China docked its ‘spy ship’ in the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka for several days. Despite India’s reluctance and insistence against this decision, Sri Lanka allowed the ship to be docked, buckling down under Chinese pressure. This move has several tactical and strategic consequences on the South Asian region and especially on India’s influence in the region.
China exerted its pressure on Sri Lanka and has been successful in sending across the perception of its strategic dominance in the region through this Spy Ship in India’s naval backyard. Though the official sources in the Sri Lankan government said that this was just a balancing game being played, in order to accommodate the Chinese, it’s quite evident that China did not want to lose face by not being successful in this geopolitical venture. Also the Chinese seem to have threatened Sri Lanka that it could use its exertions on the IMF and delay the economic loan package which is supposed to be dispatched to kick start the Sri Lankan economy which is in the doldrums. This sends out a clear message that China has an upper hand as India’s exertions have had a tactical setback in its strategically important and vulnerable neighbourhood. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s precarious position with respect to its foreign and domestic debt has led to this kind of unwarranted dilemma in the country.
The docking of the Chinese 'Spy Ship' sends out a clear message that China has an upper hand as India’s exertions have had a tactical setback in its strategically important and vulnerable neighbourhood.
China through its 99 years of lease over the Hambantota port has established its precedence over Sri Lanka, which becomes an open and potent challenge in the IOR ( Indian Ocean region) and the freedom of navigation objective that the US strategic community keeps reiterating in every international conference. India needs to draw a redline before it’s too late and before this situation leads to precarious strategic encirclement. Even the Quad countries are unwilling to intervene in this situation most likely because of India’s soft stance on Russia in the Ukraine – Russia war. This becomes a strong reason why the Quad needs to evolve as a treaty-based security alliance in the future.
Ramifications for India’s Security
The national security and the external affairs establishment in India currently believes in the approach that “each international event must be looked upon individually and not as a whole”. This means that no collective approach toward the world would be followed as each international development has its own national security and national interest impact on India. Perhaps even among the EU (European Union) and Quad countries, there is a tacit acceptance that India’s stance is nuanced and driven by the internationalist dependencia thesis. But there are differences in the Quad regarding how to approach a particular foreign policy issue or security issue when it comes to non-member countries like Sri Lanka and Ukraine. This is the reason why the security and foreign policy goals of each Quad country are highly diversified. For it to find a strong security proposition, there needs to be a set of common objectives and purposes such as Chinese hegemony and disturbing developments related to human rights in illiberal regimes.
India is following a strategy of multi-alignment with a balance of power (BOP) approach in dealing with major global powers of its firm belief in developing multi-polar world order. But in the response to this Sri Lankan development, India’s outright public posturing with a maximalist stand loaded with strong statements from the government has made India appear like a lost player in the jostling between the regimens of India and Sri Lanka. India needs to be nuanced, subtle, and firm in its approach in dealing with its neighbours.
China’s efforts in Downsizing India!
China knows the fact that the South Asian countries have been a backyard of India and is aware of the fact that India is a key player in the region with its strategic outreach. Chipping away the leverage and influence of India is definitely the objective of China. This gives us a crucial message in strategic affairs, that the principle of backyard or regional control no longer seems to work in dealing with the Chinese hegemonic character.
All India’s neighbours criticise it publicly for its actions but they are very careful in commenting on the Chinese actions, as they are aware that Chinese exertions and potential threats will have worse security ramifications both domestically and internationally. The Chinese intrude into the deep pockets to buy the influence and favourable public policy mechanisms, which protects their interests and exposes the vulnerabilities of the Indian neighbours and its adverse impact on India.
India's neighbours criticise it publicly for its actions but are very careful in commenting on the Chinese actions, as they are aware that Chinese exertions and threats will have worse security ramifications both domestically and internationally.
The reason for this strategic fragility in South Asia is India’s assistance model, which has been almost unconditional, without any strategic strings or security caveats being attached to it. Moreover, the big brother syndrome is present which has led to a love and hate relationship between the countries with deep civilizational ties which makes the nature of the relationship more complex. There is certainly a clash between the two assistance and development models of the west and that of India, which is driven by friendships and non-aggressions rather than developing strategic inroads.
Though India needs to deepen its people-to-people ties through its two diplomacy initiatives. It needs to learn the much-needed lesson that goodwill and bonhomie do not work in geopolitics. The strategic utilisation of hard power will enable it to gain the much-needed strategic control over International politics and geo- manoeuvring. The biggest takeaway from this Sri Lankan development is that hard-headed aggressive diplomacy and foreign policy must have a proper backup plan and contingency strategy, in order for it to be effectively and efficiently delivered on the ground.
(The author has an MA in International Relations)