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Maldives and the Great Game in the Indian Ocean

The Maldives, faced with economic and political crises, has reoriented its foreign policy, wherein the Chinese enjoy a place of much greater influence than they did in the past. Anand Kumar examines the emerging security scenario in the Indian Ocean.



The following is an excerpt from Dr Anand Kumar’s book “Multi-party Democracy in the Maldives and the Emerging Security Environment in the Indian Ocean Region.”

The Indian Ocean has always been at the centre stage of the global geopolitics. The Maldives lies at the central point of all key sea routes in the Indian Ocean. For this reason, the Maldives has also been a centre of attraction for global powers. In recent times, the Maldives, faced with economic and political crises, has reoriented its foreign policy, wherein the Chinese enjoy a place of much greater influence than they did in the past.

On the other hand, the earlier bonhomie between India and the Maldives has been reduced. This has implications for Indian security and strategic interests. Even the Western powers including the US are finding it difficult to deal with the Maldives. To counter their pressure, the Maldives has tried to use both Saudi Arabia and China. However, what makes the whole strategic scenario further interesting is the friendly overture of the Maldives to Japan. Thus, barring Russians, who are busy in Crimea, the Maldivians seem to be handling all the major powers of the world – making Indian Ocean the hub of global geopolitics.

China’s emergence as a major power on the global scene has led to a fundamental change in the Indian Ocean’s security scenario. In the past, the players participating in the rivalry for control over the Indian Ocean region were limited. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Britain was the predominant naval power in this region. Subsequently, this position was taken over by the US with its base in Diego-Garcia. Though the former Soviet Union tried, it could never challenge the supremacy of the US in the India Ocean region.

In the present times, however, this security scenario has considerably changed. It has actually become quite complex and this complexity is very well reflected in the Maldivian foreign policy towards various countries who have interests in this region.

China’s rise in the economic and military power has allowed it to enter the Indian Ocean region in a major way, and it is trying to strengthen its foothold. The Maldives figures prominently in China’s desire to achieve this objective. The Chinese are using their chequebook diplomacy and their ability to deliver on infrastructural projects to woo countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Their attraction has been so great that the Maldivians could not ignore China even when an India-friendly democratic regime of President Mohamed Nasheed was in power. The Chinese attraction for Maldivians has grown after Mohamed Waheed Hassan came to power in 2012, and has continued to remain so under the present regime of Abdulla Yameen.

China is expanding its economic diplomacy globally. The Maldives is no exception. China has been successful in making inroads into the Maldivian economy and polity. However, Nasheed exercised some caution in developing the relationship with China and did not want to disturb his favourable equation with India. During his period, the administration in Malé viewed Indian and Maldivian security as interdependent and the bilateral relations of the two countries were robust. India remained a key player in the Maldives’ security dynamics.

China, on the other hand, has been pursuing a strategy that would enable it to establish a base in the Maldives. However, it is not overly dependent on any one country as it is trying this in several places. It is now planning to build a proper naval base in Djibouti where even Americans have one. They enjoyed some facilities in Sri Lanka when Mahinda Rajapakse was in power. Though China has not been able to make any major breakthrough in the Maldives, Beijing is confident that its economic ties will help undercut political resistance. Beijing has also been encouraging Chinese tourists to visit Maldives as one of the economic incentives to the country. If the economic condition of Maldives deteriorates further, it would be compelled to turn to China for economic assistance.

The Maldivian policymakers agree that the country has opened up in the era of globalisation. Still, the Maldives has always prioritised its relationships. During Nasheed’s period, India figured above China. China however figured above India during the Waheed’s time. The situation has now somewhat started changing under the Yameen regime. It is acknowledged in the Maldives that China has been very helpful in infrastructure building, particularly after the 2004 Tsunami. The Maldives also benefits from China’s potential in its tourism sector. The Maldivian policymakers recognise Chinese interests, and point out that India and China are not mutually exclusive.

China has not only been economically growing, it has also been expanding its outreach. They were pursuing their economic interests in Africa, while the world was busy fighting war on terror, and today, have an increased presence there. It has sensed an opportunity in a unipolar world, and is trying to fill the vacuum provided by the dismemberment of former Soviet Union.

To protect its various interests, China wants to develop multifaceted relationship with the Maldives. As former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom followed an open door policy to China, it had some success. But things somewhat changed under Nasheed’s regime, which also encouraged his opponents to accuse his government of avoiding China. During this period, the most dominant view among the policymakers was that the Maldives should follow the ‘India first’ policy. This policy was never expressed in open terms but tacitly applied. The Maldivians at that point felt that their security was tied with South Asia’s and were mindful of Sri Lankan and Indian security as well.

The Maldivian policymakers argue that while developing the relationship with China, the Maldivian Government always tries to ensure room for political, economic and diplomatic manoeuvres. But this space would dramatically shrink if the economic woes of the Maldives worsen and its dependence on China increases.

China has been interested in the Indian Ocean as its major energy supply vessels as well as its exports pass through it. It has been in search of new outlets to the Indian Ocean, and Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Gwadar (Pakistan) have figured prominently in its radar. Nevertheless, at present, China needs to secure the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) in order to safeguard its interests in the Indian Ocean region.

The incumbent President of China, Xi Jinping, wants the country to become a maritime power, and for this reason, too, it might have to project power in the Indian Ocean, which connects the world. The new White Paper of Chinese defence also talks of protecting the overseas interests of China. This will inevitably require a blue water navy as Chinese interests become worldwide.

To protect their overseas interests, Chinese are also looking for overseas bases or at least facilities that can serve the same purpose. During the regime of the Sri Lankan President, Rajpakse, they had this facility in Sri Lanka where Chinese submarines were docked twice. They have been also spotted in the Gwadar Port of Pakistan. The Chinese are also planning to build their base in Djibouti. Though Chinese always had their eyes set on the Maldives, for a while the urgency to strengthen their hold on that country was reduced as they were making quick inroads in Sri Lanka. But now with the exit of Rajapakse, the Maldives has once again gained in importance. This was highlighted when the Xi visited the Maldives in 2014 which was the first-ever visit of a Chinese President to the archipelago nation since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1965.

Though China is liked by all regimes in the Maldives, the present regime likes China much more as it does not talk about the state of democracy in the country, and about increasing Islamic radicalism. China, too, is happy to engage Maldives economically and militarily as it provides a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese economy presently is the second-largest economy in the world. However, the double digit growth of Chinese economy is a thing of past, and it is slowing considerably now. To maintain peace at home and to gain the status of world power abroad, the Chinese need to grow at a fast pace. This economic growth they are now hoping to get through the export of infrastructure projects. The Chinese Silk Route project is meticulously designed and conceived with the objective to give China the next round of growth. The maritime component of the route is actually much bigger in comparison to the land route. Under the project, the Chinese are going to build a number of roads, railroad, ports, and other infrastructural facilities. The Chinese companies have already proven their prowess in this area.

The Chinese Silk Route project would also open up opportunity in another area of export of infrastructural projects which is different from commodity exports. This new strategy would come handy for the Chinese economy which is already suffering from problems of overproduction, and the US no longer remains a destination to invest capital profitably.

It is true that Chinese infrastructural projects are not always in the best interests of the receiving country. However, the Chinese have used diplomacy to good effect to sell these projects. But by the time receiving countries realise the trap it becomes too late. In the past, Myanmar has been a victim. Recently, similar concern was voiced by the incumbent President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, and a section in Pakistan. Unfortunately, barring Myanmar, most of these countries bought the idea of balancing India by bringing in China even at their own peril.

It has been suggested that Chinese Silk Route project is an answer to the US pivot to Asia. Interestingly, so far the US pivot to Asia has not taken shape, but the Chinese counter to it seems to be doing quite well. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives have become willing partners of China in its Maritime Silk Route project which is going to majorly benefit China in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean has also been a prime area of interest for the US with its power centred on the main base in Deigo Garcia. In recent times, the US has however not been able to give attention to this region that it deserves. It is also true that despite the rise of China, the US remains the only military superpower in the world, which has the ability and the willingness to engage in crises all over the world and shape the outcomes. This has however also distracted the US, which has spent too much time, energy, and resources on trouble spots like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US is presently a superpower in disarray.

The US along with the UK and other nations of the European Union claimed to back the multi-party democracy in Maldives. However, it tried to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the Maldives when Waheed was in power. It is also trying to intensify its relationship with the Maldives National Defence Forces.

There is also an opinion in the Maldives that the country should have equally good relations with all three – India, the US, and China – in order to balance these major powers. To balance the US and other Western powers, the Maldivians are getting close to Saudi Arabia and China.

The closeness of Nasheed’s regime to the UK and other Western powers had created a lot of misgivings among the Maldivians. Though Nasheed and the MDP had brought multi-party democracy to the Maldives, his association with the Conservative Party of Britain and his establishing of relationship with Israel was misconstrued as a threat to Islam. The US was in any case perceived as anti-Islam because of its involvement in the war against terror and its engagement in trouble spots like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In this situation, they found China to be perfectly suiting their requirement. Moreover, China is also considered as a useful partner in trade, tourism, and infrastructure. This does not mean that Maldivians completely trust China and see it as a benign power. The Maldivian apprehension of China in fact had made Yameen to visit Japan, to counter the Chinese influence. There is also now considerable improvement in India’s relationship with the Maldives.

The present foreign policy of the Maldives, as in the past, looks to benefit from everyone, but without ceding ground to anyone. However, what is different on this occasion is that now there are too many players in the great game to be managed. Presently, the Maldives seem to be managing the balancing act rather adroitly. But given the track record of China, it will not be easy for them to keep the Chinese out of the way for long. The Maldives along with some other countries of the Indian Ocean region is likely to see intense jostling for political and military influence.

Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

An e-copy of Dr Kumar’s book is available here

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