China, the world’s second largest economy and India, its sixth largest, have been locked in a battle for influence across Asia and the Middle East, for the better part of this millennia. The world has seen its spillovers in Afghanistan’s reconstruction after the war, Nepal’s newly minted constitution, territorial skirmishes in Bhutan, oil drilling contracts in Vietnam and ties with Iran, Israel and Central Asian countries. For all its ambitions, India perhaps realizes the need to safeguard the Indian subcontinent from Chinese interference. Apart from India, the subcontinent comprises of – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the islands of Maldives.
Among them, Pakistan has had a rivalry with India since its birth in 1947, when both countries gained independence. Bangladesh’s own independence from Pakistan was brought about by Indian help in 1971, while Nepal and Bhutan have historically been de-facto protectorates of India. In 2007, Nepal re-drafted a treaty of friendship with India that omitted a reference to Indian direction on Nepal’s foreign policy, something that had existed in their previous treaty. A similarly worded treaty with Bhutan, however, continues to exist. Indian ties with Myanmar, which was until 1935 part of the same colony ruled by Britain, have been mixed. The coming of a military dictatorship and the house arrest of Nobel laureate and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who studied at one of India’s leading universities and had close ties to the country, meant that India had to restrict its ties with the country for the larger part of the 20th century. India and Sri Lanka’s relationship was caught in a topsy-turvy as a Tamil separatist movement pushed the latter into a civil war, with the separatists garnering sympathy from the substantial population of Tamils living in South India. While the central government often staked its own credibility to militarily help the Central Sri Lankan leadership- an effort because of which Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil sympathizer- but the entire affair was massively mismanaged. However, ties did improve from the beginning of the millennia as the movement withered away.
The relationship between India and Maldives, was, until recently, the most stable of all. This article is an attempt to look at the recent events in Maldives and analyze them in the larger context of Chinese expansion into the subcontinent. Over the past decade, and especially since the arrival of Xi Jinping, the Dragon has attempted to extend its influence in the Indian subcontinent- a challenge that the Elephant has attempted to fight off.
Maldives is the smallest Asian country, by population and size, however, it commands massive strategic importance as it sits on the Designated Sea Lines of Communication between Europe and the Middle East and South and South-East Asia.
In November 1978, when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the President of the Maldives after 13 years of political unrest, Maldivians hailed it as the end of political uncertainty. Gayoom was a staunch ally for India. In 1988, Gayoom was personally threatened in a military coup aided by Tamil Rebels from Sri Lanka. Back then, on the orders of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Armed Forces conducted Operation Cactus that reversed the coup and saved Gayoom's life. The incident cemented India's hold over the politics of the island country and continued even after Gayoom's ouster by pro-democracy protests. Gayoom's successor, Mohamed Nasheed, further built on the relationship.
Enter, The Dragon.
The situation turned when President Nasheed, plauged by Opposition protests resigned and the Presidency fell on his deputy, Mohamed Waheed. In 2010, a private Indian Multinational, GMR, was awarded a contract for the modernization of the Male Airport. The Waheed administration rescinded the contract in 2012, citing national interests. While GMR won the contract after a protracted legal battle, the incident signaled dwindling support for India within the Maldivian Government. Many suspected Chinese influence to have been a factor in the incident, while still others attributed it to domestic political considerations.
However, in 2015 China announced its arrival on the Maldivian scene with pomp and show as a 'Friendship Bridge' was signed on by the two countries. The 7km long bridge linking two islands of the country, would mark the beginning of the upswing in the relationship between Beijing and Male. As the former President Nasheed was arrested in 2015, Indian PM Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to the island country scheduled for March of the same year. Maldives went on to join the Belt and Road Initiative, defying India's expectations and in 2017, signed a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing. Despite attempts at conciliation, the FTA has become a concern for India’s strategic interests in the region. As per the FTA, China has agreed to waive import duties on Maldivian imports, mostly fisheries products, whereas Maldives will not charge any tariffs from China for agricultural and industrial imports.
The most glaring thing about this situation is that even New Delhi does not have a FTA with Male. In addition, the process itself was suspiciously expeditious with Maldives arranging for a clearance from its National Security Committee- which usually involves scrutiny of about 500 documents- within 30 minutes. The FTA was dubbed a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)- an ironic icing on India's humble pie. Furthermore, while the FTA covers only fisheries from Maldives, protected Chinese imports include ‘industrial and agricultural products’, giving Beijing a disproportionate access to Male's markets.
President Yameen (left) and President Jinping (right) at the Great Hall of The People, Beijing.
Beijing owns about 70% of Maldivian debt, an added import duty relaxation, especially for high costing industrial and agricultural products will further drive down the cost of Chinese products, making them cheaper and rendering exports from other countries non-competitive. This does not even factor in the inherent advantages enjoyed by Chinese exporters owing to the country's cheap labor force and the myriad of export-subsidies built into the Chinese system.
Male's response to the FTA was also telling, a Presidential Office Statement read,
“Maldivian government has extended invitations to establish free trade agreements with countries including Japan, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and countries of the European Union.”
The statement mentions a host of countries by name, but not India. Such a reversal in India's fortunes in a country that it deems its geographical backyard speaks volumes of the blunder that has happened on the watch of the Indian leadership. Prime Minister Modi, who has often hailed his government's successes on the international front, seems to have been paralyzed in the face of increasing Chinese influence.
As February 2018 dawned, the Maldivian Supreme Court declared the arrest of former President Nasheed and several opposition leaders illegal. It ordered the government to release the prisoners. It was evident that Nasheed's return to Maldives would cause severe problems for President Yameen, as the former had forged an alliance with his predecessor President Gayoom. President Yameen refused to comply with the order and declared a state of emergency in which the judges of the Supreme Court were detained at the court itself. On Feb 6 2018, Maldives President Nasheed took to twitter to demand that India intervene militarily and end the constitutional crisis. His tweet read,
Since then, he has time and again clarified that he does not ask for Indian military forces to forcefully depose President Yameen or take over Male, but only ensure physical presence solidarity.
Former President Mohamed Nasheed.
A day after the tweet, Beijing jumped in the midst with unexpected alacrity. In a carefully worded statement, very clearly aimed at New Delhi, but without naming India, it advised countries against 'further complicating the situation' in Maldives. While the statement, urged countries to respect Maldives' sovereignty, it was a strong enough message to New Delhi against moving forth in the country. And, it worked. Wile India dithered in formulating a coherent response, news reports emerged of Chinese navy having moved into the Indian Ocean through the Sundra Strait in Indonesia. A fleet of destroyers, at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers entered the Indian Ocean. While it was dubbed to be a 'routine exercise', and the ships returned while the Indian Navy patrolled the Maldivian waters, the move was viewed by strategists as a Chinese attempt at testing India's resolve.
A map showing the Sunda strait.
Reports have also emerged that China is planning to establish a Joint Ocean Observation Station on the Makunudhoo island (which is closest to Indian coastline) in Maldives. Coupled with the Atching station and a listening post with radars and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) facilities with possible military application owing to the provision for a submarine base, the base will become a matter of grave concern and is viewed as a part of the String of Pearls. While there are reports of India attempting to counter this by building its own base in Seychelles, another island nation in the Indian Ocean, details on this aspect are sketchy and India's bureaucratic and political establishment cannot move as fast as those of the Chinese, not to mention the significantly more resources that Beijing can muster.
More than a month since the Maldivian Supreme Court's judgement, Mohamed Nasheed still remains in exile in Sri Lanka, President Yameen continues to exercise control on a state of emergency and Indian naval forces have been hamstrung into circling the lonely tides of the Indian Ocean. It is clear that a stalemate is a victory for the dragon. Despite its significantly smaller resources, the elephant had proven itself to be a tough rock to budge in Doklam, and seemed to be competing well in Central Asia, but the past months have proven that despite the suave of Narendra Modi, there are some battles where dithering on decisions can be costly.
When India fended off the 1988 coup in Maldives, Margret Thatcher proclaimed, "Thank God for India!", this time, President Yameen would probably be saying, "Thank God for Beijing".
About The Author
Sanya Khurana is a student of law at the IP University, Delhi, India. Sanya is also pursuing her Company Secretary course and is an avid follower of International Relations, in addition to being an established participant and organizer of Model United Nations Conferences at the national and international level.