If Chinese naval vessels suddenly appear off Maldives to ostensibly protect their interests, the door would shut on Indian intervention.
The evolving situation in Maldives challenges the Indian government at multiple levels. First, the post-independence Indian version of the Monroe Doctrine, under which US forbade European powers from interfering in the internal affairs of Latin American countries, has made India defend its immediate periphery zealously over the last seven decades. Second, we have the Narendra Modi government’s nationalistic credentials, articulated periodically by the prime minister and his supporters and then bandied over social media.
Since 1947, Indian governments have defended core interests along India’s maritime and land frontiers. In the 1950s, India acted to restore King Tribhuvan to the Nepalese throne, negating the Ranas. Portugal was ejected from Goa in the 1960s. In the 1970s, India, not only severed Pakistan in two, leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, but also annexed Sikkim in 1974, eliminating one of the three buffers between India and China. The intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987 was a peace-keeping mission that went awry. In 1988, India thwarted an attempted coup in Maldives by a daredevil operation.
Maldives beckons again, but the geo-politics is different. India allowed the situation in Maldives to degrade since 2012, when the former President Mohamed Nasheed was forcibly ousted from office in a bloodless coup. The UPA government dithered, sending wrong signals. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh felicitated the usurper and the current President Abdulla Yameen. Since then, Yameen has arrested political opponents, won an allegedly rigged election in 2013, and moved Maldives closer to China. Last year, he visited China and signed a free trade agreement, approved by his parliament in unseemly hurry. Chinese president Xi Jinping also made the first ever visit by a Chinese leader to Maldives prior to that. There has been speculation that China is acquiring islands for development and possible future bases.
The current crisis was triggered when the Supreme Court of Maldives ordered the release of some political prisoners and thus also possible return of Yameen’s arch nemesis and former president Nasheed from exile in Sri Lanka. Yameen promptly arrested the chief justice and his deputy besides former President Abdul Gayoom, whose dictatorial rule of two decades ended before the dawn of democracy in 2008.
As speculation swirled about Indian action, Nasheed urged India to intervene to restore democracy. China, on the other hand, warned against outside powers meddling in the internal affairs of Maldives.
The plot was thus set for a stand-off between India acting to protect its core interests in its periphery and China openly siding with a rising dictator.
The question arises: how will this ‘Doklam II’ end?
India had an opportunity for quick intervention, after getting the US and Saudi Arabia on board. Saudi, to stymie Pakistan running to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) alleging India has attacked an Islamic nation. The US, by arm’s length military presence, to checkmate China’s possible naval posturing.
With each passing day, China has made its objections more explicit, particularly after receiving Yameen’s envoy. If Chinese naval vessels suddenly appear off Maldives to protect ostensibly their interests and nationals working on projects on islands handed over to them, the door would shut on Indian intervention.
India could have immediately sent a special envoy, while the public disturbances were afoot, on a special flight that could have had a security component for the protection of the envoy and Indian diplomats. Fortuitously, the airport is on a separate island and thus can be used without confrontation with Yameen supporters, if any. Chinese statements are confirming that they view the developments through the prism of Sino-Indian relations. The Indian and international objective must be to marry diplomatic and military pressure to get the emergency countermanded, which runs in the first instance till 20 February. Yameen must then undo whatever steps he has taken under it and allow free and fair elections under international supervision. Failing that, he must be ejected to make way for an interim government to do the same.
The way the developments have panned out, there is still a possibility of framing it in a manner that China does not lose face excessively. China is clearly testing Indian resolve in India’s maritime underbelly and if Yameen stays in power, Indian influence will continue to slip. What China fears is the return of democracy and elections as the Chinese role in cornering vital islands will get debated and cost-benefit to Maldives analysed.
The sordid saga of Hambantota in Sri Lanka where a debt bubble has allowed China to literally seize control of the port and surrounding land, on the pretext of loan repayment, on a long lease is a tale that needs debating in Maldives. It is what Western powers did to China in the 19th century when enclaves were carved out for colonial foothold like Hong Kong, Macau etc. Time is of the essence and the Modi government’s ability to counter maritime encircling by China is under test. The door for pro-active and pre-emptive action is shutting fast.
K. C. Singh is a former diplomat and strategic affairs expert.