coco palms on paradise beach. Photo: iStock
coco palms on paradise beach. Photo: iStock

Strategically located in the Indian Ocean, the Republic of Maldives provides a vital link between China and Europe under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Ever since they started investing in the country’s infrastructure in 2014, India has felt threatened by Chinese state-owned companies operating in the archipelago. China is constructing a bridge connecting the capital city of Male to Hulhule airport, it has inked a free-trade agreement with the Maldives, and it has leased the uninhabited island Feydhoo Finolhu for tourism use for 50 years.

New Delhi has tried hard to restore its traditional clout in the region, but attractive opportunities for Chinese businesses in the Maldives are undermining that objective. Nepal, Bangladesh and now even the Maldives are seen by New Delhi as increasingly unmanageable. Consequently, there has been some concern that a Doklam-type row might occur between India and China over activity in the Maldives.

New Delhi has tried hard to restore its traditional clout in the region, but attractive opportunities for Chinese businesses in the Maldives are undermining that objective

Condemning the Maldives government’s China-friendly stance, exiled former leader Mohamed Nasheed accused it of facilitating a “land grab” of islands and fomenting “Islamic extremism.” Also in August 2017, three Chinese warships docked in the Maldives for joint training sessions and Nasheed said,“Right now, three Chinese warships are in Male; we’ve never seen this before. We have never seen warships coming into the Maldives like this, for a goodwill visit or otherwise.”

As conditions worsened last month, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen imposed a state of emergency to contain ongoing protests, giving Nasheed the opportunity to publicly request Indian military intervention, a reminder of India’s 1988 action to prevent a coup. As related in Sushant Singh’s book Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible in the Maldives, Indian troops arrived at Hulhule airport just 16 hours after the request from President Gayoom in Male.

The Indian media also called for a repeat of Operation Cactus to re-install Nasheed. Interestingly, 11 Chinese warships just happened to arrive in the eastern Indian Ocean amid the country’s constitutional crisis. It has been assumed that this “may have helped deter an Indian intervention in the Maldives” around the same time that Male also declined an invitation by the Indian navy to participate in military exercises, citing the ongoing “state of emergency” as a reason. Meanwhile, President Yameen sent special envoy Mohamed Saeed to brief friendly countries such as China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the political crisis.

As the standoff continues, India feels helpless as even the option of military intervention is no longer feasible, and threatening the country with isolation and increasing diplomatic pressure has not worked either. Describing the geopolitical threat, Brahma Chellaney from the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi wrote, “China has been eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, as part of its effort to build its ‘string of pearls’: a chain of military installations and economic projects aimed at projecting Chinese power in the Indian Ocean.”

Advising India to have faith in the Maldives’ ability to resolve the “internal” matter like the “Kashmir issue,” senior Maldives minister Mohamed Shainee recently said, “Why haven’t we gone into the Kashmir issue and asked to be an intermediary in the issue? Because they are internal matters.” Adding that the Maldives “may be a small country,” but it is “independent and patriotic,” he reminded India that the Maldives has hosted US and Saudi warships in the past as well, not just Chinese ones. Attempting to pacify India, he said, “We are eager to do business [with China] but portraying that China is the major investor in Maldives is against facts. India, Saudi Arabia, United States and many international funding agencies are actively part of major infrastructure, tourism projects happening right now.”

Putting things into perspective, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives. This is also an important principle enshrined by UN charter. We support the Maldives government to properly resolve issues through dialogue and consultations with relevant parties and uphold independence, sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests of Maldives.” Maintaining that there should be no external interference in the island nation’s political affairs, especially in light of reports of Indian special forces being ready for deployment, China has urged the international community to let the matter be resolved internally.

Referring to the stalemate, Harsh Pant from the India Institute at King’s College in London said, “India’s options now are severely constrained.” Competing for influence with China has not been fruitful, and now India is trying to improve its ties with the economic giant. Following a visit to China by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, senior political leaders and government functionaries were told to stay away from the Dalai Lama’s 60th anniversary event. Encouragingly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang commented, “Chinese dragon and Indian elephant must not fight each other, but dance with each other. If China and India are united, one plus one will not include two, but also 11.”

Having been unable to regain its clout in its immediate neighborhood, India seems to be exploring other options in its dealings with China. Indulging in a geopolitical competition with China has not proved practical and India cannot afford a conflict. However, it remains to be seen how the scenario will play out as there are different schools of thought in New Delhi and India also has to think of its Western allies.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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