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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 14 New Delhi March 24, 2018

Why does China Want Everybody to Look Away from the Maldives Crisis?

Friday 23 March 2018

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

The ongoing domestic political crisis in Maldives could be a concern for the international community but China thinks otherwise! In recent times, China has issued a series of statements insisting that the Maldives Government be allowed to resolve the crisis on its own without any outside involvement. However, behind the ‘veil of non-interference’, China wants to protect its own growing stakes in the archipelago. Any outside intervention and regime change could jeopardise China’s maritime expansion and consolidation in and around Maldives.

China’s interests in Maldives is under-standable. Prima facie, China’s great-power rise and quest for dominating the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) propels its quest for increased political and economic investments in the archipelago. While China’s naval power has too many contestants in the East Asian waters and South China Sea in the Pacific Ocean, China finds the IOR a relatively virgin area and has already taken baby steps in the region. China’s ‘two-ocean’ strategy, therefore, aims to establish anchor bases in the region to propel the IOR towards the Chinese ‘sphere of influence’. China’s white paper on defence in 2015 gave special emphasis on pushing the military strategy towards the oceanic front through dedicated ‘maritime missions’. The 2017 white paper has spoken of a good neighbourly policy towards Asia Pacific neighbours. Small and weak countries like Maldives become pawns in the chessboard and China is willing to pamper them to fulfil its maritime missions.

One example would suffice. In December 2017, China signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Maldives. The coercive manner in which the Yameen regime forced the Maldives Parliament to approve the FTA speaks of China’s influence over President Yameen. But the FTA is just one aspect of the Chinese subjugation of Maldives. The geography of Chinese power in Maldives is also visible in other sectors throughout the archipelago. Yameen’s Maldives is a key partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is being rewarded with mega projects in key sectors. The airport upgradation project at Hulhule has gone to a Chinese firm and China has just completed the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge connecting the two islands of Male and Hulhule. China is also using geoeconomic tools to assimilate Maldives into the Chinese economic order through huge loans, investments and grants.

China overbearing presence in Maldives through tourism deserves mention. Around one lakh Chinese tourists visit Maldives every month. Eight Chinese cities have regular flights to the Male International Airport, compared to only two from India. Chinese food is increasingly popular in Maldives along with the language and a Confucian Centre could also start in future. Chinese investments are sprucing up the tourism infrastructure to enhance its attraction quotient. If tourism is the largest contributor in the Maldivian GDP, China is the largest stakeholder in Maldives’ tourism blueprint. All this could be part of the larger game-plan.

The strategic implications from such overbearing economic investments are easy to discern. First, until now, China was playing the geopolitical game of one upmanship on the continental platform. However, the development of a series of naval platforms starting from the Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Pakistan axis culminating in Djibouti will provide supporting pillars for China’s conversion from a continental power to maritime power. With its huge involvement in infrastructure in Maldives, China could be positioning listening devices capable of eavesdropping on nearby naval activities. In the long run, China would want a Diego Garcia for itself in this part of the Indian Ocean and Maldives could be convinced (or coerced) to become the springboard for such a base. Already, there are speculations that China is interested in the Gan island in the southernmost part of the archipelago for strategic development.

Second, China’s increasing presence in Maldives, seen in the context of parallel activities in other small counties like Sri Lanka etc, could trigger a change of balance of influence if not balance of power. Maldives, saddled with the domineering influence of Chinese loans and investments in almost every aspect of its economy, could lose its sovereign autonomy to a great extent and would be forced to bandwagon with the Chinese agenda in international relations and regional security. Even in purely functional areas of regional maritime cooperation, China could instigate Maldives to deny the legitimate rights of other regional powers and even undermine their security.

Third, Chinese advances in Maldives would create strategic uncertainties and new faultlines in an already fractured Asia. As long as the great game was being played in the South China Sea, South Asian waters were immune from external influence. But the Chinese march towards the western part of the Indian Ocean would certainly put the South Asian security in disarray. Peace in the adjacent waters would be under yellow peril and who knows—Maldives could turn out to be another Grenada one day where China could install a puppet government of its choice.

Dethroning of President Yameen may alter the strategic scenario to China’s disadvantage since the Opposition, led by former President Nasheed, is quite vocal against China’s dominance accusing it of ‘buying up Maldives’. Other stakeholders in the region are equally alarmed about the recent developments. Also, China is still a partial power and may not be in a position to outrightly convert economic prowess in distant countries into military power. Beijing would like to perpetuate its influence in Male and churn it into a protectorate in the long term. Perhaps that explains why China desperately wants Yameen to stay in power and resists international involvements.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed in the article are his personal.

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