The China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, under construction in the Maldives’ capital, Malé, is one result of a closer relationship between the two countries. Photo:AFP/Getty Images
The Maldives archipelago, popular among luxury honeymooners, has become a playing field for geostrategic rivalry as China expands its influence in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. and India push back.
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who has steadily swung his country toward Beijing and away from traditional partner New Delhi, has imposed a state of emergency, jailed opponents and clamped down on protests to weaken his opposition, which is led by pro-India ex-President Mohamed Nasheed.
“A new Cold War has been brewing and the Maldives is in the middle of it,” said Mr. Nasheed, who is living in exile to escape a 13-year prison sentence for a 2015 terrorism conviction. He has denied the charges, and the U.S. expressed concern that the trial didn’t follow proper procedure.
India and the U.S. don’t want Beijing, already dominant in the South China Sea, to entrench itself in these waters. The island nation sits astride shipping lanes that connect China to the oil-supplying countries of the Middle East, via the Strait of Malacca. The location also makes the Maldives vital to Beijing’s Belt and Road plan to develop land and sea trading routes linking China to Europe.
Chinese President Xi Jinping won Mr. Gayoom’s support for the project’s maritime corridor on a visit to the Maldives in 2014, and China began investing in island infrastructure. A Chinese bridge now under construction will connect the capital city, Malé, to a nearby island where its airport is located. A Chinese company is expanding the airport; another has leased an island close by for development. Chinese contractors are building roads and housing units for locals.
In December, Mr. Gayoom signed a free-trade agreement with China that Mr. Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party called sudden, rushed and “shrouded in secrecy.” China called it a milestone in the countries’ economic ties.
Mr. Gayoom describes China as his country’s “closest development and commercial partner.” Mr. Nasheed says the president has chipped away at democratic oversight of his deals with Beijing and is concealing the true nature and extent of Chinese investment.
Many in the Maldives opposition have raised concerns that Chinese infrastructure loans will turn into “debt traps,” particularly after a major Chinese-financed port in neighboring Sri Lanka passed into Chinese control last year when Colombo couldn’t repay.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ahead of an Asia visit in October, urged U.S.-India collaboration to give Indo-Pacific countries an alternative to Chinese funds. He called China’s infrastructure-financing deals an example of “predatory economics” that saddle developing countries with unsustainable debt and could undercut their sovereignty.
Mr. Gayoom steered a constitutional amendment through parliament in 2015 allowing foreigners to own land, a change the government said was meant to attract investment and critics in the country said could help Beijing establish a military foothold.
“China’s actions have raised deep suspicions about its military intentions in the Indian Ocean,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It’s a balance of power issue.”
In recent years, China has built a naval base in Djibouti in East Africa; in addition to the port in Sri Lanka, it operates one in Pakistan. A senior Indian navy officer said Chinese submarines and research vessels are visiting the Indian Ocean more frequently.
The Indian military deploys aircraft specialized in anti-submarine warfare to patrol the ocean, and its government is negotiating the purchase of U.S. drones with advanced surveillance features. India also plans to build new attack submarines, and a military upgrade is afoot in its Andaman and Nicobar Islands, whose capital is around 1,200 nautical miles from Malé.
The U.S. State Department called on Mr. Gayoom in a statement last month to end the state of emergency and uphold the rule of law. China has called the events “internal affairs” and urged the international community to “respect the Maldives’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In 1988, Indian troops crushed an attempted coup in the Maldives. Mr. Nasheed is pressing India to act again and oust Mr. Gayoom; India has given no indication it is considering an economic blockade or military action.
“We are at a critical juncture,” Mr. Kondapalli said. “The stakes are high with the Maldives.”
In a sign of Mr. Gayoom’s tilt away from New Delhi, the Indian navy said last month that the Maldives had declined its invitation to participate in military exercises. The Maldives government said it couldn’t be involved because the state of emergency requires that security personnel be at home in a heightened state of readiness.
In February, a spokesman for Mr. Gayoom’s office said the solution to the political crisis “would have to be a Maldivian one.”