What India is doing, China now wants to do better. So far, acts of Chinese imitation have been limited to economic policies and technological innovations from the West, primarily the United States. Today, he seeks to emulate the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) policy by proposing a council of small island nations in the Indian Ocean region. This comes just a few years after the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) restructured the oversight of the IOR by first creating an IOR division and then adding more distant neighbors which are not far from the own island territories. from India.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Maldives President Ibrahim Solih

Today, MEA’s IOR division covers near neighbors such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka, intermediate neighbors such as Mauritius and the Seychelles, and recently added more distant neighbors such as Comoros, Madagascar and French Réunion. , all island nations. More recently, MEA also created a separate division to cover the Indo-Pacific region.

At the end of his visit to five countries, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart GL Peiris, “proposed to establish a forum for the development of Indian Ocean island countries. This was in a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement released in Beijing after the minister’s visit, which took him to the Comoros, Maldives and Sri Lanka, excluding Eritrea and Kenya.

Indian media reports and analysts mostly ignored all the stops of Wang’s first overseas tour except for the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the new year. They ignored how in East Africa he announced the appointment of a special envoy from China for the Horn of Africa region.

They also overlooked his near-India IOR tour beginning in Comoros, a late addition to MEA’s IOR division portfolio. Similarly, media reports of the IOR’s close neighbours, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, were based exclusively on official statements by home governments and did not mention the visitor’s proposal to his Sri Lankan counterpart.

Wider than two options

Sri Lankan media highlighted how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa held “cordial talks” with Wang Yi and demanded debt restructuring, which was a major concern for his nation, government and leaders, steeped in economic crises. and foreign exchange, both threatening political upheaval. The Chinese Foreign Minister also met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to whom he reminded of the latter’s presidential years (2005-15), when he visited China six times. In turn, Prime Minister Mahinda urged the visitor to facilitate the speedy return of Sri Lankan doctors stranded at home, following the global pandemic.

In the Maldives, local media, citing their Foreign Ministry statement, reported that the two sides had signed five mutual cooperation agreements, limited mainly to social infrastructure projects. If President Ibrahim Solih or Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, who is also the current President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), has called for further debt restructuring, it has not been reported. Instead, reports spoke of China pledging MVR968.2 million in grant aid to the Maldives under an economic and technical cooperation agreement, one of five signed on the occasion. .

In an interview with local media, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid said that “going against a specific country is not the most beneficial for the Maldivians”. He referred to the opposition group PPM-PNC’s ‘India Out’ campaign and said: ‘The Maldives needs a broader foreign policy than can be concluded by choosing between two options’ , the other being China. The minister expressed similar sentiments when Indian High Commissioner Munu Mahawar paid him a courtesy visit, where they discussed bilateral cooperation, including the progress of Indian-funded projects.

When meeting with Comorian Foreign Minister Dhoihir Dhoulkamal in the capital Moroni on his way to Male, Wang Yi recalled how China was the first nation to recognize each other after independence and establish diplomatic relations. 47 years ago. As in other IOR capitals, according to a press release from the Chinese Embassy, ​​he spoke about development cooperation.

In response, the host stressed that “the friendship between Comoros and China is enduring and strong…marked by deep political mutual trust, win-win economic cooperation and mutual support in the international arena.” The Comoros, he added, “has consistently pursued the one-China policy, and this position is firm.” From the Indian IOR’s perspective, this was as important as Wang Yi’s engagements in Malé and Colombo.

Third country interference

The form of government in the Maldives and Sri Lanka is the executive. Both have their own functional characteristics.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Foreign Minister Prof. GL Peiris

In the Maldives, for example, Wang Yi addressed substantive issues in delegation-level talks with his counterpart Abdulla Shahid. If he had discussed anything specific and sensitive with President Solih, it was not mentioned in public.

In contrast, in Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya led the Sri Lankan delegation during the talks at the official level. Foreign Minister Peiris was present along with other senior officials. It is unclear whether what Wang Yi claimed to have said to his counterpart Peiris also reached the president’s ears.

In talks with Sri Lankan leaders, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, Wang Yi said “no third country” should “interfere” in the close ties between the two.

The reference was, of course, to India, but the tone and content of Wang’s statement is not known, to conclude whether it was a prerequisite for Beijing to rush in the future. to the aid of Colombo, on the economic and political fronts.

In the current economic and currency crises, Sri Lanka’s desperation to get help from any source other than the IMF is well known. Wang Yi clearly failed to recognize that much of the problem is due to China’s “debt trap”. Beijing’s political support for Colombo comes in the form of China’s unequivocal and unconditional support, as well as Moscow’s support for UNHRC-Geneva and the UNSC, where both hold veto power.

Significantly, Wang’s visit is the second instance in as many months that China has reported “third-party interference” in relations with Colombo. Last month, the Chinese embassy in Colombo tweeted the suspension of work on hybrid power plants on three islands off Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula, citing “safety concerns” from a “third party”. . The reference was again to India, which was concerned about Chinese-funded projects too close to the shores of southern Tamil Nadu.

While briefing local media on Yi’s visit, Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong in Colombo referred to the stalled/delayed talks between the two sides on a draft free trade agreement (FTA) and economic cooperation framework. and overall technique.

“During the State Councilor’s visit this time, he and the Sri Lankan government had a very good discussion” about the two, the envoy said.

In the background, Ambassador Zhenhong asked why Colombo halted the FTA talks. “We already had six rounds. I would like to ask the Sri Lankan government why the talks were broken off. I don’t know why,” he said in public. According to him, “if Sri Lanka is able to have this FTA, it can export products to a market of 1.4 billion in China”. He did not mention that the talks, which began under the previous regime, had been interrupted due to certain Chinese conditions proposed in the FTA.

Calculated “failures”?

Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong during his visit to the North

There were also what looked like “calculated failures” during Wang Yi’s visit. In the Maldives, he did not meet PPM-PNC opposition leader Abdulla Yameen, a former president released from prison after the country’s Supreme Court freed him in a money laundering case dating back to his tenure. (2013-18). Considered a friend of China among Maldivian leaders, Yameen still faces two more corruption cases, the verdicts of which could again disqualify him from contesting the 2023 presidential elections.

In Sri Lanka, the Chinese visitor denied certain hopes of visiting the North, which is of great political, economic and now strategic importance for the Indians. In recent weeks, Ambassador Zhenhong had made the trip, taking a boat ride as close to the International Maritime Boundary (IMBL) with India as possible, which raised eyebrows in New Delhi.

While in Jaffna, Ambassador Zhenhong had also visited the famous Nallur Kandaswamy temple, dressed in a dhoti and bare-chested like a traditional Hindu man. He distributed paraphernalia to the iconic library in Jaffna, burnt down by Sinhalese hooligans in the 1980s, as well as relief packages to local fishermen, whose livelihoods have suffered from bottom trawling and poaching by their own Tamil brothers from India.

In all of this, the Chinese message was clear. They would continue to do business with whatever government the people elected in the democratic nations of the Third World, and wait for their friends to return to power as well. The Maldives are a good example. Likewise, they would not want to embarrass their friends, as in Sri Lanka, by exaggerating their strategic irritants vis-à-vis a third country, India in this case. This time around, it could also have to do with Sri Lanka concluding the much-delayed Trincomalee Oil Park deal with India, versus forex assistance now, and possibly later. Perhaps there is also a lesson for India.

Otherwise, everything indicates that the Chinese visitor may not have been able to break the Maldivian leadership of President Solih, and there is no reason to think that he even attempted it beyond a point. In Sri Lanka, his visit would have ended the latest tensions surrounding Colombo’s initial refusal to pay sums owed to a Chinese company because the “organic fertilizers” provided were harmful in local conditions.

In the end, Sri Lanka paid the Chinese supplier US$6.9 million, after pushing a local court to lift a payment ban, just before Yi’s visit. In turn, the Chinese embassy removed the name of the People’s Bank from its “blacklist” because the latter had suspended payment to the fertilizer supplier, citing the court order.

– Observer Research Foundation