By: Neeta Lal

With a political crisis unfolding in Maldives, the scenic archipelago in the Indian Ocean has emerged as a fresh geopolitical battleground for arch rivals India and China.

The two Asian giants have faced each other off across the region in recent months, with the most recent confrontation in Bhutan a few months ago when the two accused each other of border violations in a road construction project.  Apart from growing blue-water navies on both sides, China has been making significant investments in all countries surrounding India – not only Maldives but Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and has extended its influence in Nepal.

Since February 1, Maldives has been embroiled in domestic turbulence following a standoff between President Abdulla Yameen and the Maldives Supreme Court, which last week ruled that nine opponents of the president had been unfairly convicted.

These opponents include exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed, widely regarded as a reformer, who was ousted from the presidency in 2015, was sentenced to 13 years in prison after a trial broadly viewed as politically motivated, and Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister who many Maldivians believe was framed. Opposition protests have gathered momentum as the president continues to defy the court’s order to free the jailed dissidents. Fearing a coup, he has also declared a 15-day state of emergency citing “security concerns” in the Indian Ocean nation.

Driving the Maldivian president, say experts, is the fear of a fiercely contested presidential election later this year — if the opposition could run. Nasheed, who was granted asylum in the UK in 2016, plans to return home and run for president, which the court’s ruling appears to pave the way for him to do.

Nasheed, keen to leverage the current disenchantment against his tormentor Yameen to his electoral advantage, is seeking intervention from India to solve the crisis in Asia’s smallest nation. He has requested New Delhi to “send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and political detainees” and resolve the turmoil. India had last intervened in Maldives in 1988 during ‘Operation Cactus,’ saving the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from a coup that was carried out by Sri Lankan Tamil militants.

China Tells India Stay Out

Expectedly, India’s military intervention in Maldives is anathema to China, which has called for dialogue to resolve the crisis. Beijing, which has close ties to the Yameen government, has warned against any outside interference, calling on the international community to respect the Maldives’ sovereignty and not “take actions that may further complicate the situation.”

“The international community should play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the Maldives’ sovereignty instead of taking measures that could complicate the current situation,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. “The current situation in the Maldives is its internal affairs. China follows the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others,” Geng said in response to a question on allegations by Maldivian opposition parties that Beijing is backing the embattled Yameen over this approval of Chinese projects.

The Global Times, an aggressive Chinese government mouthpiece, said in an editorial that “India must stop intervening in Male.” Political struggles, the publication said, “are supposed to be internal affairs, and New Delhi has no justification to intervene in Male’s affairs. The Maldives must be under huge pressure from India.”

Yameen Finds a Friend in Beijing

In his five years of rule, President Yameen has openly courted China, saying that his country will follow a “China First’ policy, in stark contrast to all previous regimes there. Beijing is also unambiguous that it wants the present regime to continue. Never mind if it is perceived as dictatorial and autocratic by other countries.  

A recent article in The Diplomat noted that Yameen has moved the Maldives further into China’s orbit, mostly notably through the controversial signing of a free trade agreement.

“Beyond the FTA, the Maldives under Yameen has appeared ready to follow a course similar to that of Sri Lanka under the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government, eagerly embracing Chinese investment and loans to develop the island country.”  

The article adds that China’s presence, especially in the Maldives’ tourism sector and infrastructure building, has expanded. It has replaced Europe as the island chain’s largest source of tourists. In August 2017, Chinese warships were allowed to dock in Male. The country is also an eager partner in the Chinese leader’s signature one road one belt project. Beijing is investing big on infrastructure and projects such as a bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island are an example of growing Chinese influence.

China also views the Maldives as key to its Maritime Silk Road project in the Indian Ocean as it has already acquired Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

New Delhi views this growing Chinese influence as a threat to its security and meddling in its own backyard. Besides, the unceremonious but expected ouster of the Indian infrastructure company GMR Group from Maldives’ biggest airport project at China’s behest still rankles.

“Beijing has long eyed Maldives as an important piece of its Indian Ocean puzzle and Yameen government was more than happy to become its partner,” said an editorial in Firstpost. “So if India undertakes a direct military intervention, we have to assume that China will make sure that things turn messy. And the Chinese retribution may not come directly in Maldives theatre, but certainly on the India-China border or even a debilitating cyber-attack on Indian computers. Is India ready to jeopardize its core security interests, for a military intervention in the Maldives?”

As the Maldives crisis deepens, New Delhi is mulling the option of intervention.  The situation presents a pressing foreign policy challenge for the Narendra Modi government that seeks to be accepted as a significant global actor and play a positive role in its immediate neighborhood.

Travel Advisory Urges Caution

In a strongly-worded travel advisory issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, the Indian government urged all its citizens to exercise caution and defer all non-essential travels to Male and other atolls. Till date the peripatetic Modi has not yet visited Maldives. He was to travel there in March 2015, which never took place, although Yameen visited India on January 2014.

Out of Maldives’ population of 380,000, more than 22,000 are Indians. Apart from their safety, what’s also at stake is India’s national security. An unstable Maldives could prove to be the perfect hotbed for extremism and religious fundamentalism, piracy, smuggling and drug trafficking.

Amid growing friction between Male and New Delhi, Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim visited India recently and met PM Modi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

The visiting leader “reaffirmed his government’s India First policy and emphasized that Maldives attached the highest priority to its ties with India.” However, recent developments are hardly likely to dispel New Delhi’s fears.

Neeta Lal is a longtime regular correspondent for Asia Sentinel