Even before General Liang Guanglie completed the first ever visit by a Chinese defence minister to Sri Lanka last week,the president of Maldives,Mohamed Waheed,was catching a flight to China.
Together,these two events help underline the current intensive Chinese engagement with Sri Lanka and Maldives and the extraordinary importance that island states have acquired in Beijings naval strategy.
In the East and South China Seas,small islands are at the very heart of Chinas deepening territorial conflicts with Japan,Vietnam and the Philippines. In the Indian Ocean,Beijings focus is on developing strong comprehensive partnerships with Sri Lanka,Maldives,Seychelles and Mauritius.
These island states are located along the critical sea lines of communication that ferry energy and mineral resources from the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa to the industrial heartland on Chinas eastern seaboard. As protecting Chinas lifelines through the Indian Ocean becomes a vital national interest for Beijing,China has devoted sustained high-level political attention and relentless operational engagement with the island states.
In Sri Lanka,the Press Trust of India reported from Colombo,Liang pledged assistance worth $100 million for various welfare projects initiated by the Sri Lankan army in northern and eastern Sri Lanka that witnessed prolonged Tamil insurgency. Liang visited some of these areas during his extended tour of Sri Lanka.
In China,President Waheed signed agreements for economic assistance worth $500 million. The Chinese package includes $150 million for housing and infrastructure and $350 million from Chinas EXIM Bank.
Beijing has also actively encouraged tourist flows from China into both Sri Lanka and Maldives. China opened its embassy in Maldives last November when the island nation was hosting an annual South Asian summit.
India is taking Chinas strategic outreach to Sri Lanka and Maldives in its stride. But Delhi would want to reflect on the reported comments of President Waheed praising Chinas policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of nations and contrasting it to Indias meddling in its neighbourhood.
It does not really matter whether Waheed actually said words to this effect in interview to the official Chinese news agency,Xinhua. But it does underscore an important difference between the Indian and Chinese policies towards the subcontinent.
For India,its general rhetoric on the principle of non-intervention (most recently heard at the NAM summit) does not apply to the subcontinent. For,Delhis stakes in a peaceful and stable neighbourhood are too large to take a detached view of the internal developments within its smaller neighbours. Whether it is the question of Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka,or promoting reconciliation between contending political groups in Nepal and Maldives,Delhi is hands on,shall we say,when it comes to the neighbourhood.
Beijing,in contrast,has the luxury of affirming non-interference as a high principle in the subcontinent. Whether it is Pakistan or Sri Lanka,China has decided to focus on dealing with whoever is in power rather than taking sides in internal political battles. This has yielded handsome dividends for Beijing,although occasionally it finds itself wrong-footed when there are big internal changes and China is on the side of status quo.
For India,the problem is that competing groups within the smaller countries constantly seek Delhis support to alter the internal balance and deeply resent when it is not forthcoming in their own favour.
For Indias neighbourhood policy,the external is almost always internal too. Delhis dealings with Sri Lanka,for example,have long been constrained by the ruling partys political calculus in Tamil Nadu.
The weaker the Central government in Delhi,the stronger the appeasement of Chennai in the making of the Sri Lanka policy. India is in one of those awful phases right now. This,in turn,has increased the political distance between Delhi and Colombo and opened the door for a larger Chinese security role in Sri Lanka.
India,for example,had initialled a defence cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka nearly a decade ago,but is unable to formalise it,fearing opposition from Tamil Nadu.
With Chinas military profile rising in Sri Lanka,political parties in Tamil Nadu are competing with each other to undermine Delhis military engagement with Colombo. While the domestic constraints are real,it is Delhis duty to protect Indias national interests. But is the UPA government capable of drawing a line? Anywhere?
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor with The Indian Express