Chinese ships are seen operating in the eastern Indian Ocean in a TV broadcast. Photo: CCTV7 screen grab

News Corp Australia Network is reporting that a small Chinese navy task force entered the Indian Ocean last week. China’s CCTV7 has also broadcast images of the Chinese ships sailing in the eastern Indian Ocean.

Though it’s not the first time that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has operated in these waters, the Australian report says the deployment is designed to send a message to India and the US to stay out of an unfolding political crisis in Maldives.

“A naval force of at least one modern destroyer, a frigate, an amphibious assault ship and a support tanker entered the Indian Ocean last week,” said the News Corp report, which speculated that the flotilla would “linger” in the area.

In related news, the Maldivian parliament on Tuesday extended an existing state of emergency by 30 days, as protests in the capital Malé and international tensions over the crisis continued to mount.

Ongoing political crisis

Maldivan President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency on February 5 after his refusal to comply with a Supreme Court decision to free political opposition leaders. The showdown escalated after Supreme Court judges and other political opponents were arrested.

Yameen has forged close ties with China and courted investments from Beijing. New Delhi and Washington are displeased with Yameen’s pro-China stance, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reportedly mulling sending troops to Maldives to intervene in the crisis.

Maldivian opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed recently charged that China was “buying up the Maldives” through its ties to Yameen. Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, called attention to the sizable debts that Maldives has run up with Beijing. He alleged that China might be tempted to seize public assets such as ports in return.

China will ‘take action’

China’s state-run tabloid Global Times warned in an op-ed on February 13 that Beijing would “take action” if New Delhi unilaterally decided to send troops to the crisis-hit Maldives.

“Without UN empowerment, there would be no righteous cause for any armed force to intervene. China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, but that does not mean that Beijing will sit idly by as New Delhi breaks the principle. If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi,” the daily said in the op-ed.

The picturesque chain of islands in the Indian Ocean is assuming growing strategic importance, along with Sri Lanka, due to its proximity to critical oil shipping lanes to Asia. China is reportedly keen on using Maldives as a base for its warships. The US and India are also said to be interested in building similar bases in the region to counter China.

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