Just months after their Himalayan border standoff, India and China’s rivalry has again reared its head, this time in the Indian Ocean. Mohan Malik reports
Life in the idyllic Maldives – an Indian Ocean archipelagic nation of 1,192 islands with a population of 390,000 – has been thrown into turmoil since early February. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom has sacked police chiefs, arrested chief justices and prominent leaders and declared emergency in defiance of the Supreme Court’s verdict overturning the convictions of 12 jailed parliamentarians, including his rival and former president, Mohamed Nasheed.
While India and the United States, amongst others, condemned the move and called for the restoration of the constitutional order and release of opponents, President Yameen dispatched envoys to ‘friendly nations’ China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to garner support for his bid to tighten his grip on power. Once a progressive Islamic country, Maldivian society is today fractured where Wahhabism has struck deep roots, partly due to Yameen’s courting of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Ever since he became president in a controversial election in 2013, Yameen has systematically weakened democratic institutions, crushed all dissidence, curbed civil liberties and actively courted China.
Convinced that the lurch toward authoritarianism enjoyed China’s support, Nasheed who lives in exile, appealed to India to send a military-backed envoy to resolve the crisis. He accused China of ‘buying up the Maldives’, adding that this year’s presidential election could be ‘the last chance to extricate the Maldives from increasing Chinese influence’. Beijing, of course, dismissed Nasheed’s accusations, claiming that ‘China has offered selfless assistance’ for social development. Amidst reports of India putting its special forces on alert, Beijing voiced its opposition to external interference, saying that ‘China did not want the Maldives to become another “flashpoint” in bilateral relations’. While a Foreign Ministry spokesperson invoked the ‘principles enshrined in UN Charter’, Global Times threatened to ‘take action to stop’ an Indian intervention in the Maldives. Beijing now remains the major lifeline for a beleaguered president who lacks domestic legitimacy and international support.
Thus, six months after the military standoff over Bhutan’s disputed territory in the Himalayas, China and India are now warily watching each other’s moves in the Indian Ocean. The growing political crisis in the Maldives is a direct consequence of the intensifying Sino-Indian geopolitical rivalry. Historically, small states are the first to experience major geopolitical shifts. It is usually ‘the bit players’ on the periphery of rising powers that play a disproportionate role in triggering major crises which prove to be turning points during power transitions. Tiny Maldives fits the bill in the rising Asian giants’ tussle for dominance in the Indian Ocean.
From ‘India First’ to ‘China First’
Up until the ouster of President Nasheed in 2012, the Maldives was tied closely to India economically and militarily under its ‘India First’ policy. In 1988, when a group of mercenaries tried to seize power, India intervened militarily in support of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled for three decades, and later aided the Maldives’ transition to democracy.
However, over the last five years, Beijing has made significant in-roads into the Maldivian politics and economy. It all began with the abrupt termination of a contract to an Indian company to develop Malé international airport in 2012 and its subsequent award to a Chinese company. Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014, the Yameen government amended the Constitution to allow foreign ownership of land, thereby paving the way for leasing the island of Feydhoo Finolhu to China for 50 years. Since then, large Chinese investments in infrastructure, housing projects and tourism have drawn the tourist paradise in the Indian Ocean into Beijing’s tight embrace. Faced with extinction due to rising sea-levels, the Maldives also seeks to leverage Chinese technical prowess in land reclamation and in creating artificial islands via dredging.
Meanwhile, ties with New Delhi plunged to an all-time low as the Yameen government adopted a ‘go-slow’ policy on India-backed economic and defence projects. While India boycotted China’s Belt and Road Forum held in May 2017, the Maldives enthusiastically supported the One Belt One Road (OBOR) which envisages linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks. Then came Yameen’s decision to allow three Chinese ships to make ‘goodwill visits’ in August 2017, which raised hackles in Delhi. Furthermore, days before President Yameen’s meeting with President Xi in Beijing, a hurriedly convened parliamentary session rammed through the 1,000-page free trade agreement with China in less than an hour, inviting sharp criticism from the opposition.
For small states, economic engagement with China has strategic consequences. Electoral politics provides the opportunity for Beijing to court and bribe politicians of fragile democracies along the Belt and Road to seek advantageous position for itself over its competitors. Many believe that China’s investments in littorals are less about development and more about Beijing’s desire to establish itself as a ‘resident power’ in the Indian Ocean – much like the United States, Britain and France. There is invariably a strategic element attached to enterprises that begin with commercial port construction or management and end with naval presence and long-term ownership rights, as in Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The secrecy surrounding the terms of projects’ financing arouses suspicions about a hidden political agenda. An International Monetary Fund report put the Maldives’ debt-to-GDP ratio at 34.7 percent in December 2017, which is expected to surpass 50 percent within three years. The Maldives also has a $286 million trade deficit with China. Former president Nasheed claims that 80 percent of the Maldives’ foreign debt (approximately 1.5 to 2 billion) is owed to Beijing and this would ‘force the Maldives to cede territory to China as early as 2019’.Alleging that ‘China has already taken over 16 islands’, he claimed: ‘Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land than the East India Company at the height of the 19th century.’ Beijing, however, denies any ulterior motives. True or not, the pouring of Chinese money has the fledgling democracy in tatters and its future mortgaged to the Middle Kingdom. Though Nasheed promises to review deals signed with Beijing under Yameen if he is returned to power, he may find his hands tied in the same way as Sri Lanka’s President Sirisena did over the Hambantota and Colombo port projects. Countries far away from China have now become part of its critical interests as China invests heavily in those countries for the purpose of bolstering its maritime and resource security.
Obviously, India is uneasy with China’s growing presence in the Maldives. This is the only South Asian country that India’s Prime Minister Modi has not visited to date. India’s traditional influence over the Indian Ocean is now under serious challenge from China. Corrupt, weak regimes addicted to cheap Chinese loans keep falling into debt traps that end in strategic entrapment.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
The Maldives is now caught in a tug of war between China and India. Both have strategic interests to protect. Both are jostling to gain the upper hand but only one can emerge victorious from this crisis. Seeing it as a critical component of its Maritime Silk Road, China has developed strong equities in the Indian Ocean microstate. Beijing wants to see Yameen stay in power as long as possible to advance its interests. However, India would welcome the return of Nasheed to shift the balance of influence in its favour.
So, how will India respond to the ongoing crisis in the Maldives? What are India’s options?
Given the Maldives’s proximity and strong historic ties, doing nothing is not an option. But no option is cost-free. A military intervention might end either in a quagmire or turn out to be politically costly in terms of India’s long-term interests. It would reinforce India’s image as a big, bad bully. On the other hand, a lack of action would seriously undermine India’s claim of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region, embolden adversaries and disappoint friends who look to India as a strategic counterweight to China.
The possibility of a military intervention cannot be ruled out. India has responded by increasing its naval presence in international waters around an hour from the Maldivian capital of Malé. But so has China by bolstering its naval presence in the eastern Indian Ocean to avail itself of both intervention and evacuation options. Beijing’s nod for the military coup in Zimbabwe in 2017 and support for the Maldivian and Cambodian regimes’ suppression of democracy shows that China will intervene in the domestic affairs of other states should it perceive vital Chinese interests at stake, and if the costs of intervention are relatively low. China sees itself as being engaged in a long protracted competition with India, Japan, and the US and would want Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan to remain within its orbit. Beijing may also want to send a strong message that countries along the OBOR can look to China for both economic growth and military security, and that challenges to its expanding sphere of influence will no longer be tolerated.
Despite a growing chorus for military intervention in India’s strategic circles, the Modi government has to date chosen a diplomatic pathway to pressure Yameen’s government to uphold the Supreme Court’s ruling and restore democracy. India has also asked the United Nations to send a fact finding mission. However, with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia blocking attempts to have the Maldivian crisis tabled on the UN Security Council’s agenda, the UN cannot be of much help. India isseeking the support of the United States, Japan and Britain to oust the pro-China Yameen from power through diplomatic, economic and political means.The United States, with its own base south of the Maldives in Diego Garcia, shares India’s concerns about an autocratic regime heavily indebted to Beijing being manipulated to provide access to Chinese naval vessels.
At the normative level, the Maldives challenges the resurrected Quad’s (comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia)quest for a rules-based ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. The Maldives’ fledgling democracy is, after all, yet another casualty of Xi’s pet project. Evidence from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and now the Maldives suggests that OBOR-related investments undermine democratic institutions, increase corruption, restrict civil liberties and favor autocratic and military rulers. Let us call it the ‘OBOR collateral’.
So, if there is indeed a broader contest of clashing values and visions between the Quad and OBOR going on, then a multilateral response at several different levels is needed to prevent the fall of dominoes to the march of authoritarianism. One country’s response alone, whether India’s or the United States’, cannot deal with this ideological and strategic challenge.