The diplomatic tug of war in the Maldives seems to be going in favour of China as it looks to have gained a stronghold on President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom through the ‘debt trap diplomacy’, with the inauguration of Beijing-funded Sinamale Bridge, which India chose to boycott. It is a flagship Chinese infrastructure project linking capital Male with the airport island. Also known as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, it has been built with a $72 million loan besides $116 million grant by China.
President Yameen hopes that the optics of this project will perhaps get him some relief from declining domestic popularity for the next elections, scheduled later this month, after dictatorial acts of targeting Supreme Court judges and political opponents, unwanted emergency and bulldozing free-trade agreement with China without a debate in Majlis.
President Yameen seems to have unofficially junked the ‘India First Policy’ when his government asked New Delhi to remove second naval chopper (ALH Dhruv) from the Lammu atoll, on expiry of the letter of exchange (LoE). Lammu, a wide atoll, has a potential to be developed into a military base. It’s widely believed that China wants to build there an ocean observatory, which could be a part of the ‘incremental encroachment strategy’, (which could later be developed into a military base as it happened in South China Sea) together with ‘debt trap’ for a land grab, in case the Maldives is unable to pay back the debt, as has happened in many other countries. The other helicopter, located at Addu atoll, is also significant being the southernmost island.
The Maldives archipelago is strategically located. Ships from the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman generally passes through Minicoy (India) and the Maldives before sailing East towards Sri Lanka or the Malacca Straits or the Java Sea, the Lombok Strait and vice versa. The area accounts for nearly half of the world’s shipping, and also carries crucial oil for Japan and China.
The growing influence of China in the area is a cause of concern. China, it is learnt, plans to make a joint observation station in Mukunudhu, together with a submarine base. Besides sham democracy under president Yameen, Male’s newfound love for Islamabad with Pakistan army chief visiting the Maldives and potential for radicalisation concerns India.
What all can India do?
India, as a responsible nation recognises that the Maldives as a sovereign country has the right to choose its government as well as strategic partners. Any military intervention by New Delhi is not a viable option, unlike 1988 when India was invited by the then elected president to intervene. But India also can’t be a silent spectator to the decline of democracy and disorder in its immediate neighbourhood. Hence, enhanced naval surface and sub-surface dominance, maritime patrolling in the international water and surveillance by all means need to be resorted to, which I am sure is being done within international norms.
As per media reports, the two Indian naval helicopters, gifted to the Maldives, are going to stay there along with their 48-member crew, which is a positive diplomatic step. India needs to negotiate that status quo is maintained in the two atolls where these (helicopters) are located, at least till the elections are over. India could give them the Dornier aircraft as requested by them, which was used as an excuse for not renewing LoE later. Further negotiations can be done with the new elected government.
India needs to generate international opinion along with other users of the Indian Ocean to prevent anarchy and disorder in the Maldives. International pressure needs to be generated through ‘smart diplomacy’ on president Yameen for conducting free and fair elections. President Yameen seems to be the preferred candidate to do business for China. He has supported the Chinese ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and will not mind taking the Chinese help, in whatever form possible, for his regime’s survival.
It’s highly debatable whether a future Chinese military base in the Maldives will be a strength or vulnerability for them in light of distance from the mainland, inadequate air cover and high relative strength of Indian Navy and its strategic partners.
On the economic front, India can think of sanctions if president Yameen continues to pursue anti-India stance and manages to return to power through fair/rigged elections. This, however, is a double-edged weapon, because it can be counter-productive pushing the Maldives in the Chinese orbit further. A travel advisory and restriction on tourism can deliver a decisive blow to the Maldives’ economy, because the tourism sector is largest income generating industry there and is highly dependent on India.
If the Maldives’ shows a positive inclination then India should continue with goodwill investments like building a police academy and other developmental projects.
India also needs to develop its own military capability not only in context of the Maldives but other maritime commitments and threats as well. We need to have more resources to counter threats by the Chinese Navy submarines in our area of maritime interest. We need to have good relations with Oman, and getting access to the Port of Dukm in Oman, agreements with France for access to their bases could be positive steps in that direction. Periodic inter-operability exercises, like Malabar Exercise, will continue to send right messages regarding protection of Indian interest in the Indian Ocean region.
(The writer is winner of SM & VSM and chief instructor at USI of India)