Trouble in Paradise? The Maldives & Sino-Indian Competition

Over the past few weeks a political crisis between the President and Supreme Court of the Maldives has been unfolding. With a population of just over 400,000 people, the former British protectorate is Asia’s smallest country by size and population and is probably best known for its idyllic beaches. However, this comes at a time when both Beijing and Delhi are making the Indian Ocean part of their strategic platforms, drawing attention to the island nation’s strategically vital location. The small archipelago may well provide outsized geo-political challenges.

The Brewing Political Storm

The crisis began in the Maldivian capital Malé on February 01, 2018, when the Supreme Court ordered the immediate release of nine opposition figures indicted in the course of a politically motivated investigation, as well as the restoration of 12 sacked MPs whose mandates had been stripped by the Elections Commission under the controversial anti-defection ruling. These 12 parliamentarians are all members of the coalition underpinning the government of President Abdulla Yameen, who are poised to join the opposition. This move would have likely cost the president his parliamentary majority and position.

In response, the government declared a 15-day state of emergency on February 05, recently extended by a further 30-days, despite ambiguity over its legality. Yameen appears to be moving to consolidate his position by; placing Supreme Court justices under arrest, deploying security forces and muzzling the media. These roughshod tactics have prompted former Maldivian President and current opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed, to call upon the Indian government to intervene.

Gunboat Diplomacy

At the same time, Delhi has upped its naval influence with Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlining a five point framework for maritime engagement, which focuses on security in India’s southern neighborhood. As Malé slips toward autocracy and the idyllic Maldivian archipelago is rocked by political turbulence, Delhi and Beijing look on with interest and apprehension. Calls from the Maldivian opposition for India to intervene militarily, as it did in 1988, have put Delhi in an awkward position. Moreover, the appearance this month of a Chinese naval task force in the Eastern Indian Ocean could easily be interpreted as a warning against such action.

Delhi has lauded Maldivian efforts to democratize over the last decade. This has put India at odds with Yameen, who since taking office in 2012 has worked to dismantle checks to the presidency and curb opposition. During the current crisis, Delhi has largely sided with the opposition, issuing statements condemning violations of democratic norms and hosting meetings between Nasheed and senior Indian officials.

Meanwhile, Chinese influence has steadily grown during President Yameen’s tenure. Beijing has funded major infrastructure projects in the island republic, notably constructing the new Malé airport in 2015, after a contract with Indian construction giant GMR was scrapped. In December 2017, China and the Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – much to the surprise and consternation of Indian observers. The FTA is the first of its kind for Malé, and puts the Maldives in a category with Pakistan as a close Chinese partner in South Asia.

Between the Dragon and the Tiger

Delhi fears Chinese economic engagement could swiftly lead to political entanglement. Under Yameen the Maldives has become an enthusiastic supporter of the Maritime Silk Road, signing a memorandum of understanding that brings it into the orbit of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Moreover, at a recent pro-government rally, the embattled Yameen is reported to have thanked China, among others, for its efforts to prevent the Maldivian crisis from being included in the official agenda of the UN. Critics warn of a potential debt trap, with dependency on tariff-free trade and a massive Chinese-oriented tourist industry vesting Beijing with tremendous leverage over the Indian Ocean archipelago.

China’s foreign policy has been characterized by a commitment to non-intervention in the affairs of foreign states. However, Beijing’s behavior in the Indian Ocean littoral is consistent with a strategic pattern that weds economic policy to security priorities. Several regional governments such as those of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Oman have capitalized on Chinese largesse, and this has led to a concomitant rise in the presence of Chinese business activities.

Indian and Western media have dubbed Beijing’s approach to the Indian Ocean as part of the “String of Pearls” strategy. The idea being that China is seeking to establish a series of friendly ports with short and easily maintained lines of communication extending through the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean to the East African coast and the isthmuses of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. This string touches several vital shipping choke points, including the Straits of Hormuz, Mandeb and Malacca through which a significant amount of global trade flows. The tiny Republic of the Maldives is placed squarely in the middle of the northern Indian Ocean shipping lanes.

Beijing maintains that its intentions are entirely peaceful and not hegemonic, while Delhi fears a strategic encirclement. The establishment of China’s first official overseas military base in Djibouti has lent credence to Indian fears of future Chinese naval action off its coast. Given the new-found Chinese expertise in island building, coupled with Sino-Maldivian construction projects on reclaimed land, an Indian nightmare scenario of a PLA-N base just off-shore inches into the realm of the possible.

Striking a Balance

Shared anxieties over Chinese intentions and goals in East and South Asia coincide with the restructuring of the U.S.-led Pacific Security Architecture. Caught between the aspirations of two Asian giants, Malé is in a difficult position. Dependent on tourism, the Maldivian economy could be ruined by a prolonged crisis. Further diplomatic isolation could also weaken the Maldives in securing international assistance for areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Sino-Indian wrangling has entered into Maldivian politics, with Beijing and Delhi finding themselves aligned with figures on opposite sides of a tumultuous divide. Developments here will prove instructive for both states’ regional strategies, but also for observers in the wider neighborhood. With elections looming not only in the Maldives, but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh later in the year, 2018 may prove pivotal both for Malé and the rest of the Indian Ocean littoral.