Will the Rivals Dance?

15089330590_f526f4f199_oEven as China and India maneuver for naval supremacy, trade can bring them together.

By Rajendra Prabhu.

“The Dragon-Elephant tango is possible,” said China’s Ambassador to India, Le Yucheng, in early March. It was on the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to the Indian Ocean island nations of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, where India and China rival for geopolitical influence.

The Chinese ambassador’s remarks were meant to remove the impression that Beijing viewed Modi’s visit as part of a competition between Asia’s two largest nations. But the situation between the two in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea looks more like a sequence of strategic moves than a friendly tango.

Strategic Moves

A week before Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena’s new government blocked the ongoing Colombo port city project, for which China had promised $1.5 billion in support in exchange for various concessions.  Though the Colombo government said the decision was part of President Sirisena’s electoral pledge to review all megaprojects entered into by his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksha, the timing was significant.

The Modi visit to Sri Lanka takes place in the wake of an India-friendly government winning the January election with a massive popular mandate.  Then-President Rajapaksha had advanced the election date hoping to ride back to power for the third time on the basis of his victory over militant Tamil secessionists.  He had even boasted that he had no rival challenger in the election. But public discontent with his authoritarian ways, including dismissing the chief justice, promotion of Buddhist extremism, and rampant corruption, led to hiministerial colleague Sirisena breaking away and becoming  a challenger.  Both the Sinhalas and the Tamils voted for Sirisena, surprising the incumbent and defeated president.

The new regime quickly set off in January to mend the relationship with India, promising to …

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