Diplomacy Politics

A great power rivalry plays out in the Maldives

Maldivian police detain an opposition protester in Male. President Abdulla Yameen has sparked a crisis in the archipelago by declaring a state of emergency and rounding up his political opponents © AP

A showdown is brewing in the tiny resort nation of the Maldives that has the potential to pit the nascent Asian superpowers of India and China against each other in direct conflict. That the Indian Ocean archipelago, whose very existence is threatened by climate change, has become a flashpoint should act as a wake-up call. It underscores the potential for some of the world’s more remote regions to become proxy battlegrounds as great power rivalry intensifies in Asia and elsewhere.

Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ exiled president, and some in New Delhi are calling for Indian troops to intervene to end the political crisis and reassert influence in the tropical resort nation. This follows several years in which China has been expanding its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese state-owned companies have taken ownership of strategic ports including Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Beijing has also established a naval base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, giving it the capacity to mobilise troops into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. This is much to the concern of New Delhi, which regards the sea as within its sphere of influence and feels encircled by its authoritarian neighbour.

President Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives’ authoritarian leader, has fed these concerns by cozying up to Beijing and Islamabad and even allowing Chinese naval visits. Now Mr Yameen has sparked a crisis by declaring a state of emergency and rounding up his political opponents, including Supreme Court judges who ruled against his jailing of opposition figures.

Indian hawks point to 1988, when New Delhi successfully intervened to help then Maldivian president Maumoon Gayoom to repel an attempted coup by Sri Lankan mercenaries.

Faced with a general election next year, it might be tempting for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to push for his “Falklands moment” and ride a wave of jingoistic nationalism back into office for another five years. India clearly has legitimate interests in its backyard. So this moment is a test of New Delhi’s ambition to be a regional power that can stand up to an ascendant China.

But the test should not be how fast it can put boots on the ground, but how well it can influence the outcome of this crisis to its advantage through smart diplomacy and other peaceful means. Clearly it is in the best interests of the Maldives for democracy to be restored as soon as possible and for the country to return to a healthy relationship with its biggest and closest neighbour. But if Mr Modi is patient and refrains from military intervention, the crisis may well solve itself. The Maldives is so dependent on the tourist revenues that have been shut off by the turmoil that establishment support for Mr Yameen is rapidly draining away.

The bigger question is how India and China deal with their great power rivalry. The current spat over the Maldives comes against a background of increasing mutual suspicion. China and India have rancorous territorial disputes along India’s northern border. Meanwhile, India was one of the few Asian countries to decline to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, designed by Beijing to boost its commercial and diplomatic influence.

Against this background, disagreements over the Maldives could spark a wider conflict. India should tread carefully. China should realise that antagonising its rival is to nurture a formidable strategic competitor that could work against its global ambitions. It is in neither’s interests to come to blows.

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