised a chorus of opposition against the move putting him in a tight fix. The incident of shooting inside the premises of the petroleum ministry in the aftermath indicates the level of political fluidity in the island country.
Concomitantly, another tiny island state of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is also in the throe of transition. The political stalemate created by the arrest of two sitting judges of its supreme court last February does not appear to have achieved a breakthrough. The crisis initially understood as a power struggle between the government and the Supreme Court has developed into a multi-layered political conflict.
President Abdulla Yameen, who was enjoying monopoly in the Maldivian affairs after defeating his bête noir Mohamed Nasheed, appears to have poked a hornet’s nest by meddling into the realm of judiciary. The growing national and international pressure he is confronting shows that his stars are no longer on an ascending trajectory. As he is now constitutionally bound to hand over power on 11 November 2018 to Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who notched a surprise victory in the latest presidential election held in last September, he appears to have limited options on the chessboard.
The political crisis in both the courtiers was triggered by an act of intolerance of the executive presidents to opposition. Abdulla Yameen had accused some Supreme Court judges of trying to overthrow the legitimate government by exonerating or releasing dissident politicians from prison.
The of accusations are serious enough to warrant the scale of crackdown that has been unleashed but the problem with the beleaguered presidents is that they have not been given credence by the public at large and the international community has a divided opinion. Many analysts tend to believe that the growing crisis in the Indian Ocean is the reflection of intensifying competition of global powers for maintaining their sphere of influence in the strategically important sea lanes. The spectre of instability in this region has made the regional superpowers to rush to the scene scrambling to put their priority in order lest they should lose initiative if they arrived too late.
China has already invested a huge amount of its resources in developing sea lane connectivity and in creating development and business infrastructures in these countries requiring it to come forward to protect its interest.
The Indian Ocean also bears stakes for European countries particularly Germany. More than 35 percent of European export flows through this region. Since Indian Ocean hosts strategic chokepoints like the Straits of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca through which about 34 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum is transported to Europe and Asia, it is bound to be a meeting point for emerging powers in the near future.
At a time when a national and international debates are going on about the long term implication of the Sri Lanka’s decision to lease out Hambantotta Port to China, the return to power of Rajapaksha, an ardent supporter of China-initiated BRI project, has been taken as an ominous sign by India and European countries.
The growing crisis has also divided political forces within these countries into Indian and Chinese camps. Exiled leader of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed has accused that China’s policy of ‘land grab’ in the Maldives has created the present crisis. Going a step further, he has invited India to make a military intervention to reverse the situation. That has escalated tension in the region.
The accusation of land grab is connected with a leasing of series of small islets located at a place Fedhu Finollu by the Maldivian government to China for fifty years for developing tourism infrastructures in the island country. China is building a huge bridge to link capital Male to surrounding islets in addition to developing deep sea port at a strategic location of the Indian Ocean. These are the steps which India has consistently opposed. India’s refusal to be part of BRI and its attempt to formulate its own expansionist strategy under the rubric of ‘good neighborhood policy’ and ‘look east’ policy define its ambition as a regional super power.
So far India and China are competing for space with the use of diplomatic and economic clout instead of using coercive hand to obtain concessions. The rush with which India and China showed in building rapport with Rajapaksha as soon as he was sworn in, shows that Indian Ocean is becoming a new stage of power rivalry.
China generally maintains neutrality in the internal political events of neighbouring countries. However, since it has already invested a huge amount of money in building transport infrastructures in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, it appears wary of instability in the region.
In the past India had sent army to quell the plot of Tamil mercenaries when they tried to overthrow the government of Moumoon Abdul Gayoom in 1988. It had also sent army to disarm the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka in 1989. India imposed trade blockade against Nepal in 2015 to foment instability in this country. But India could not achieve any advantage with the use of coercive policies. In view of the negative repercussions of these initiatives, India appears to be desisting from using coercion as a tool of strategic advance.

Tip of iceberg
The ups and downs in political situation in this region are increasingly reflecting external influences. India and western liberal democracies want India’s monopoly to be established in this region. To their dismay, however, China is emerging as a dominant player in the power games of this region. The unfolding chain of events shows that what we see on the surface may only be a tip of iceberg. It may take some more time for the geo-strategic architecture of the plots and sub-plots to be enacted at the theatre of power rivalry.

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