Saturday, March 18, 2023
HomeOpinionAllowing US in Maldives to keep China out is a heavy price...

Allowing US in Maldives to keep China out is a heavy price to pay. So why is India doing it?

Mike Pompeo's announcement of an embassy in the Maldives after the signing of a Defence and Security Framework is a significant shift in Indian policy from 2013.

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After promising to ‘stand with’ India in its confrontation against China during his recent visit to New Delhi for the 2+2 meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the same sentiment in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, much to Beijing’s disgust. At the meeting with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, Pompeo said that China had brought lawlessness to the Maldives, even as the President himself, in a manner befitting of a small country with a debt of over $1 billion to China, didn’t mention Beijing at all.

What was significant, however, was that Pompeo announced the opening of an embassy in the archipelago, after 54 years of diplomatic relations with the Maldives. That is something for China to mull over. Together with the Defence and Security Framework signed earlier, this is quite a sea change in the region and a significant shift in Indian policy from 2013, when New Delhi firmly stood against any US presence in the region. So what changed?

India chose to carefully leak the fact that the “Framework for a Defence and Security Relationship” had been “shown” to New Delhi’s officials at Male (first?). That is interesting since the agreement was quietly signed during a private visit of Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi to the US; no details are yet available.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) “welcomed” the move, stating rather surprisingly that the agreement did not demit from India’s role as a ‘security provider’ but in fact complemented it. Now that’s quite a volte face, given the 2013 attempt by Male to sign a 10-year Status of Forces Agreement, which would have given US forces a base, independent telecommunications, and pretty much the run of the entire 1,192 islands. This transpired after senior Maldivian officials were flown to the USS John C Stennis, a nuclear-powered super-carrier, in a move reminiscent of the best spy thrillers. The agreement, however, came to nothing after New Delhi’s strong objections.

Also read: Countering China is now a priority for both India and US. But only one needs the other

The changed Indian mindset

So, what’s different now? First, it’s not just an issue of the malign influence of Chinese investment, since this was more than evident in 2012, when an Indian infrastructure company, GMR Group, was virtually shown the door in favour of a Chinese firm in developing the Male international airport. That only led to Delhi throwing its weight behind a new government, and thereafter increasing its own investment profile with new grants and credit lines. The tipping issue, therefore, seems to be that Chinese hostility is now a given, with summits in exotic locales becoming a blurry picture of the past.

Second, while the current Maldivian government under the dignified President Solih is a trusted one, his Foreign Minister, Abdulla Shahid,understandably chose to maintain an even keel, speaking warmly of China’s huge contribution in tourism (which contributes two-thirds of its GDP) just days after India announced a Greater Male Connectivity Project – touted as the largest such single project. This was followed by huge  anti-India protests, by an opposition coalition, which, for the first time in bilateral history, led to the armed forces being called in to protect Indian diplomatic installations. Clearly, China, or its supporters, are not going to allow Indian influence.

Third, while President Solih has since scrapped a Chinese proposal for a “Joint Ocean Observation Centre” (which is milspeak for a Chinese naval lookout point), the defence of India, just a few hundred nautical miles away, can’t be ensured with a few pilots who fly the two Advanced Light Helicopters gifted earlier, or an occasional Army medical team. Neither can India bar a sovereign country from entertaining Chinese warships, as Male did in 2017. Certainly, a permanent US warship presence will prevent that; but that’s the catch. Any US presence is now far more permanent than the still distant probability of a Chinese one. That does seem an excessive price to pay for keeping the Chinese out of the Maldives.

Also read: Why has India’s China policy been such a failure? Question New Delhi’s assumptions first

A party in the making

As of now, however, any price would be admissible. The World Bank expects a 9.6 per cent plunge in India’s GDP. Public debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise to 90 per cent, which is appalling even without the costs of ramping up defence in the fight against China in Ladakh. The defence budget is still in the doldrums at 2.1 per cent of GDP. At a time of crisis, it seems that the only way to operationalise the ‘maritime option’ against China is by acquiescing to a presence in the Indian Ocean of the most powerful navy globally. Adding 2+2 to get the requisite number, it means that at the minimum, US naval ships can be expected to dock at Male, ostensibly for ‘counter-piracy missions’, a US Ambassador will take up residence, who will for the moment work with the far more experienced Indian mission.

Meanwhile, with all four foundational agreements signed, there is the possibility of sharing accurate geospatial information on a ‘case by case’ basis. In other words, the US will share what it thinks it should. Don’t look for any drastic change in intelligence about Pakistan. In the case of China, too, the data provided – for instance, to launch a missile – might well be selective. But it does provide Delhi with a valuable, though probable,‘power up’ at a time of crisis.

All this totalled up makes this just short of an open alliance. It certainly puts aside the reservations of earlier governments in retaining an Indian ‘sphere of influence’. Forget the ‘net security provider’ language as well. Any help it needs in that direction is available from the US embassy.

Meanwhile, look at the bright side. The Chinese mission expressed its  outrage over Pompeo’s statements, with the Global Times nastily saying that US presence will threaten India rather than China. Beijing should get ready for the seas to get more crowded. Other Quad members like Japan and Australia are likely to come calling. All in all, quite a party in the making. Let’s hope the Indian mission will be the disc jockey.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal. 

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  1. It’s a good thing to have US base in Maldives, remember once they occupy they’ll not leave the island. We’re just doing great US in the bottom & China on the north & India sandwich in-between. All India’s military expansion will be watched. Today or tomorrow US & China will be partners so just think of the consequences, India will be trapped this is the game of big guys. India always kept US at a distance because the previous educated govt knows what their intentions but this regime every Indian knows their capability. World knows wherever they went that area was destroyed like Japan, Europe, Iraq etc

  2. TS Darbari- The Indo-Maldivian ties have been taken to the next level with the various landmark announcements made by the Modi government within last few years. The Maldives has been the biggest beneficiary of the Covid-19 assistance given by India among its all of India’s neighbouring countries. When the world supply chains were blocked because of the pandemic, India continued to provide crucial commodities to the Maldives under Mission SAGAR. Both countries in the past have shared close military and economic cooperation in the region. #TS_Darbari #Ts_Darbari_Blog #TS_Darbari_News #Ts_Darbari_Views #Ts_Darbari_Blogger #TS_Darbari_Comments #Ts_Darbari_Opinion #About_TS_Darbari #TS_Darbari_Articles #Politics #Views #Comments #TS_Darbari #TS_Darbari_Blog #Ts_Darbari_Nws #TS_Darbari_Comments #About_TS_Darbari #TS_Darbari_Comments_Politics
    Mr. TS Darbari is a top management professional, with several years of rich & diversified experience in Corporate Strategy, New Business Development, Sales & Marketing, Commercial Operations, Project Management, Financial Management and Strategic Alliances’

  3. Why can’t Maldives have its own relationship with the US. How does India lose out? The author hasn’t explained why it is a loss for India.

  4. Its a pity that we need the US mount a security presence against China on a handful of islands in our backyard. The Maldives are 3 times closer to the Indian Navy’s naval base at Kochi than is Delhi. Now expect a US naval base and airfield to come up in due course in the Maldives …. and what if tomorrow US interests diverge from ours? So much for our pretensions of being a global – or even regional – power. We seem to have had more self-respect and backbone as a poorer, less powerful country during the days of non-alignment.

  5. My first reaction to the article is – If Jyoti had written tis article, how it would have been! So reading such a nuanced article is a big relief. Secondly, as is our usual policy and capability, we do not do anything on our own and also wish to prevent any one else from doing it. When sovereign countries have options to choose in their best national interests , they will choose the best suitor. So if China with its vastly superior economic might, is able to fish in Indian Ocean, it is only to be expected. And if it is around, it is definitely against our interests. So far, we prevented USA from comin in, but how could we have stopped China?

    So let us not say that we let USA in; USA now feels sufficiently necessary to be in so that it can take on China. And this is in our interest too. Even if USA is closer to us for ever. If BECA gives to you ‘case to case’ data, so be it; you have 10 years to build up the same capacity and make it irrelevant.

  6. Your articles are always mature..and nuanced…a welcome read from the current times of trash that one sees bieng written in the name of journalism and strategic affairs.
    china uses its rogue allies…and our neighbours (by leveraging its cheque book diplomacy) to feed tension in bharat..we need to collaborate with the US and caliberate the quantum of tension that “WE”can feed the chinese.
    One has to agree..the chinese are quite ahead of us in terms of space tech(sat diffusers/jammers /killers ..radar blinding etc ..EMP weapon…DEW’s etc..)….in such times its beneficial to ve a helping hand from the most advanced tech player in this area ..i.e. the US of A..
    Make no mistake..the chinese still need approx….15 years or catch up with the USA in these criticle tech areas.
    and in this bargain if we ve to compromise on some “strategic capital”…then so be it…
    Once again…
    Keep writing more…

  7. Maldives previous China friendly ruling gov under Prez Abdulla Yameen was regime change by India & US, replacing with President Solih to halt China BRI, a installed puppet like all other subverted nations.

    India initially threatened to military intervene when ex-Prez Mohamed Nasheed (who lost election) visited India to seek coup, but detered by China’s warning with a flotilla of warships despatched.

    But Maldives people will soon find bankrupted US & india have no money nor goodwill to help its development, except bringing wars & destability. India has much lower GDP per cap & hunger/human index than Maldives that won’t inspired thrm to emulate India. They will demand Yameen back as Prez again, going back to China BRI for economy dev & peace like Sri Lanka.

    Sri Lanka had faced the same US-India regime change of Rajapakse previously, that screwed their economy by cancelling all China BRI investments. IndiaRAWS-US CIA reintroduced “LTTE-ISIS” suicide bombing terrorism have shocked all Buddhist Sinhalese. So Prez Rajapakse who ended India Indira Gandhi’s LTTE 30yrs terrorism is re-elected now to restart BRI. This will repeat in many countries that US is targeting to destroy China BRI.

  8. When a megalomaniacal and narcissistic family has been allowed to run the country and its economy into the ground with their traitorous policies, there are few options left at this stage. Until and unless we develop the necessary industrial and military capacities of our own, there is no point in pretending that we are a “superpower.” The reality of the present is that a nasty and powerful enemy is knocking on our doorstep and another failing rouge state has been at our throat for decades. Whether you like or not, an alliance with US is necessary to save our own land and skin. US has its own geopolitical game to play to serve its own interests, so there is no need to get gung ho about the alliance with them. But if the alliance can give us the room check Chinese aggression and prevent a full scale war – so that we can continue to focus on our uplifting our economy – the alliance would have served its purpose. Having illusions of grandeur beyond our means is foolish. US will of course extract its price for any help they render. But, until China becomes a democratic country and we understand how their government functions, we have no option but to ally with US – at least we understand how the US government works and how they operate.

  9. Overall a bleak view on this pact and relationship. Rather the US than China. India is nowhere close to monitoring and projecting its force over these vast seas. India is way behind China. We need time and under the circumstances not many options than going with the US. China has not made it easy with its aggressive stance. The aggressive stance is not new, any one that could read the tea leaves would have seen this coming eons ago. We would have embarked on a development program that would have put us ahead. Unfortunately our Nehruvian descendants have completely let us down. Finally India has abandoned its Nehruvian thinking and trying to break free of the shackles of this thought process.

  10. We better start acting our level and stop punching above our weight. India cannot even dream of countering China’s money. While India can more than defend its borders against China, it is not at all in a position to be “net security provider” that too against China/Pak. Plus India is not a ruthless country like Pakistan that has wreaked bloodbath in Afghanistan to retain it’s influence.
    And to say “huge price to pay” as if we had a say in it, shows immaturity. USA is a democracy and is the lesser devil here. We can count on the USA to atleast not start attacking another democracy. That for sure cannot be said about China. We must acknowledge that we are not giants and hence we need friends to help defend ourselves. USA is as good a friend as we can get at this point of time. Without USA, in 2 years we will have Nepal, Srilanka and Maldives laughing us off and showing their teeth just because they can. China is a different beast and India can NEVER deter this evil regime. If there was no USA, by now Pakistan prodded by China would have started launching small military attacks with J&K in their sight. Grow up and be smart.

  11. It shows India is not a superpower that it pretends to be. It cannot maintain favourable ties with Maldives, it ceded that to China. Now India cannot counter China, the US has to do it.

    All this has happened under proud ‘Hindu nationalism’.

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