New Delhi: India on Thursday said it hoped its South Asian neighbours will be sensitive to its concerns, as China makes increasing inroads in its periphery by cementing economic and strategic engagements with countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The comment from the Indian foreign ministry follows media reports that Sri Lanka has formally handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease.
According to the reports, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended a special event to mark the handover, formally described as a concession agreement, on Saturday.
The foreign ministry remark also follows the Maldives last week signing a crucial free trade deal with China, while endorsing its Maritime Silk Road project shunned by India for its strategic implications in the Indian Ocean. Maldives President Abdulla Yameen was quoted in reports as saying that the Maldives views China as “among our closest friends, most trusted and most dependable partners”.
In another neighbour of India’s in South Asia —Nepal—a Leftist coalition forged by China has come to power. Former Nepalese prime minister Khadga Prasad Oli—who shared a difficult relationship with India and a comfortable equation with China—is expected to make a comeback as Prime Minister.
When asked for comments on Sri Lanka handing Hambantota to China and the Maldives signing the free trade pact, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said India shared close ties with both its southern neighbours.
On Hambantota, Kumar said: “Our relations with Sri Lanka stand on their own and are not dependent on relations with any third country. We continue to take up with Sri Lanka issues related to the security concerns in the region and expect that our Sri Lankan friends keep in mind our security concerns and sensitivities.”
India has considered South Asia and the Indian Ocean its spheres of influence and has been worried by China making steady inroads.
Hambantota sits on Sri Lanka’s southern coast and provides access to critical Indian Ocean sea lanes. The acquisition of the port by China has set off alarm bells in India, which is wary of Beijing’s growing strategic and economic clout in the Indian Ocean region.
China, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, is keen to expand its Indian Ocean footprint.
Sri Lanka says the Hambantota Port is purely for civilian purposes. But India worries that China can use it as a service and supply centre for its navy in future.
Beijing opened an overseas base for its navy in Djibouti in August.
In the case of the Maldives and Nepal, New Delhi worries that they can be drawn deeper into China’s economic embrace.
On Maldives-China ties, Kumar said that as long as the ties “contribute to the peace and stability of the region, I think we should welcome that”.
“India attaches highest importance to its ties with the Maldives…We are also committed to support democracy, development and stability in the Maldives. It is our expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, the Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns in keeping with its India-first policy.”
On Nepal, Kumar said India welcomed the conduct of polls —the first under the 2015 constitution—and looked “forward to working with the next democratically elected government to advance our close and multifaceted partnership across all sectors”.