As Beijing continues to expand its presence in the strategically important archipelago and beyond, rival New Delhi is pondering its options
The Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries, as well as the smallest Asian country by both land area and population, with around 428,000 inhabitants. But it is the geography of the Maldives that makes it important in the increasingly contested Arabian Sea part of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is spread over 1,192 coral islands – with an average elevation of about 1.5m – grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls spanning more than 90,000 sq km, making it a nation of 99 per cent water.
The atoll chain is the visible part of a 960km-long submarine ridge running north to south that makes it almost a wall to navigation from the eastern side of the Indian Ocean into the western side. At the southern and northern part of this island chain are the only two passages through which ships can pass safely. These are the designated sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which Middle Eastern oil transits to countries like Japan and China. The busier northern SLOC passes between India’s Minicoy Island and the northernmost Maldivian atoll. This geography gives the Maldives a strategic importance far beyond its size and heft.
Though Britain shut down its Maldivian bases in 1978, the United States still maintains a powerful presence in the region, in Diego Garcia, about 1,800km from the southern tip of India. Diego Garcia is just 35 sq km but enough facilities have been built on it to adequately project US power in the region. It has two parallel 3,700m runways, expansive parking aprons for heavy bombers such as the supersonic B-1 Lancer and the cold war workhorse, the B-52 Stratofortress, 20 new anchorages in the lagoon, a deepwater pier, port facilities for the largest naval vessels in the American or British fleet, aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings and an air terminal, a huge fuel storage area, and billeting and messing facilities for almost 30,000 combatants and support personnel. The US will most certainly not view kindly any permanent positioning of China in the region.
The Maldives went through a period of political uncertainty from 1965 to 1978 when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year rule as president. Gayoom was a staunch friend of India and in 1988 an Indian military intervention saved his presidency from a small army of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries employed by Gayoom’s predecessor. Gayoom ruled with a heavy hand and opposition to him kept growing.
In 2008 Mohamed Nasheed, a British-educated opponent, succeeded Gayoom. Nasheed was Amnesty International’s 1991 prisoner of conscience – Gayoom arrested him about 20 times in all. His struggles won him many friends not only in Britain but also more importantly in India. But the Gayoom faction never really accepted Nasheed and its machinations kept things on a boil until they finally forced Nasheed out of office in 2012.
However, something happened during Nasheed’s presidency that opened a door to China’s entry into the Maldives. In 2012 Nasheed’s successor, Mohamed Waheed, cancelled the previous regime’s decision to award the US$500 million contract to manage Male international airport to an Indian company, GMR. It seemed as if it was a punishment to the Indian establishment, which seemed to be supporting Nasheed. Many in India even suspected China’s hand in it.
From the early 2000s there have been reports in the Indian press, some of it very obviously motivated by Western agencies, about China’s attempts to seek a naval base in the southern Maldivian chain. The Marao atoll has often been named as one of the pearls in the somewhat dubious “string of pearls” that China was allegedly building around India. Most serious Indian analysts do not take such formulations seriously, but suspicions persist.
As the competition between India and China intensifies – and as China slowly but surely builds its presence in the Indian Ocean Region with a port under construction at Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and at Djibouti – a PLA Navy presence near the strategic passages across the Maldivian wall of atolls seems ever more plausible. In India, the demonstrated Chinese capability of building islands on even semi-submerged formations in the Spratly chain gives rise to more serious apprehensions about China’s ultimate intentions.
India’s influence in its neighbourhood was dealt a stunning blow recently with the Maldives entering into a free-trade agreement with China signed by President Abdulla Yameen (former president Gayoom’s half-brother) on December 8, 2017. This undoubtedly took the Modi government by surprise even as it was patting itself on the back for having stood up to the Chinese at Doklam on the Bhutan-Tibet border. China has opened its pocketbook and has also made the Maldives a component of its sprawling trade and infrastructure strategy, the “Belt and Road Initiative”. In addition Yameen’s government has signed more benign agreements to cooperate in promoting tourism, improving health care and assisting in coping with climate change. Climate change is a very important issue in the Maldives, with the island nation seriously running the risk of becoming a subterranean state in a few decades. China’s expertise in raising islands out of water might serve it in good stead.
The question for India is whether to deal with this issue now, when it has the means to enforce its will on the Maldives, and as former president Nasheed has entreated it to do, or to continue with its traditional policy of not overtly intervening in the internal affairs of other countries. Whether it should persist with this policy, especially when the Chinese presence is expanding at the frenetic pace we have seen in the past decade, is India’s dilemma.
Even as India ponders options, there were reports that a Chinese flotilla of 11 ships – including at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers – last month entered the Indian Ocean Region from the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. These fears proved premature as the PLA Navy flotilla turned eastward towards the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok, taking it back into the South China Sea, which is where India would like Chinese power to be contained at all times.
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