India’s Global Rise And Regional Decline

By ProfD.K. Giri

The Government of Maldives, the archipelago country, has urged India to encourage tourists to visit their country. Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu has urged Indian Prime Minister Modi that his country’s economy depends on tourism and therefore India should continue be a part of Maldivian tourism sector. Likewise, Maldivian Tourism Minister Ibrahim Faisal in an interview on 6 May has highlighted the historical relations between the two countries and has invited the Indian nationals to visit his country to vitalise its faltering economy. The Foreign Affairs Minister, MossaZameer was to arrive in New Delhi on 9 May on an official visit. While discussing issues of mutual interest, he would be raising the risk of Indian touristsdwindling in Maldives.

Maldivian concern about depletion of Indian tourists is being expressed against the backdrop of increased geo-political tensions between the two countries. It started with election of ‘pro-China’ President Muizzu who asked for Indian army personnel to be relocated away from Maldives. The dilution of India-Maldives bilateral relations is indicative of India’s decline as a regional power, while India is growing globally. This simultaneous as well as contrarian development in India’s foreign policy presents a paradox.

India’s global rise is explained by its growth in absolute power, strategic positioning, economic growth in GDP terms, military strength and its largest demography, particularly the youth population. India’s membership of strategic groupings like Quad, G-20, even BRICS and SCO plus the invitation to G-7 marks its global growth. At the same time, India seems to be struggling to retain its influence in the neighbourhood in the face of an aggressive and expansive China. Because of the obvious asymmetry in strength between two countries India is experiencing a decline of relative power, in regard to China.

Paradoxically, the factors that cause the decline of India’s regional influence are the ones that contribute to its growth as global power. I am referring to the withdrawal of America and Western countries from South Asia and shifting their focus to India-Pacific region. This has left the space open to Chinese penetration into the region. In the face of competition from China, as said before, due to lesser economic strength, New Delhi is unable to maintain its hegemony in the neighbourhood. One Nepalese ambassador to India admitted frankly in a seminar that China has quite a bit of surplus money which countries in South Asia are seeking to tap into.

Withdrawal of the West from South Asia also has made India the focus of attention as a counterweight to China. Although New Delhi is cautiously moving between America and its allies and China-Russia axis, the West would like India to be a strategic ally. Unsure of America’s unwavering commitment to India vis-à-vis China, New Delhi has not cast the die. But surely, the West courting India is propelling the latter’s global rise. The question is, if India sticks to its strategic autonomy, how willit balance the mismatch between its regional and global influences?

Let us probe India’s fraying relations with the tiny archipelago, Maldives. Quite a few observers suggest that the rupture in the relations is not because of Muizzu’s tilt towards China, it is largely how New Delhi is reacting to this. Before Muizzu, other leaders followed an India First Policy but Muizzu changed it to Maldives First. As said before, countries in South Asia would like to exploit to their advantage the growing rivalry in the region between India and China. When President Muizzu asked India to withdraw her forces, Govt of India reacted strongly. Muizzu also decided not to renew the agreement with India on a hydrographic survey of its waters. Recall that this agreement signed in 2019 allowed India to conduct a hydrographic survey of the Maldivian territorial waters, study and chart reefs, lagoons, coastlines, Ocean current and tide levels.

However, the tweet by Prime Minister Modi extolling the tourist potential of Lakshadweep vis-à-vis Maldives dramatically changed the people-to-people perceptions. This hit Maldives below the belt. What was worse were the unworthy personal comments made by two of Muizzu’s ministers on Prime Minister Modi. The social media reacted to it very strongly to the point of boycotting Maldives. It was perhaps an overreaction as those ministers were promptly removed from the Cabinet. Not only that, Muizzu has been losing to his opponents after his apparent anti-India posturing. In fact, there have been protests by the Opposition in Maldives that warm relations with India should be restored forthwith.

Maldives is the smallest country in South Asia and India is the largest. The relations between two countries signify the conduct of Maldives on how to deal with the biggest country in the neighbourhood. But the onus lies more on India as New Delhi should be wary of giving an inferiority complex to Maldives. Despite the difference in size, both countries need each other in their mutual interest.

Maldives works as a ‘toll gate’ for nearly half of India’s external trade and 80 per cent of its energy imports. Maldives is situated along the crucial maritime trade routes between the Gulf of Aiden and the Strait of Malacca. Maldives is also strategically located in the Indian Ocean and is therefore, of great interest to India. Maldives can counterbalance China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean on behalf of India.

Likewise, Maldives needs India for various critical reasons. India is the main supplier of essential commodities, provides a base for education of number of Maldivians. India is the second largest trade partner of Maldives. For Maldives, India has been the main responder; be it the coup attempt in 1988 which made the Indian forces intervene under the code ‘Operation Cactus’, or the Tsunami disaster in 2004. India was the first country to send relief assistance. In 2014, Male had drinking water crisis as a major desalination plant broke down, India overnight air lifted drinking water to the Islands. During the Covid-19 pandemic, India sent essential medical supplies.

In comparison to China, India has greater soft power which New Delhi must deploy. This should be done not as a bully or a big brother in the region but as an unoffending friendly country despite huge difference in size and strength. One way New Delhi could use its soft power is to encourage informal contacts between political and civil society actors in India and other South Asian countries. Second, India could encourage non-state actors to engage in conflict management mechanisms in the region as New Delhi is reluctant to get involved at an official level – Myanmar is a case in point.

The track-II diplomacy consisting of cultural exchange, education collaboration and business promotion is the best way forward. The myth that foreign policy objectives can be met by the Ministry of External Affairs alone has to be busted. In so doing, India can resolve the contradiction between her global rise and local decline.—INFA



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