The diplomatic tug of war in the Maldives appears to be moving in China’s favour, through “Debt Trap Diplomacy”. This perception appears to have been validated with the inauguration of the China-funded Sinamale Bridge, also known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, which India chose to boycott. This is a flagship Chinese infrastructure project that links the capital Malé with a neighbouring island on which Malé’s international airport is located. The bridge was constructed with a loan of US$72 million, in addition to a US$116 million grant by the Chinese Government. President Yameen hopes that the benefits of this project will buy him some relief from his deteriorating domestic popularity for the next elections, which are scheduled for later this month. His popularity has slumped due to his dictatorial acts of arresting Supreme Court judges and political opponents, proclaiming a national emergency and bulldozing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China through Parliament without any debate.
Junking the “India First Policy”: The Current Crisis with India
India recently gave two naval helicopters to the Maldives. President Yameen appeared to have unofficially discarded the existing “India First Policy”, when he asked India to remove the second of these from Lammu atoll. Lammu, being a wide atoll, has the potential to be developed into a military base. Analysts believe that China wants to build an ocean observatory there, which could later be further developed into a military base, as has happened in the South China Sea, through its “Incremental Encroachment Strategy”. Some analysts believe that this approach could be coupled with China’s “Debt Trap”, to create the conditions for a land grab if the Maldives is unable to pay back the debt, as has happened in other countries.
Why Can’t India Ignore the Maldives?
The Maldivian archipelago is strategically located among shipping lanes from the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman, which pass by India’s Minicoy Islands and the Maldives. These trade routes account for a very significant proportion of the world’s shipping, including crucial energy supplies bound for Japan and China. Its proximity to India has caused a degree of anxiety in Beijing, which seeks to ensure the security of its energy imports, hence its association with Malé. China’s growing influence, however, worries India. The Chinese plan to build a Joint Observation Station on Mukunudhu Island, in the western-most atoll in the north of the archipelago and a submarine base only adds to that worry. A perceived sham democracy under President Yameen, together with his new-found friendship with Pakistan, the Pakistani Army Chief’s visit to the Maldives and ongoing issues with Islamic radicalisation, all serve to underline Indian concerns.
What Can India Do?
India, as a responsible nation, recognises that the Maldives is a sovereign country with the right to choose its government and strategic partners. Military intervention by India is not a viable option, unlike 1988, when New Delhi was invited to intervene by the President of the Maldives. India, however, cannot remain a silent spectator to the decline of democracy and the potential for disorder in its immediate neighborhood. It needs, therefore, to: ensure its naval surface and sub-surface dominance in the theatre; undertake enhanced maritime patrolling in international waters; and maintain an enhanced surveillance regime.
According to media reports, the two Indian naval helicopters that were gifted to the Maldives will remain there, along with 48 crew members. This is a positive diplomatic step. India needs to ensure that the status quo is maintained in the two atolls where these helicopters are located, at least until the elections are over. India may give the Maldives the Dornier aircraft it requested as an interim measure. Further negotiations could take place with the newly elected government.
India needs to make the international community aware of the potential for anarchy and disorder in the Maldives and the impact that could have on other users of the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes. What is needed is international pressure on President Yameen to conduct free and fair elections. President Yameen is China’s preferred candidate. He has supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and will accept Chinese largesse in any form to ensure his regime’s survival.
On the economic front, India could place sanctions on the Maldives if President Yameen continues his anti-India stance and is returned to office. This is a double-edged weapon, however, because it could push the Maldives further towards China. A travel advisory and restrictions on Indian tourists to the Maldives could deal its economy a significant blow. Tourism is the largest income-generating industry for the Maldives and one that is highly dependent on India. In the event that another candidate should win office, India could continue with its goodwill investments, such as building a Police Academy and other developmental projects.
India also needs to build up its own military capability, not only in the context of the Maldives, but to cater to other maritime commitments and to counter threats. India needs more naval assets to offset the potential threats posed by Chinese submarines in its area of maritime interest. India ought to enhance its relations with Oman and expand its access to the port at Duqm there. The recent agreements with France for access to its Indian Ocean bases are positive steps in that direction. Periodic inter-operability exercises, like the Malabar Exercise, would also send the right messages regarding New Delhi’s intention to protect its interests in the Indian Ocean Region.