The remarkable recent developments in the above-mentioned countries are interesting because they characterise the development of the situation in the vast Indian Ocean region. This region, however, has been included for almost two decades in the more general political and geographical category of the Indo-Pacific.
The struggle between the world’s leading players for control of the situation in the Indian Ocean region as a whole, but mainly over the largest trade route passing through it, has been manifesting itself in recent years in an increasingly acute form and on various occasions. The most obvious illustration of this is, of course, the recent events in the Red Sea.
Against this background, the significance of everything that will be discussed here regarding the three countries seems to pale into insignificance. At least, this is the conclusion one can come to, judging by the place in the world media space occupied by the “Houthis” and the “coalition forces opposing them”, and the degree of presence (or rather, absence) of the events discussed below. Nevertheless, in the author’s opinion, they deserve no less attention.
Especially in the longer term, when new significant players will assert themselves in the global political arena even more confidently (than they already are). In this case, these include, first of all, China, India and Japan. Their growing, let’s say, interest in everything that happens in the Indian Ocean region in general and in the three countries in particular is more or less regularly commented on in the NEO.
So, let us recall that last September presidential elections were held on the territory of the island state of the Maldives, with a population of about half a million people. Their main result was not only a party-personal change of the country’s leadership, but also, it seems, of its foreign policy course. This is of great significance in the game unfolding in the Indian Ocean region, in which, we repeat, the presence of the above-mentioned three leading Asian powers is becoming more and more prominent. And also taking into account the fact that the Maldives island archipelago, stretching 800 kilometres from north to south near the equator, “crosses” the world’s main trade route.
Under former President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the Maldives followed a distinctly pro-Indian course. This was evidenced by the presence on the territory of the country of a contingent of 75 Indian troops with two light helicopters. They are still there, but will probably be going home in the near future.
This very issue was at the centre of the electoral struggle, as a result of which Maldives is now headed by Mohamed Muizzu, who entered it under the almost key slogan of the need for the immediate removal of the Indian contingent from the territory of the country. Being already in the status of president, he once again stated this in early January this year. And not anywhere, but while on a visit to China, where he was received by the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. No less remarkable is the fact that this was the first trip abroad of the new President of the Maldives.
An unpleasant incident in Maldivian-Indian relations just before the latter’s trip to Beijing also drew attention. Some members of the new Maldivian government made some invectives against India, as well as against Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally. Consequently, three ministers were immediately dismissed and President M. Muizzu made the necessary apologetic remarks. It was only then that India considered the incident to be over.
Nevertheless, this very fact is indicative of the nature of the change of positioning in the RIO of a tiny country, but, we repeat, occupying an extremely important strategic position. In this connection, India has so far considered it “premature” to talk about plans to organise a visit by M. Muizzu to New Delhi as well.
The general elections in another country in the region, Bangladesh, took place on 7 January this year, not without elements of drama, but without any major upheavals. It has an immeasurably larger population (about 170 million people) and a strategic position no less important than that of the Maldives. Here, too, in the “price of the issue”, along with mainly internal problems, the external component in the form of the presence of the same two major regional “stakeholders” was quite clearly visible. Japan has shown its intention to join them, and in company with India.
It is pertinent to note that the same India (and, incidentally, the USSR) played an exceptional role in the process of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. With few exceptions, since then, Dhaka has more or less consistently shown favour with New Delhi.
But over the past half century, as they say, a lot of water has flowed. One of the main changes that have occurred in the scenario of the “Big World Game” is the emergence of China as one of its two main participants. At the same time, Beijing has its own global interests and problems. First of all, in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole, but especially in the Indian Ocean region. The task of ensuring reliable access to the Indian Ocean as an essential element of the Belt and Road Initiative global project is becoming strategically important for China.
In order to solve this problem, efforts are being made to involve almost all neighbours to the south-west of China in this project. One of the most expedient (from all points of view) transport and logistics routes linking China with the Bay of Bengal could be the one that would pass through the territory of Bangladesh. The interest of Bangladesh’s leadership in attracting the huge resources of one of the world’s two leading powers to solve its own problems seems obvious enough.
It is still difficult to say what the prospects are for realising the ‘Bangladesh arm’ of the BRI as a whole. But in June 2022, a landmark event took place in the country with the official opening of traffic on a gigantic nearly ten-kilometre-long road-rail bridge over the Padma River, the largest tributary of the Ganges. Which was built by a Chinese company. The above-mentioned official ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The government she leads (from 1996-2001 and from 2009 to date) balances the field of power created by Bangladesh’s two great neighbours. And although, let us repeat, the main content of the “price of the issue” of the elections held in this country on 7 January was reduced to the next results of the escalating struggle between political groups that have been opposing for decades, the “external” component mentioned above was also quite clearly visible in it. The victory of the Sheikh Hasina-led bloc (won, however, in conditions of unprecedentedly low voter turnout) can be seen as evidence of the continuation of the same balancing of Bangladesh’s foreign policy course.
And very briefly about the situation in Myanmar, i.e. in another country located between India and China. It should be noted that until recently, Beijing has been more confident (than in Bangladesh) in implementing the project to solve the above-mentioned strategic task.
Therefore, it is very unfortunate for the PRC that in late October last year, the internal political situation in Myanmar sharply escalated after a large-scale outbreak (more or less permanent) of armed struggle, this time by united anti-government forces. Beijing immediately took mediation measures to manage the conflict and, judging by the recent statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the parties are adhering to the ceasefire.
Finally, it seems appropriate once again to outline the place of modern Russia in the game that is unfolding in the Indian Ocean region. It should be assumed that as the US presence here (and in global processes in general) inevitably diminishes, the factor of relations between India and China will come to the fore. Given that Moscow maintains good relations with both Beijing and New Delhi, all possible efforts should be made to normalise and constructively develop relations between the latter.
This will not be easy to do give the scale of concern for India on the part of the main geopolitical opponents of both Russia and China. This includes, in particular, the incorporation of people of Indian origin into the leadership elites of the United States and the United Kingdom. However, New Delhi’s initial “fascination” with this fact seems to be fading.
For the fulfilment of the above-mentioned mission of the Russian Federation, the beginning of the year offers a suitable occasion, which will be Russia’s assumption of the functions of the organising country and host of the BRICS configuration events. Among other things, this should become an important element of the “turn to the East” of Russia’s foreign policy course as a whole.
Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.