At a time of increasing competition for strategic space especially in the Indo-Pacific region, political uncertainty and social instability in the neighbourhood impact India adversely and need to be managed. They require to be viewed from a larger strategic perspective, rather than only from the prism of bilateral relations. In recent months, uncertainties in India’s neighbourhood have increased and highlighted the fragile nature of bilateral relations between India and some of its neighbours. Specifically, the recent political turbulence and social instability in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives—which is just two and a half hours’ flying distance from India—has threatened India’s strategic space and simultaneously raised potential areas of tension between India and China. China’s reactions to the developments in Maldives reflect this tension.
Triggered by protracted rivalry between Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and his stepbrother and former President, Mohamed Nasheed, matters were precipitated on 5 February, when Yameen promulgated a 15-day emergency. These developments prompted tourists to heed travel advisories and cancel plans. They have severely hurt the Maldives tourist industry, which is the mainstay of its economy, and have longer term implications for the region.
Since its independence in 1966, when India was the first country to recognise it, India and the Maldives have maintained close friendly ties. Long perceived as within India’s sphere of influence, Maldives has sought and received urgent Indian assistance at least twice when in dire need. Pertinent in the current context is the assistance rendered by India in November 1988, when it sent 1,600 troops to successfully thwart an attempt by armed Tamil nationalist guerrillas to take over the country and make it a base for their operations. Maldives’ geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean and near India’s western coastline makes it important for India. India has plans—suspended since February—to set up 10 Coastal Surveillance Radar Systems (CSRS) in the Maldives, as part of its coast guard surveillance grid.
An additional concern is the rapid radicalisation taking place in Maldives despite its prosperity. More than 200 Maldives citizens are estimated to have joined the Islamic State (ISIS), which, in terms of percentage of population is possibly the highest in the world. India does not want neighbouring Maldives to become a haven for Islamic terrorists. In this backdrop, the despatch by Yameen of an envoy to Pakistan is not assuring. Neither is the “protective” veto that China has been extending to Pakistan at the UN Sanctions Committee.
The present political uncertainty in Maldives comes in the midst of India-China tensions caused by China’s attempt last year to unilaterally construct a road through Bhutanese territory in the Doklam plateau in violation of a trilateral agreement signed in 2012. It coincides too with Beijing’s strategic ambitions, which include establishing China’s unchallenged influence in South Asia and especially the countries neighbouring India. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), conservatively valued at an estimated US$ 1.4 trillion project, has given impetus to China’s ambitions.
Beijing has, for the past few years, assiduously wooed and invested in the Maldives, which is important for the maritime component of its BRI. Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who has a definite pro-Beijing tilt, amended the Constitution in July 2015 to allow foreigners to own land, including investments of over US$1 billion for projects where 70% of the land has been reclaimed. China promptly purchased the uninhabited island of Feydhoo Finolhu, while a Chinese company displaced the Indian company GMR and acquired the international airport on a 50-year lease for US$4 million. Reports say China is trying to buy another island. Acquisition of Feydhoo Finolhu means a Chinese presence just 75 nautical miles from India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A radar station there will bring India’s entire western and southern coast within China’s coverage.
In December 2017, Maldives, which has a population of under 420,000, signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, allowing it to operate hotels, travel agencies etc in the expectation that it will boost tourist arrivals from approximately 1.5 million per year to 7-8 million. Over 70% of Maldives’ current foreign debt is owed to China on which the loan interest is already more than 20% of Maldives’ budget.
China’s reaction to the crisis reflects its concern of the investment in Maldives being at risk. While China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives”, its official media adopted a tougher, more strident stance. It indicated that the face-off at Doklam remains an issue. Maldives’ intention of joining the BRI and signing a Free Trade Agreement with China, and Nepal allowing internet access through China’s fibre optic cable, were projected as events that were “a serious humiliation for India in its attempt to dominate South Asia”. The interest of China’s military leadership was discernible in a post of 14 February, on a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) site. It disclosed that four PLAN warships had participated in a drill and the “warships entered the East Indian Ocean at the time when the situation in Maldives was tense, follow up of the situation was needed”.
Curious and probably not entirely coincidental was the timing at this juncture of the pro-Beijing Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s remarks calling for a review of the India-Nepal Treaty and questioning the recruitment of Nepalis in Indian Army. The remarks resonate with a suggestion in Nepal’s media in March 2011 that the visiting Chinese General Chen Bingde be conferred the rank of General in the Nepal army, an honour thus far reserved for the Indian Army chief.
An arena of hitherto quiet strategic contest between India and China, who presently have an uneasy relationship, has suddenly become one requiring deft diplomacy and urgent action. India has long had strategic stakes in the Maldives, while China is attempting to acquire dominant influence. Unless effectively countered, China’s moves could diminish India’s immediate strategic space.