Delhi help for neighbours to counter China

When Sri Lanka was hit by floods late in May and Bangladesh was struck by a cyclone days later, India rushed ships with relief material, divers and doctors for rescue operations. But the ships also carried a subtle message: the projection of India as a friend in need.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 9.06.17
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Sushma Swaraj

New Delhi, June 8: When Sri Lanka was hit by floods late in May and Bangladesh was struck by a cyclone days later, India rushed ships with relief material, divers and doctors for rescue operations. But the ships also carried a subtle message: the projection of India as a friend in need.

India is trying to counter China's infrastructure and financial promises to South Asia in part by trying to underscore its credentials as a sensitive bigger neighbour quick to respond to crises like the ones in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, senior officials said.

Officially, India has tried to suggest it is confident of its decision to boycott a summit in Beijing last month hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping on his signature international project - the One Belt One Road (Obor) or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj had said on Monday India was happy that some European nations too had articulated concerns over the Chinese connectivity initiative - a network of ports, highways and railroads connecting Asia, Africa and Europe - at the Beijing meet.

But the presence of leaders from every South Asian nation barring India and Bhutan - which rarely takes foreign policy positions different from its bigger neighbour - at the Beijing meet has left New Delhi worried, and preparing for an alternative pitch to the region.

Sushma, who has not travelled abroad since last September - she underwent a kidney transplant in December and has been recovering since - will also make her first visits outside the country after her recuperation to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

India's relief and rescue efforts have won applause from its neighbours. It sent three ships to Sri Lanka.

"When we had the floods, within 48 hours we had not one, not two but three ships from India coming to our assistance," Sri Lanka's foreign minister Ravi Karunanayake said here yesterday. "That shows the uniqueness of our relationship."

India has contributed significantly to relief and rescue operations in its neighbourhood in the past too, including in 2015 when a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, leaving over 9,000 dead. The Narendra Modi government's assistance then won it respect and support in Nepal - though the Prime Minister blunted some of that by claiming he first informed Nepal's Prime Minister about the temblor. Sections of the Indian media, which focused not on Nepal's trauma but solely on the work of India's rescue forces, also riled many ordinary Nepalese.

But as China has ramped up its engagement and influence with India's neighbours, New Delhi's concerns - and desire to counter - have only increased.

Both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka participated in the Beijing summit on the BRI, and China's navy sent three ships on a friendly visit to both countries last week - the ships are visiting countries that lie along the path of the connectivity initiative.

When India launched the South Asia satellite in May with transponders loaned to all regional nations expect Pakistan, Modi pitched the initiative as a show of New Delhi's resolve to stand by its neighbours in helping them meet their developmental goals.

" Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Together with all, development for all) can be the guiding light for action and cooperation in South Asia and a befitting way for us to achieve our shared priorities of economic prosperity for our people," Modi told other South Asian leaders at the satellite launch. "And in this, you will find a strong and committed partner in India that truly believes in the strength of this choice and principle."

India, while boycotting the BRI meet, also warned other nations that joining the Chinese initiative could leave them in a "debt trap".