Mixed response to India’s neighbourhood outreach

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale held a meeting with Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay on Monday, as he travelled to Thimphu for the second time since February. However, amid signs that the government is making efforts to increase its outreach in the neighbourhood with high-level visits to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, it faced a pushback in the Maldives and Seychelles over military ties.

Mr. Gokhale, who flew to Bhutan on Sunday, met King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck for what the Ministry of External Affairs called a “tradition of regular high-level exchanges between the two countries” and discussed commemorative activities for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan. King Jigme Khesar Wangchuck is expected to visit India later this year for a state visit.

In his statement about their meeting, Mr. Tobgay said Mr. Gokhale and he had also discussed “development cooperation and hydropower projects”.

SAARC summit

The visit comes days before the arrival of Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli to Delhi on April 6, and a week ahead of Mr. Gokhale’s visit to Dhaka. During his visit, Mr. Oli will discuss development assistance projects with India, including the earthquake reconstruction projects, and is also expected to raise the issue of reconvening the SAARC summit, due in Pakistan since 2016.

While this is Mr. Oli’s first visit abroad after taking charge as Prime Minister this year, his first international guest was Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. During the visit Mr. Abbasi is understood to have made a pitch for Nepal, the current SAARC chairman, to mediate with the Modi government to ensure its presence at the next summit this year. New Delhi had called off its participation at the 19th SAARC summit after the Uri attacks in September 2016. A similar pitch is understood to have been made to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena after his visit to Pakistan last week, where he was feted by Prime Minister Abbasi as the chief guest at Pakistan’s National day parade. In a statement later, Mr. Sirisena “extended support for the holding of SAARC Summit in Pakistan”.

Indian Ocean setback

Meanwhile Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa completed his first ever visit to the Maldives on Sunday, seen as another challenge to India’s military dominance of the Indian Ocean region.

A press release by the Maldivian Ministry of Defence issued after General Bajwa’s meeting with Maldivian Defence and National Security Minister Adam Sharee Umar, said the two sides had discussed “strengthening cooperation” between military of both nations.

In particular, what is likely to cause concern in New Delhi, was that the two sides also discussed cooperation in “patrolling of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Maldives”, and a team from the National Counter Terrorism Center of Maldives will also head to Pakistan to strengthen counter-terror cooperation. Thus far such patrols and exchanges have been restricted to cooperation with India. The MEA declined to comment on the meeting and the statement.

India has also faced a setback in the Seychelles last week, where President Danny Faures said he would not table in the National Assembly an agreement with India for development, management, operation and maintenance of facilities on Assumption Island in Seychelles, to secure the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Seychelles.

The agreement, originally agreed to in 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, was signed in January this year, but has yet to be ratified by the National Assembly.

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2020 12:52:16 PM |

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