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China Widens Maldives Reach as India Falls Behind

India is losing its influence in Maldives, its Indian Ocean backyard, as China gains ground there, writes Seema Guha 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
China Widens Maldives Reach as India Falls Behind

With China’s footprints growing larger each year in the Maldives – the Indian Ocean archipelago in its backyard – New Delhi is recalibrating its policy towards the island nation.

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was there this week, trying to rework bilateral ties, which had dipped precariously after Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped an official visit to the country in March this year.

In an outreach to its ocean neighbours, Modi had planned to visit Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka, but following the 13-year jail sentence against former president Mohamed Nasheed on terror charges, Male was dropped from the itinerary. Indian criticism did not go down well with President Abdulla Yameen who was affronted by the cancellation. More so because the Maldivian Democratic Party made much of it and profusely thanked India for giving Yameen the short shrift.

But besides a statement condemning the sentence against Nasheed and cancelling the PM’s visit, India did not get into the act to diffuse the crisis. Instead, New Delhi left it to the Commonwealth to take up the cause of the jailed MDP leader.

During the crisis in 2012, when Nasheed claimed he was being forced to quit because of a coup, India had played a much more active role. Ironically, India helped install Mohammed Waheed as president. India backed the wrong horse, because Waheed changed Maldives’ past pro-India policy and leaned heavily towards China.

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Male’s Pro-China Tilt

Waheed later shunted out India’s biggest investor GMR Infrastructure, who were modernising the airport in Male for $511 million. Despite New Delhi’s best efforts GMR was out of the island. Later, to add insult to injury, the Beijing Urban Construction Group was awarded the deal during President Xi Zinping’s visit. But the deal will not allow the Chinese to run the new airport.

The current President, Abdulla Yameen, a half-brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, continued Waheed’s pro-China policy. Unlike Nasheed, who maintained close relations with India and the West during his three years in office, Yameen has assiduously welcomed China.

Considering the flush funds that Beijing has to throw around, and its refusal to get hassled over human rights and domestic politics, China is welcomed in all countries, especially developing countries in Africa and Asia.

While India has been apprehensive about China’s presence in the Maldives, the recent land legislation has led to serious concern in the establishment.The new piece of legislation allows individuals or companies to buy land on the islands provided they invest $1 billion and reclaim 70% of the land from the Indian Ocean for their project.

China is welcomed in all countries, especially developing countries in Africa and Asia. (Photo: iStock)
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Chinese Expertise

China is an expert in land reclamation. Its recent activities in the South China Sea, where the Chinese are churning up sand from the ocean beds and reclaiming land, has heightened tension across Asia-Pacific. Many analysts expect China to do the same in the Indian Ocean, starting with the Maldives. Considering China’s network of ports, often dubbed the ‘string of pearls’ to surround India, there is disquiet about Beijing’s motives in the Indian Ocean.

But considering that China is now competing for influence with the US and not India, this would be cry wolf too soon. India is far behind China both economically and militarily and it would take at least two decades to catch up. So flexing muscles is not the answer.

As Asia’s power house, China needs to secure the sea lanes, needed for smooth transfer of energy from Africa and other destinations. It is not that China can spread its navy across the world, it is not yet as powerful as the US. It is good to be cautious about China but silly to overreact.

India Lacks Resources

What can India do to check mate China? Frankly very little.

New Delhi has neither the resources nor the capability of land reclamation like the Chinese, nor does India have the money to compete with China. Will China turn a reclaimed island to a military base? Will the government in Male mortgage their country to China? Certainly not.

China is also aware of the international community’s sharp reaction to its growing military might. It certainly cannot take on the world, and in fact has already declared that its building activity in the South China Sea has stopped.

Jaishankar’s visit to Male was to find out exactly what this deal means. It is important to get a clear idea of what Yameen has in mind with this legislation. No doubt the foreign secretary would have conveyed India’s security concerns. While encouraging China and other nations to invest in the island, Male will not want to upset India either. At the same time India needs to have good political relations with the Maldives government. This will not be difficult for in the past, New Delhi has had excellent ties with Gayoom, who is a major player in the island nation.

Jaishankar’s visit is timely, it will give New Delhi a detailed idea of what Male proposes to do with this legislation. New Delhi is also keen to build ties with Maldives, a Modi visit will help to clear the air.

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(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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