China’s Navy May Have Deterred an Indian Intervention in Maldives
A Chinese naval combat force that entered the Indian Ocean for the first time in four years may have helped deter an Indian intervention in the Maldives after its pro-China president imposed a state of emergency, according to military and diplomatic sources and analysts.
India has traditionally been the biggest player in the tiny island chain 400 km (250 miles) to its south, and faced calls from Maldives' Opposition leaders last month to use force against President Abdulla Yameen to restore democracy.
But in the end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held off from hard action, unwilling to entangle the military in a foreign country of 400,000 people, the sources said.
Beijing's signals that it would not look kindly on any foreign involvement in the Maldives – where it is investing millions of dollars as part of its Belt and Road Initiative – backed up by its naval presence in the eastern Indian Ocean, may also have weighed against an intervention, security analysts said.
China's defence ministry said the ships carried out routine exercises.
Beijing's foreign ministry said it was paying close attention to events in the Maldives and had asked the government in Male to protect Chinese interests there.
India's defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A naval official confirmed the Chinese ships entered the Indian Ocean, but said they were thousands of miles away from the Maldives.
Details of the deployments by India and China as well as diplomatic messages from Beijing that have not previously been reported, show how the Asian giants flexed military muscles as the crisis in the strategically located archipelago unfolded.
Both militaries have since backed off and last week Vijay Gokhale, India's top diplomat, made an unscheduled visit to Beijing where the two sides discussed ways to address their "differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other's concerns, interests and aspirations," the Indian foreign ministry said. It did not give more details.
Liu Zongyi, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the People's Daily in January that Yameen's tilt towards China had caused unhappiness in New Delhi.
At the end of January, a Chinese navy "surface action group", which included an amphibious Type 071 vessel for troops to make a marine landing, quietly crossed into the Indian Ocean through Indonesia's Sunda Straits.
It was the first time such a force entered the area since an exercise by a similar group in 2014 in the eastern Indian Ocean that raised concern in India about Chinese motives behind conducting amphibious drills.
Thousands of miles away in the Maldives, Yameen, long criticised for running his Muslim majority nation with an iron fist, rejected a surprise Supreme Court decision on 1 February to free political dissidents.
Instead, the Maldives' leader threw the judges too into prison and imposed a state of emergency, saying he was acting to thwart a coup.
Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Army posted photos of the warships, whose number had by then swelled to 11, taking part in rescue training exercises, according to Chinese state media.
Some analysts saw a carefully calibrated message from China.
"The message to India was: 'if you come too close to the Maldives, we are not too far away'."
China, whose navy is now four times bigger than India's, is increasingly asserting itself in the Indian Ocean. It has built a network of friendly ports, its so-called "String of Pearls", around shipping lanes through which more than three-quarters of its oil moves.
Soon after the emergency was declared in the Maldives, India's military moved C-130 Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster transport planes from near Delhi to its Yelahanka air force base near the southern city of Bengaluru, and ordered paratroops to be on stand-by, the two Indian military sources said.
Warships were also put on readiness at the southern naval command in Kochi, they said. A government official dealing with security issues said moving planes and ships was standard operating procedure for the military.
Yameen was unfazed, and on 20 February extended the emergency by another 30 days despite international calls not to do so.
A source close to Chinese diplomats in Colombo said that Beijing had told its missions in the region that China stood ready to help Yameen if India tried to unseat him. The source was not clear whether that included military help.
A diplomat at the Maldives' embassy in Colombo said Beijing had given the same assurance of support to the Yameen government. A second diplomat said China had been dragged into the political crisis by the Maldivian Opposition, which accused Beijing of grabbing some of its islands.
Throughout the crisis, the Maldivian government was in continuous contact with the Chinese embassy in Male and China was informed about Yameen's every move, including the state of emergency well, in advance, the first diplomat said.
(The story has been published in arrangement with the Reuters)
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