India has to put in place a strong and sustainable anti-access strategy in the Maldives to meet China’s power trajectory into the Indian Ocean Region.
Maldives is in the thick of crisis once again.
President Abdulla Yameen’s declaration of Emergency has precipitated another major crisis not only for his island country but for the entire Indian Ocean Region. With his back to the wall amidst mounting protests, he had sent special envoys to ‘friendly’ countries to bail him out of the situation. But he has to look for other alternatives, sooner rather than later.
The Maldives, including about 1,200 smaller islands, is the smallest country in Asia, approximately 400 miles from the southern tip of India to the west and inhabited by about 4 lakh people, including some 22,000 Indians who are part of the medical and teaching professions. Former president Nasheed had held a cabinet meeting underwater to draw world attention to the issue of the Maldives getting drowned in the ocean due to global warming and rising sea levels. Today, Yameen has drowned democracy into the murky waters of dictatorship.
New Delhi’s decision to wait and watch is in keeping with the traditional approach of the foreign office not to embark on any knee-jerk reaction to issues in our neighbourhood.
But political uncertainty is not new to this island nation. Former president and Yameen’s brother Abdul Gayoom had sought India’s support to overcome a coup in 1988. A small group led by a local Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi, and hugely supported by armed mercenaries of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), staged a coup against the then president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was engaged with containing the LTTE in Sri Lanka at that time.
Besides the long and friendly relationship, the Maldives is a favourite tourist destination for lakhs of Indian tourists (in spite of the present crisis, many airlines have reported that there are very few cancellations of tickets) just as people from the Maldives depend on India for quality education and affordable medical treatment. India and the Maldives signed a Special Trade Agreement in 1981, which gave the Maldives access to certain items that India does not usually import.
Many in the Maldives recall the potable water crisis in 2014, and how India was the first country to rush assistance. The Indian Navy deployed INS Sukanya and INS Vivek, both equipped with systems to purify water on board. These ships were stationed at Male harbour until the repair of the desalination treatment plant was complete.
A SAARC member, the Maldives has been witnessing constant political upheavals since it gained independence from the British in 1965 but held the first elections after 49 years, in 2009. And now, this new crisis.
Amidst the chorus of military intervention, New Delhi is silent on its strategy. A Shivalik-class stealth frigate is currently patrolling the Bay of Bengal towards Bangladesh and Myanmar, a Teg-class frigate is in the vicinity of Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles, INS Trishul is deployed for anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, a Kora-class corvette is prowling around the Andaman Sea. Indian Navy would need a few hours of operation time to reach the Maldives for any action, much faster than the naval force of any other country.
It is in the interest of India to take the present government into confidence, look for a viable alternative, nudge Yameen to hold free and fair elections, and then insulate the new dispensation from superpower rivalry. Yameen has already indicated his willingness to hold early elections.
A weak and unstable Maldives, strategically located between Somalia and the Strait of Malacca, will be a virtual heaven for pirates, terrorists of various hues, drug peddlers and all and sundry illicit business operators. Any misadventure at this stage will open the entire Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to a new war theatre, with serious security and strategic implications.
The developments have geographic and strategic consequences for the region, especially as Male cosies up to Beijing.
China, which opened an embassy in 2011, is rapidly expanding its footprint in the Maldives the only SAARC country, other than Pakistan, to have a free trade pact with China. President Xi Jinping’s visit gave a big push to the ties while the Maldives is the only SAARC country that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited.
The island country is more than a willing partner in China’s ambitious ‘One Belt One Road’ project, although there is no road connecting Beijing and Male. Beijing is investing huge amounts on infrastructure and strategic projects such as a bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island, yet another proof of the growing Chinese influence. The Maldives Parliament pushed through a free-trade pact without any discussion confirming Yameen’s eagerness to benefit from Asia’s biggest economy and also consolidate his own position by playing the China card against India. Tourist inflow from China has increased considerably contributing richly to the tourism-dependent economy.
Chinese warships docked in Male in August 2017 triggered an alarm in New Delhi. Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim rushed to meet Prime Minister Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and reaffirmed his country’s India first policy.
Needless to say, given the strategic importance of the IOR, the Indian Navy is keeping a strict vigil in the area and has substantially improved its capacity to intercept unwanted elements. Even a hijacked Chinese ship was rescued by the Indian Navy some time back.
Heads of maritime agencies of 11 countries (India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Maldives, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand) met in Goa last year for a brainstorming session on international maritime collaboration, and to address issues relating to maritime challenges in the IOR, emerging maritime threats, force structuring, maritime domain awareness and security architecture.
As against China setting up a naval base in Djibouti, India’s strategic involvement in Iran’s Chabahar port is not only a game changer but also an effective counter to any threat from the Chinese naval base in Djibouti. After the Doklam standoff and China’s ‘one step backward’, one thing is clear. The nature and possibility of any possible future conflict between India and China is greater in the IOR than probably in the high altitudes of the Himalayas.
India has to hasten slowly in the Maldives, but act surely, to put in place a strong and sustainable anti-access strategy to meet China’s power trajectory into the IOR.
(The author is security and strategic affairs commentator and former editor of ‘Organiser’)
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