China’s Indian Ocean ambitions are likely to get a boost from a recent amendment to the Maldivian Constitution that allows foreign ownership of land in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Hitherto, foreigners were permitted only to lease land in the Maldives for a period of 99 years. The amended law will allow foreigners who invest over $1 billion in a project to purchase land within the project site if at least 70% of the area of the completed project is on reclaimed land.
While the law applies to foreigners of all nationalities, it is the Chinese who are expected to grab the opportunity opening up. Not only do they have the deep pockets necessary to make investments of this magnitude but also have the expertise in reclamation technology.
Indian analysts warn that the amendment will pave the way for Chinese companies purchasing land, perhaps even islands in the Maldives. These could be developed eventually by the Chinese government as strategic assets. It would provide China with a permanent presence in the Maldives, enabling it to project power in the Indian Ocean.
An archipelago of 1,182 tiny, low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is strategically located. It straddles major international shipping lanes through which ships carrying oil from the Persian Gulf pass enroute to markets in India, China, Japan and South Korea.
The Maldives’ location just 300 miles from the southeastern coast of India adds to its strategic value. A Chinese listening post or naval facility there would have implications for India’s security.
India has been apprehensive over China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and its increasingly robust relationship with its neighbors. In Sri Lanka, for instance, China is involved in massive infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, a city on reclaimed land, etc.
As Sri Lanka’s indebtedness to China increases so will its vulnerability to pressure from China, India fears. This could culminate in Colombo caving in to Chinese pressure to allow its naval ships access to Sri Lankan ports.
Such apprehensions gained currency last year when Chinese submarines docked in Colombo harbor.
Like Sri Lanka, the Maldives too is being courted assiduously by Beijing. The Chinese have made major inroads in the archipelago over a short period. And they are gaining ground at India’s expense.
A multi-million dollar deal to upgrade Male’s international airport that was originally awarded to an Indian company was cancelled in 2012 and handed to the Chinese. During President Ji Xinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014 – the first ever by a Chinese president – the Maldives, much to India’s chagrin, enthusiastically signed on to the Maritime Silk Route plan.
It is in the context of China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean and the Maldives that the Maldivian law allowing foreign ownership of land must be seen. Even if Chinese purchase of land in the Maldives does not culminate in military facilities or bases there, India will keep a watchful eye on Chinese activity on the islands.
The shipping routes running near the Maldives are vital lifelines for the Indian economy as they are to China. And it was to protect trade done via these routes from the depredations of pirates and to protect its western flank from attacks by terrorists and hostile states that India commissioned in 2012 a new base, Indian Naval Ship (INS) Dweeprakshak, in its Lakshadweep Islands, which lie to the north of the Maldivian archipelago.
Should the new Maldivian law facilitate the setting up of a Chinese military facility in the Maldives, Dweeprakshak will see a rival emerge close by.
The undue haste with which the constitutional amendment was rushed through the Maldivian parliament has raised eyebrows in Delhi.
Interestingly, the amendment enjoyed support across political parties, with parliamentarians belonging to even the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, which is seen to be close to India, voting for it.
The Maldivian government has sought to allay India’s apprehensions by insisting that the constitutional amendment is purely and “economic measure” aimed only at attracting investment into “mega-projects.”
“Our sovereignty is not on offer,” the Maldives’ Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb told The Hindu soon after the passage of the amendment.
The Indian government is unlikely to have been fully convinced by such assurances. It has adopted a wait-and-watch approach for now.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.
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