Former President Nasheed of the Maldives was in Bangalore last month to attend The Hindu ‘Huddle’, wherein he was asked as to what exactly he had in mind when he sought the dispatch of a Special Envoy along with a military contingent from India. What was to be the agenda of this military contingent and what were to be its ‘Mission Objectives’?
Nasheed went on to explain that he did not want the Indian troops to come and depose President Yameen, nor did he want them to come as an ‘occupation force’ to take control of the capital Male’. He wanted merely ‘force projection’ to be sent as a signal of Indian displeasure towards Yameen’s high handed behavior towards his own people and the country’s Parliament and the Judiciary. He also added for good measure that he did not want Maldives to become a pawn in the contestation between India and China in the Indian Ocean. What had happened between his Tweet and his visit to Bangalore was that China had already issued direct messages to the neighbors of Maldives not to interfere in ‘the internal affairs of a sovereign country’.
China’s warnings to India
More important than the rhetoric were the reports of PLA Navy’s movements in the Eastern sea-board of Indian Ocean. It was reported that eleven Chinese warships sailed into the East Indian Ocean in February, amid the state of emergency in the Maldives. A fleet of destroyers, at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers entered the Indian Ocean, according to news portal Sina.com.cn
Though our Defence Ministry sources later clarified that there were no such movements anywhere near the Maldives and that the Chinese ships were at least 2500 nautical miles away, the signals were clear. They were meant to deter any adventure by India in what is generally regarded as its backyard.
More recently, there have been reports of a Joint Ocean Observation Station that China is ‘looking to establish’ in the Maldives. The so-called observatory is to be located in Makunudhoo island, the westernmost atoll to the north of Male’, closest to the Indian coastline.
To say that this observatory will not only be a watching station and a listening post with radars and SIGINT facilities but will also have ‘military application with provision for a submarine base’ should not come as a surprise to anyone in the strategic community in Delhi.
One comforting thought though is that it is still in the planning stage. But with China, proposals become a reality at breath taking speed. Yameen, by having signed the Free Trade Agreement with China in December 2017 (only the second country after Pakistan in the neighborhood) and pledging to align the country along the Maritime Silk Route as part of the Belt and Road Inititaive of China has made it clear as to where he wants to position his country.
With China’s presence becoming so ominously imminent, can India dare to do anything in the Maldives? Well, even before the Chinese naval vessels reached the Maldives, India seemed too paralysed to act in a critically strategic country that enables area dominance in southern Indian ocean. Having lost Humbantotta in Sri Lanka to Chinese Navy and now Makunudhoo island in the Maldives, are we still in control of southern Indian ocean?
It’s a different matter whether China is really interested in protecting and defending Yameen or it just paying back to India for our excessive interest in Vietnam? Or is it because of our keen interest in the South China Sea dispute with the ASEAN neighbors of China.
Our neighborhood v/s Look East and Act East
Yes, it is accepted that foreign policy cannot be compartmentalised into regions and it should essentially be a projection of what you are and you stand for as a country. Let us say, India stands for rule-based governance in international relations but when you join hands with one group of nations (ASEAN) against the other, which is not exactly following the high moral principle but its own ‘narrow self interest’, you should be ready to face its consequences. Enunciating principles is easy but to stand by them is tough.
China is essentially testing India’s ability to stand up for its convictions and for its interests in the neighborhood, first in Bhutan (on the Doklam issue) and now in the Maldives. If we let our neighborhood be in the grip of China, our ambitious policies such as Look East and Act East would remain quite hollow. It may look quite dramatic to have 10 Heads of States on one platform to witness our Republic Day parade but what is at stake for us in Brunei and the Phillipines more than in our neighborhood?
‘Net provider of Security’
It has become fashionable for the Chiefs of Army and Navy to talk of India being a ‘net provider of security’ in our neighborhood including the Indian Ocean. While it sounds very impressive, what exactly do they mean by it? And aginst whom will we defend our neighbors? Are we truly capable of providing that security or is it just an ‘aspirational thing’?
As our neighbors starting with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives mortgage their land along with their sovereignty to China’s easy flowing cash, India has to come up with more ingenious ways of winning over friends by using all the old tricks; ‘Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda’. There is much that our agencies can do in the neighborhood. ‘Sabka saath sabka Vikas’ doesn’t seem to be working. If they want ‘Vikas’ (progress) with Chinese characteristics, then what happens to your policy?
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