Xi sells Seychelles on the seashore. This twist on a familiar tongue twister doesn’t precisely describe how India’s jump to international military power status was thwarted, but isn’t entirely inaccurate. Back in 2011, China considered building a military base on an island in the Seychelles. India objected, but its protests were rendered moot once China shifted its attention to Djibouti. In 2015, Narendra Modi visited the Indian Ocean nation, the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in over three decades, and sealed a deal to develop Assumption Island as an Indian naval base. Now, it was China’s turn to try and scuttle the agreement.
Three years on, after a number of fire-fighting attempts by top Indian diplomats, Modi’s outreach to the Seychelles feels like an episode of Presumption Island. The Seychellois President Danny Faure has terminated the naval base plan ahead of a visit to India. Perhaps he will receive as cold a welcome in New Delhi as the one accorded to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who was greeted on arrival by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a man virtually no Indian would be able to recognise on sight. Trudeau hasn’t forgotten the snub, which will certainly rebound on India at some point.
We don’t know how much of a role China played in spurring protests against the Indian base, but I’m sure it was not negligible. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues take no prisoners in securing what they perceive as China’s interests. Consider another Modi initiative from his early days in power which seemed innovative but ended in a shambles: his visit to Mongolia. The idea was that, as China’s “string of pearls” threatened to encircle India, New Delhi would perform a counter-encirclement. In effect, Modi was saying to Xi, “I see your Hambantota and raise you Ulaanbataar.” He promised Mongolia a billion dollar credit line to secure the nation against any Chinese threat. The next year, following a visit to Mongolia by the Dalai Lama, China struck, blockading the landlocked nation and strangling its economy. The Mongolians turned to India for the promised relief, but found none forthcoming. Modi’s targeting of China turned out to be as feeble as the archery skills he had demonstrated on his Mongolian visit. Ulaanbataar was forced into a humiliating apology to a Chinese leadership that rules by the Nixonian dictum, “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds follow.”
Coining weird acronyms is among Modi’s favourite occupations, and in Wuhan last month he produced a new one, STRENGTH. Unfortunately, he misspelled it as STREANH while expanding on its meaning. The gaffe, like mistakes politicians commonly make, was good for a quick laugh, but the fact that it happened in China felt queerly appropriate. Faced with a ruthless and more powerful adversary, Modi has made a series of inept moves with respect to traditional allies such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, aside from the missteps in Mongolia and Seychelles. It feels like he is all hat and no cattle, to use a Texan phrase for boastful people who fail to back up their tough talk.
The most compelling counter to such a view is the action on which rests his administration’s reputation for projecting military power: the targeting of launching sites for terrorists commonly referred to as “surgical strikes”. The government has given us no details about what Indian soldiers did in the early hours of September 29, 2016, but there’s little doubt the operation was larger and more coordinated than any previously launched across the Line of Control. Whatever its exact scale, it did no more to deter insurgents than demonetisation, called Modi’s “surgical strike on black money”, did to curb tax evasion. Since that bold act, dozens of Indian soldiers have succumbed to attacks by Pakistani soldiers crossing the Line of Control, shelling from across the border, militant attacks on army camps mirroring the one in Uri which led to the “surgical strike”, militant ambushes on patrols, and gunfights in Kashmiri towns. Security forces have given as good as they got, but the larger story is of escalation on both sides with great loss of life and civic disruption with no end in sight.