The president of Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, couldn’t have asked for anything more from his Beijing visit that turned into a love-fest. The president of the tiny archipelago, which has 4,39,000 people, got red-carpet treatment from the moment he set foot in China’s capital — including a ceremonial meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People. A thousand-page free trade agreement signed in China was rubber-stamped through the Maldives parliament soon afterwards.

That wasn’t all. China’s already building the 7-km Friendship Bridge from the Maldives capital Male to the nation’s only international airport on nearby Hulhule island. The Chinese announced they viewed the Maldives as “an important partner in the construction of the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road”. Yameen, not to be outdone, replied that China was “amongst our closest friends”.

The Maldives, just 720 km from Thiruvananthapuram, has always been considered a part of India’s backyard. But the Chinese now view all of Asia as their stamping ground. Proof of this is the way they’re ramping up their presence in the Indian Ocean all the way from Pakistan to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Late last week, Sri Lanka handed over to China Hambantota port after signing a 99-year lease as part of a $1.1-billion deal.

In Pakistan, a Chinese delegation’s been hammering out the terms of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a large part of which revolves around Gwadar port being developed by China in rugged, thinly populated Baluchistan. The Gwadar Port Authority will keep just 9 per cent of gross revenue from the port and its marine services, and 15 per cent of revenue from the surrounding businesses.

Game of ports

This modern-day Game of Ports is part of the diplomatic battle being fought all over Asia. On the one side, China is expanding its reach and on the other India is trying to ensure it isn’t hemmed in by the dragon. China is growing its influence in all directions with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that includes a special focus on building a commanding Indian Ocean presence. China’s overriding fear has always been what Hu Jintao called the “Malacca dilemma” —- the possibility that any blockade of the narrow Malacca Straits would squeeze China.

“They’re a trade-and-energy-dependent nation. In that context, they’ve consciously invested in the Indian Ocean,” says Commodore Uday Bhaskar, director, Society for Policy Studies.

The diplomatic tussle has also stepped up in Nepal which has just elected a coalition government headed by KP Oli and supported by the leftists who’ve traditionally been close to China. Relations between India and Nepal plummeted two years ago when the Nepalese accused India of organising a blockade because it was unhappy with a new constitution being brought in. Oli accused India then of putting a squeeze on his country. Nepal’s already indicated keenness to participate in the BRI and Oli is expected to tilt away from India even more heavily than before though that could be offset by long historical bilateral ties and the plus factor that Nepalese can work in this country.

In Myanmar, too, China seems to be outmanoeuvring us. India’s steadfastly refused to criticise Myanmar’s policies but its hands-off approach looks to have been trumped by China which brokered a settlement under which the Rohingyas will return to their homes in two months.

That’s a deal welcomed by Bangladesh; it also gets the Myanmar government off the hook internationally though aid agencies say the return time-frame for the Rohingyas is unrealistic.

It’s different, long-term

For India, though, the greatest worries are always across the border in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, who see the mega-sized CPEC as its get-out-of-economic-jail card, have welcomed China with open arms. The Chinese are already working on $17 billion in power projects, and road construction worth $6 billion. An IMF team currently in Pakistan has warned this may create unsustainable debt.

The government’s ploughing ahead in hopes that new investments will create momentum that will help pay down debts. Still, suggests Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution, it could backfire. CPEC might unnerve us in the short-term, but medium- to long-term, it will damage the Pakistan-China relationship.

“Pakistani people like China because there’s little day-to-day people-to-people contact. Once Pakistanis have to deal with Chinese bosses, creditors, colleagues and shopkeepers, they’ll have a different view of their ‘all-weather friend’,” predicts Pai. “By that time, the Pakistani government will be deeply indebted to China. Baloch tribesmen will take potshots at Chinese targets along CPEC. None of this bodes well for Pakistan-China relations.”

Meanwhile, neither India nor China can take its eyes off Pakistan’s escalating internal struggles. China’s just warned its citizens to exercise “extreme caution”, especially for kidnaps. India, meanwhile, is becoming alarmed as religious elements grab more political space.

The recent Barelvi agitation blocking the Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway was a stark reminder of how religious elements are reaching for power. What's worse was the Pakistan army’s apparently bungled response, refusing to aid the government and brokering a deal weighted heavily in favour of the Barelvi agitators.

Indian strategy

India, of course, is pursuing its own strategic manoeuvring games against China. It’s joined the Quad — the US, Japan, Australia and India grouping. And last week was the opening of the long-overdue Chabahar port in Iran. The port, 12 years in the making, gives India a route to Afghanistan and onwards to Central Asia. It could be a huge asset as long as the Iranians aren’t bought over by the Chinese with the promise of huge rewards elsewhere.

In Sri Lanka, India’s on a stickier wicket. It’s weighing the option of buying Hambantota airport to curb the Chinese. But there are hardly any airport flights. And we played our hand poorly in the Maldives. “It’s almost dereliction of foreign policy by both the UPA and Modi governments. We allowed a democratically elected, openly pro-India government to be over-run by a shady… openly anti-India regime,” says Pai.

The Chinese see themselves as a global superpower and are moving fast to translate that vision into reality. India, seen by many as a potential Chinese counterweight, can’t aspire to being more than a regional superpower for now.

And even then, we’ll need to move astutely to protect our backyard and ensure we’re not squeezed in on all sides.