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Kartarpur Corridor: Sikh Soft Power

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Ever since the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor, three months ago, in November 2019, it has drawn the attention of media and strategic analysts in South Asia, and outside the region, for different reasons. The Corridor, a long standing demand of the Sikh community, connects Dera Baba Nanak (Punjab, India) with Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, (Narowal Kartarpur in Pakistan) (which are barely 5 kilometres apart). Individuals wanting to pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib, can cross over through the Corridor, without a visa.

The founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Sahib spent a crucial phase of his life — the last 18 years — at the town of Kartarpur, which he founded (in 2019, along with members of the community, many governmental and non-governmental organisations, in different capacities commemorated the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib).

While it is true, that in recent years,  there has been an increase in the number of Sikh pilgrims visiting Pakistan on important religious occasions, and the Pakistan government had taken steps to encourage more Sikh pilgrims, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is significant, given that pilgrims can travel without a visa.

 Darbar Sahib, Kartarpur is especially relevant, not just from a symbolic point of view, because Guru Nanak Sahib spent a significant part of his life –18 years. But because it was at Kartarpur, that Guru Nanak Sahib who came up with an alternative paradigm, and sought to challenge the status quo in South Asia, along with some of his close followers from different faiths, propagated the Sikh philosophy (Meditation and remembrance of God, honest and truthful labour, and sharing one’s earning with the needy are often referred to as the three important pillars of the Sikh philosophy, which were enunciated, by Guru Nanak Sahib)

Kartarpur Corridor: Current context

If one were to look at the current situation, Kartarpur Corridor and the response so far, while it is true, that there are a number of logistical issues, which have resulted in the number of pilgrims crossing over, being far lesser than estimates. According to official estimates, from the Indian side, the number of individuals who have crossed over through the corridor is a little less than 45,000 ever since the opening of the Corridor.

One of the major causes identified for the Corridor, not receiving the sort of response, which was expected, is the requirement of a Passport for travel to Kartarpur. The Sikh community had been demanding an arrangement where by any ID would suffice.

Yet, there have been a number of positive outcomes. It has resulted in interactions between Sikh Community and locals. Pilgrims have returned with positive stories not just with regard to the Darbar Sahib, but the warmth of the local population.

The opening of the Corridor hasalso opened up vistas in the area of religious tourism not just for Sikhs, but for the Hindu community as well. Pakistan has stated, that not only will it renovate Hindu Temples, but will also permit pilgrims from India access to Gurudwaras and Hindu Temples they were not permitted to visit earlier.

Pakistan itself is likely to benefit not just economically, through religious tourism, but in terms of it’s international image.

Impact on South Asia’s geopolitics

One aspect, which can not be ignored is the Corridor’s impact in the context of South Asia’s geopolitics. A number of observers of South Asia, were surprised, that the Religious Corridor actually went ahead in spite of tensions between India and Pakistan (which have consistently deteriorated in 2019) . Similarly, a number of naysayers, in the media as well as strategic community, have been critical of the Corridor, arguing that Pakistan could use it to foment militancy in Punjab (this is a rather simplistic argument, which fails to take into account the sensitivities of Sikh pilgrims, who have no real interest in the politics of deep-states, and looks at the issue from a rather narrow lens)

What is especially interesting is, how the Corridor has drawn global attention. US, China and a number of other countries have welcomed the opening of the corridor, saying that it will pave the way for peace and harmony in South Asia. A number of Sikh activists and commentators have been speaking about the need for ‘Sikh Soft Power’ which can be effective in blunting narratives of bigotry and narrow mindedness which have gained currency globally in the past few years.

The opening of the Corridor, and its potential role in reducing conflict could be an important component of this Sikh Soft Power. In 2019, a number of other important events have helped in enhancing the stature of Sikhs globally. First, Sikhs in different walks of life have taken an unequivocal stance, against hate both in India and outside. Two prominent Sikh politicians – Tanmanjeet Singh a Labour MP in UK and Gurratan Singh, a New Democratic Party (NDP) legislator from Ontario in Canada were hailed for taking a firm stand against Islamophobia. Second, Khalsa Aid (founded by a British Sikh, Ravi Singh) an international charity while following the Sikh principles of compassion and Nishkam (selfless service)has provided humanitarian aid in conflict zones, and regions struck by calamities like floods and earthquakes. The stellar work of Khalsa Aid, is now recognized not just in South Asia, but globally.

It would be pertinent to point out, that The UN head, Antonio Guterres, also visited the Corridor during his recent visit to Pakistan. He had welcomed the opening of the Corridor in November 2019. “paving way for interfaith harmony and understanding by facilitating visa-free cross border visits by pilgrims to holy shrines.”

This visit is important, because it brings to the fore the relevance of the Kartarpur Corridor in a global context. The UN Chief while commenting on his visit to Kartarpur, dubbed it as a symbol of Inter faith harmony. A prominent US based Sikh activist, Harinder Singh in a tweet stated, that the UN Chief’s visit was significant. Said Singh:

‘Guru Nanak Sahib started langar at Kartarpur Sahib, free & open distribution of Wisdom & Food. United Nation’s Secretary-General & Pakistan’s Minister for Religious Affairs Dr. Noor Ul Haq Qadri partook rice & lentil. Hope 1-Ness wisdom prevails to realize peace via the Panjab’

Conclusion

In conclusion, Kartarpur Corridor has religious significance for the Sikh community, but it has the potential for reducing tensions in South Asia (by possibly making a beginning, by propelling greater bonhomie and economic integration between both Panjab’s) and could pave the way for greater people to people initiatives as well as trade between India and Pakistan. The Corridor will also help in highlighting the role, which the Sikh faith has, not merely as a ‘bridge-builder’, but an active facilitator of peace in South Asia at a time when the hopes are dim. The Corridor thus is important, as it is an important component of ‘Sikh Soft Power’ and also reiterates the relevance of what has been dubbed as Faith Based Diplomacy.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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South Asia

Status of Minorities in Pakistan

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In February this year, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, posted a tweet condemning the Delhi riots and stated that anyone who targets the non-Muslim minorities in the country or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. For all the resolute comments that Mr Khan has made for protection of minorities in Pakistan, the reality showcases a completely different scenario. The status of religious freedom is almost minimal, minorities have been unjustly prosecuted under the blasphemy laws and there have been targeted attacks on the non-Muslim citizens and defenders of human rights. This article aims to assess the condition of Minorities in the country and the unjust use of blasphemy laws as a tool of oppression. 

Forced Conversions: A chronic problem 

On October this year, Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl, was abducted right outside her house in Karachi. She was forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her abductor, a 44- year-old man. The police denied these claims and asserted that it had sufficient proof to prove that the girl converted and married off on her own volition. To make matters worse, the Sindh high court validated the marriage (even though the legal age is 18), and stated (based upon falsified documents) that Arzoo was old enough to make her own decisions. This case isn’t a one off and there have been multiple instances in the past where underage girls from minority religions have been abducted and forcefully married off after conversion. A few months ago, a Hindu teenage girl, Simran Kumari was abducted from Ghotki in Sindh and converted to Islam. She was also married off to her abductor and her parents were stopped from visiting because of them being ‘Kafirs’ . Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, and Ghotki are some of the districts that have had the highest number of such incidents and all of them come under the province of Sindh. These incidents are more than just ordinary cases of forced conversion, they are a reflection of deeper issues rooted in economic, social and cultural status of the minority communities. 

Most of the minority communities have been traditionally engaged in jobs associated with low income such as daily wage labour and any scope of upward economic mobility is limited. Amar Guriro, a senior journalist states that many Hindu and Christian women convert due to their poor financial condition, and that Muslim men easily lure these women on the pretext of providing better financial and living conditions . But investigations in the past have revealed that economic hardship might be a factor in these incidents but it isn’t the only factor, and in most cases, the women yield to their abductors due to fear of their lives. There have been cases where after a woman is abducted from a village, large groups of Muslim men drive around the village with loudspeakers in their cars shouting “the victory of Islam”. The main reason behind this is to instil a psychological fear and ensure that the minority communities do not take legal recourse. It’s unfortunate that even if the victim’s family were to lodge a First Information Report, it would make no difference. The police, political representatives and the judiciary are usually in cahoots, and any form of protest would be at the cost of endangering their own lives. This is clearly seen in majority of the cases where the victim is usually below 18 years of age, even though as per a recent amendment to the penal code, the legal age of marriage for girls is 18 years. The police play a huge part in providing forged documents as proof to the judges who readily accept it without questioning the legitimacy and let the accused go scot free. 

Blasphemy Laws 

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan pose another set of problems for the minorities, and are one of the strictest in the Islamic world. They were inherited from the former colonial rulers back when Pakistan was a part of India and a British colony. During the reign of the military government headed by General Zia-ul-Haq, few other clauses were added to these laws which criminalised certain acts such as insulting Islam’s Prophet, speaking against the holy Quran or using derogatory language against important religious scholars. According to the data given by National Commission for Justice and Peace, there were a total of 1540 blasphemy cases which came up till 2018 and out of those 1540 cases about 50% cases had a non Muslim as the accused even when they constituted very small share of the total population . The Ahmadiyya’s, a Muslim minority, are the worst affected by these laws. The Ahmadiyya community is a sect of Islam which has its roots in India and was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyya community faces a lot discrimination world over and is generally regarded as non-Muslim in most of the Islamic countries. According to the second amendment in Pakistan’s constitution, the Ahmadis are considered as non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Ahmadis have had repeated allegations of blasphemy against them due to the fact that their religious beliefs contradict the verses in the Quran and are therefore equal to speaking against it. This is completely ironical to the fact that Pakistan’s constitution clearly states that each and every single religious community has the right to profess, propagate and practise their religion. For the other minority religions, the blasphemy laws act as a means of seeking revenge or showing dominance for the majority Sunni Muslims. In May 2019, Ramesh Kumar Malhi, a Hindu veterinary doctor, was accused of wrapping medicines in the pages containing verses of Quran because of which his clinic and a few other shops belonging to the Hindu community were burned down . Similarly, in 2018, a 25-year-old Christian man was accused of sending blasphemous texts because of which Muslim mobs raided the houses of Christians living in the area and threatened to set their houses on fire. In both the incidents, the police filed no cases against the offending mobs. In most of the cases, it is important to note that the reason for charging someone with blasphemy is usually due some other personal conflict entirely unrelated to the charge of blasphemy and is usually used as a means to extract revenge. 

These blasphemy laws represent the sorry state of freedom of speech in the country. The idea that anything with regards to religion is sacred and cannot be contested leads to the formation of dogmatic opinions. While it is understandable that the blasphemy laws only apply to statements meant to defame a religion, but since these laws come under the purview of the Federal Shariat Court to determine what is Islamic or un-Islamic, even well-intentioned constructive criticism is considered blasphemous. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of classical liberalism, in his book ‘On Liberty’ talks about the role of freedom of speech and expression. He says “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”. The reasoning behind this is to show how important it is to allow divergent views to be spoken about clearly, and even if there is disagreement about the truthfulness of a particular view or opinion, there’s always a possibility that it might contain a certain element of truth. The inability of a country to tolerate divergent views is representative of its insecurity towards criticism and change. This eventually leads to its downfall as even the most common and rational arguments are sometimes suppressed. 

Subpar Standard of Living

While the cases above represent some of the worst atrocities against minorities in Pakistan, their everyday lives don’t provide a very bright picture either. There has been discrimination in the past with regards to employment, such that sanitation work or daily wage labour work was restricted to non-Muslims only. Even with regards to education, there have been reports where the students from the minority religions have faced religious slurs or have been plainly discriminated by the teachers. Some of the textbooks portray the minorities in a negative light and completely negate their existence when recounting the history of the country, this reinforces an anti-minority mindset within the young adults and prevents the minorities from enrolling in educational institutions which restricts their social and economic upward mobility. In general, at least in the rural areas, non-Muslims have faced violence and many have lost their lives too. There have been numerous cases where houses of Hindus and Christians have been burnt down, their men, women and children killed or forced to leave the village. Temples and Churches have been destroyed in many areas, such that only a handful remain. A survey by the Pakistan All Hindu Rights Movement showed that out of a total of 428 temples that were present in the country during independence only 20 remain today. 

While the government of Pakistan refuses to do anything, human rights lawyers and non governmental organisations present a ray of hope. In the past, journalists, activists and human rights lawyers have actively taken up cases of forced conversion, religious violence and misgovernance. This has made justice an achievable reality, even if it is only for a handful of cases. But the downside to this is that by saving the lives of others, the activists and lawyers have put their own lives at risk. There have been many instances where activists and journalists have received threats and backlash from religious extremists, some have even lost their lives. On 5thJune a journalist who had been criticising the government and the military was abducted in Lahore and detained without any proper warrant . Similarly, a co founder of an NGO working for the rights of young women was randomly detained and put on an exit control list, restricting her ability to travel overseas. 

Missed Opportunity 

Imran Khan’s inability to take firm action against the oppression of minorities in Pakistan is an indication of their worsening condition in the country. His ostrich approach makes him preach about the inexistent tolerance that Pakistan has for non-Muslims on various

International forums. It would be wise for him to first start taking constructive steps to improve the situation in his own country before concerning himself with the issues of his next-door neighbour. The tough balancing act that Mr Khan has tried to play between supporting a tolerant Pakistan and the Islamic clerics at the same time has clearly failed. Zahid Hussain, an analyst and author states that Imran Khan, right from the time that he came to power, did want a tolerant Pakistan, but not at the cost of losing support of certain extremist elements. The problem is, instead of carefully balancing the two, he empowered the extremists, nullifying any bit of chance there was for improving the condition of minorities. 

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Theorizing The teesta River Water Dispute

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Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the states of Sikkim and West  Bengal to merge with Jamuna in Bangladesh (Brahmaputra in Assam). The river drains nearly  95 per cent of the state of Sikkim. It covers 3,225 square kilometres across the districts of  Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh. It is the fourth  longest transboundary river of Bangladesh that flows down from India.

In Bangladesh, Teesta River covers 9,667 square kilometres with an estimated population of  9.15 million as in 2011.1 According to the estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of  Statistics 2012, 21 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the river water for  their livelihoods in Bangladesh. It covers nearly 14 per cent out of the total area under  cultivation in Bangladesh.

This river has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh since 1950s and 1960s  when India and former East Pakistan began discussing proposed projects on the river.  Immediately after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River  Commission was set up to carry forward the talks over the sharing of river waters in 1972.

The Teesta barrage, hydropower projects and dam constructions over Teesta in India has led  to a disturbance in the flow of river water downstream, i.e., in Bangladesh. Though the  hydropower projects and dam constructions are also being carried by the Bangladesh government on its side of the river.

Bangladesh, that gets lesser share than that of India of the Teesta River water, claims for an  equitable share which is unacceptable to the state of West Bengal. Negotiations over the same  have been going on since 1983. The matter is still over the table with an unresolved dispute.

The Dispute

A significant amount of Teesta’s water flows only during wet season i.e., between June and  September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e., October to April/May which paves  way to the issue of equitable sharing during lean season. The 50-50 allocation of the river water  could have been agreed to but it was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta  Banerjee, who claims that it would be unfair to West Bengal since it would adversely impact  the water-flow available in the state.

The stakeholders here are not just the Indian state and the Bangladesh government but since  water is a state subject, the Indian state of West Bengal is a large party to the matter whereas  Sikkim has highly been ignored (which is also a point of highlight for the critics).

Bangladesh claims that an equal water sharing is essential for them since their basin dependence is higher than that of India’s and also, that the downstream nature of Bangladesh  makes them vulnerable since any construction by India affects the water flow available to them.  Apart from the farmers getting adversely affected, the inadequate flow of water has also created  siltation. Thus, these are reasons enough to get India’s attention towards this issue.

However, West Bengal’s concerns can also not be ignored which states that Teesta has dried  up due to which an acute drinking water problem has been caused apart from another issue  which states less availability of water for irrigation needs.

In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement was made between India and Bangladesh wherein both agreed  to share 75 per cent of river water with India using 39 per cent and Bangladesh 36 per cent.  The remaining 25 per cent was to be distributed after some further studies. In 1997, a Joint  Committee of Experts was formed to examine the matter. It took until 2004 for a Joint  Technical Group to be formed which drafted an interim agreement for the sharing of the river water during the lean season. However, in 2005, the JTG admitted its inability to come up with  a solution.

In 2005 itself, the Joint River Commission stated that the river will not be able to meet the  needs of both the countries during the lean seasons, hence, any agreement that is made will  have to be based upon shared sacrifices. In 2010, the two countries agreed to resolve the matter  expeditiously and drafted some principles for the sharing of river water during the lean season.

In 2011, the agreement was to be signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India,  Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, it fell through when the Chief Minister  of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee protested against the proposed allocation of 50 per cent of  the river’s water to Bangladesh.

Since then there have been bilateral discussions on the dispute between the two countries but  they have been unable to reach upon a mutually agreed agreement. Something that has been  continued to be a major sore point within the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh!

Main Problem

Teesta barrage, whose construction started in the late 1970s, is the largest irrigation project of  the entire eastern region. It aims at utilizing the potential of Teesta River in hydropower  generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood moderation. India, being the upper riparian  country, controls the flow of the river water into Bangladesh from the Teesta barrage. Even  Bangladesh has constructed a barrage downstream that provides water for agriculture and  irrigation to the drought prone areas of northern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh argues that the construction of Teesta barrage has drastically reduced the  availability of water downstream, especially, in the dry season. On the other hand, it’s not just  Bangladesh that is facing such issues, India is facing such issues as well. A reduced availability  of groundwater due to underground tunnelling has been witnessed which has impacted agricultural productions and livelihoods in the region. The drying up of natural springs and  local water resources, the matter which also needs to be addressed, has resulted in growing  scarcity of drinking water. An increasing number of landslides have also been witnessed in the  mountainous regions of Sikkim.

Development of hydropower projects and the construction of dams are majorly held  responsible for all such issues. It has been a growing concern in India and something that the  environmentalists, scientist, social activists have all cautioned against. Changes in the river,  which have largely been due to the dams being constructed on the Teesta are being witnessed,  including frequent changes in the course of the river, delta formation, high rates of siltation,  increased erosion, and siltation of agricultural land in the areas surrounded by the river.

Availability of water for irrigation is a key issue, particularly for West Bengal, as highlighted  by local communities. It is estimated that the availability of water for irrigation be reduced due  to the series of proposed dams since every hydropower project is estimated to absorb at least 5  per cent of the river’s running water.

Similar is the situation with Bangladesh as well where farmers are being forced to rely on tube  wells to pump underground water which has resulted in increased cost of production and also,  reduced areas under cultivation. In many areas, increased siltation of riverbed has caused  widening of the river which has resulted in bank erosion and flooding. 

The Perspective Of Institutional Economics

The dispute is still hanging somewhere unable to find itself a reasonable solution. It is not just  about the point of contention regarding the sharing of water, that how much water should India  consume or how much of it should Bangladesh take away from the river, but it is also about  the environmental concerns and the way it is impacting the humans. Maybe, if India takes up  the discussions regarding sharing of some of the benefits that it would gain from its hydropower  projects, it could happen that the dispute might be solved, but that would not solve the  environmental concerns altogether.

Environmental economics, a strand of economics, offers one such solution which talks about  using a price signal in waiving off a particular dispute. But in order to do that, you need to own  that particular resource which is not possible in the case of a river. The market, thus, cannot  allocate the resource using a price signal since there are no specified property rights, therefore,  none of the state can boast of ownership. The lack of property rights disables either of the state  to be able to sell it or rather, in this matter, be able to negotiate a settlement using a ‘price’  signal on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, one state cannot also exclude the other  state from using the river water since it’s a common environmental resource for both the states.

This indicates towards the presence of externalities that happens when there are lack of  property rights and people utilize their utility not considering what additional/negative utility  others may get from it. In such a problem, institutional economics, another branch of  economics, has some solution to offer. Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist talks  about common pool resources that people have managed successfully for generations. She says  that these resources should be managed in communities where people can collectively come  and decide and set up some rules that should match the local conditions since different regions  have different ecosystems.

Here, in the context of the Teesta River dispute, the major thing that is missing is the ‘people’  and their participation in forming a consensus over the usage of river water. The local  communities are the major stakeholders of the river water and it is them who are being majorly  effected but they have been kept away and everything has just boiled down to politics and the bilateral equations between the two states. This leads us to understand the issue from the lenses  of political ecology.

Political Ecology And Its Links With The Dispute

Political ecology is that branch of geography that emerges from ‘critical geography’ and makes  this basic point that physical environment in which we live in is not just natural but is  characterized by a constant human intervention making it a ‘built’ environment. And since we  live in such environment which is partly and very deeply influenced by human beings  themselves, social and human processes should be right at the centre of our analysis.

Political ecology fundamentally connects questions of environment with questions of political  processes and political power, something that is clearly visible in the dispute in discussion. It  also draws insights from political economy, particularly, Marxian political economy to draw  this connection between environmental issues, political power, and political and social  processes.

David Harvey, one of the renowned scholars of political ecology, talks about the phenomenon  of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession.’ This phenomenon talks about the existing social relations  between the capitalist class and the farmers/working class. This talks about how the farmers  are being left with no other option than to lose their lands and become a victim at the hands of  the industrial development.

Here, in the context of Teesta River dispute, something similar is happening. On one hand,  while the government and a section of civil society is happy with the expected benefits of the  hydropower project like employment, energy sufficiency, new revenues, on the other hand,  local communities, environmentalists, scientists, and activists are concerned about social,  cultural, and environmental aspects of these projects. More such projects are proposed, more the economic and industrial development but only at the cost of environmental development  and also, at the cost of the livelihoods of the local communities!

Conclusion

The politics of the two countries, their asymmetric relations, and their urge to economic and  industrial development has costed the local communities their livelihoods. For the authorities  concerned, it’s about their political ego, their incapability of meeting the local needs through  the existing water share, but holistically, this matter is not just about that. Undoubtedly, it  continues to be dominated by political procedures but what matters the most are the local  communities who are suffering on both the sides of the borders. It is these people who are  losing their livelihoods, lands, and the allied opportunities but have been kept away from the  major procedure of decision making. The sufferers are none but the environment itself whose  course is being decided by the humans and also, the humans – but only the ones that are  dependent upon the same environment for their livelihood opportunities. Rest that remains is  the politics!

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As Sri Lanka struggles with Chinese debt-trap, Maldives moves closer to the Quad

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The Indian Ocean’s geopolitical currents have witnessed drastic transformation this year, particularly in the past three months, with India shedding the exclusive right of its sphere of influence over the Indian Ocean, by allowing the United States in its own backyard. Washington and New Delhi seems to have entered into what few analysts call a ‘soft alliance’.

Sri Lanka and Maldives are strategically located in the northern section of the Indian Ocean, and have long been historically, culturally, and geopolitically under India’s sphere of influence. But, things are beginning to change as Chinese debt-trap looms over these islands.

The Quad grouping, consisting of India, Japan, the United States and Australia, has demonstrated its collective military might in the maritime sphere of India with the recently concluded annual Malabar naval exercise. It also led to the emergence of new dynamics of cooperation in previously reticent areas, built upon confidence in each other’s abilities and consciousness of where it stands in the newly unravelling geopolitical equation.

India’s new strategic comfort with bringing in partners from the Quad partners lying external to the Indian Ocean Region, namely the US and Japan into its long-held exclusive sphere of influence signals a tilt in strategic imperatives for New Delhi in favour of the US that too in an evolving cold war-like situation involving Washington and Beijing with different set of countries rallying behind each side.

India has recently welcomed the US-Maldives Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in September, this year. The following month saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Male where he announced Washington’s intent to open an embassy soon.

Less than three months after the defence pact with Washington, Male signed a new agreement with Tokyo this month, for availing a Japanese grant of $7.6 million to strengthen the archipelago’s Coast Guard capacities, in a second major pact with a Quad member.

New Delhi’s newfound willingness to work with external actors in the Indian Ocean is a sign of strategic comfort stemming out from realist foreign policy considerations to expand its circle of friends and coalition partners in its own backyard against a common and more powerful adversary, Beijing, with which it also have decades-long tensions in the Himalayan frontiers.

Even though both these two countries succumbed to disproportionately superior Chinese economic might since the past one decade, it seems Maldives has somehow managed to come out of its dangerous level of dependency on China since Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party assumed presidency of the island nation two years back in November 2018.

The Sri Lankan economy went into a tailspin since the civil war ended in 2009. The country’s exchequer was badly in need of financial support to sustain itself. It was also the time when Beijing just began to project its military and economic power in its neighbourhood and beyond as the flamboyant 2008 Beijing Olympics concluded.

The island of Sri Lanka soon acquired new geoeconomic significance when President Xi Jinping launched the most ambitious infrastructure project of this century in 2013, the Belt and Road Infrastructure, connecting three continents with the Indian Ocean as its epicenter of vitality.

With BRI, a tangled web of debt-trap rapidly began to loom over Sri Lanka as Beijing pumped-in investments into the war-battered island with malicious intentions.

The story of handover of Hambantota port, strategically located in the southern tip of Sri Lankan coast, to China for a 99-year lease in 2017, and the Colombo Port City project being built with Chinese assistance are just examples of how economic leverage gained geopolitically advantageous positions for Beijing overlooking the Indian Ocean. These assets are going to play a significant role in the connectivity of BRI’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ aspect.

Chinese-led projects are built and managed by Chinese workers themselves as they do in any other part of the world, naturally bringing presence of Chinese personnel to the areas where it operates.

The BRI, however, enhances Sri Lanka’s significance in what theorists call the String of Pearls, wherein Beijing attempts to encircle India by a series of ports and maritime installations under its control in the Indian Ocean such as the overseas military base in Djibouti, Gwadar in Pakistan, and the ports in Bay of Bengal under Chinese influence hosted by either Bangladesh or Myanmar. Chinese submarine presence is also a new reality, particularly in areas surrounding the Malacca Straits.

All these factors naturally brought New Delhi closer to Washington to formulate a ‘collective strategy’ against the expansionist tendencies manifested by Chinese behaviour. At the same time, India has been taking proactive steps in its individual capacity to boost ties with other island and littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), like Mauritius and Seychelles where India’s listening posts to monitor sea-lanes also operate.

The Indian Navy has always been the first responder to any HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) situations in the IOR which earned significant soft power and respect for India in the countries of the region. This vision has been immortalized in India’s maritime doctrine for regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean, SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region), that was unveiled in 2015.

With the entry of the US, which already has its presence in the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia lying mid-way of the ocean, that too with India’s approval, and France in Reunion in the western Indian Ocean, the geostrategic picture of IOR is beginning to change.

Maldives stands as a good example of how to overcome Chinese dominating agenda by boosting cooperation among democracies. But, the Abdullah Yameen-era nightmare of Chinese debt burden is still far from over. In fact, Sri Lanka too is well aware of the Chinese trap from which it yearns to decouple itself. But, Colombo is left with limited options or alternatives to do so.

The renewed Indo-US strategic cooperation, if not translated into offering a viable solution to the debt-trap conundrum, Sri Lanka might irreversibly evolve into another extension of Beijing’s legs in the Indian Ocean threatening the sovereignty of democracies in the region.

Recent steps in the strategic realm are welcome, but the Indo-Pacific democracies, particularly India and the US, should cooperate with these two key island states more in the economic realm as well, if possible near to the extent of Beijing as a collective move.

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