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China is Testing India by Trying to Control the Maldives Crisis

As our neighbors ‘sell their sovereignty to China’, India has to learn how to be more tactful & influential.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Image used for representational purposes.
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Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed was in Bangalore to attend The Hindu ‘Huddle’ on 17-18 February, wherein he was asked as to what exactly he had in mind when he sought the dispatch of a Special Envoy along with a military contingent from India. What was to be the agenda of this military contingent and what were to be its ‘mission objectives’?

Nasheed realised the difficulty of the question, which may not have been so obvious when he made his now famous tweet that reportedly put a contingent of about 400 troops in Bangalore to be on alert to move at a short notice. He went on to explain that he did not want the Indian troops to come and depose President Yameen, which is obviously the job of the Maldivians.
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He did not want Indian troops to come as an ‘occupation force’ to take control of the capital Male. He wanted merely ‘force projection’ to be sent as a signal of Indian displeasure at Yameen’s high handed behavior towards his own people and the country’s Constitutional institutions, such as the Parliament and the judiciary. It’s a tough act. You send your troops but don’t fire. We have already done that in Sri Lanka in 1987 and it was a disaster.

Does Dictatorship in Maldives Merit Indian Intervention?

No doubt there is much that is rotten about Yameen’s rule: his unbridled corruption, utter disregard for democratic norms, arresting the chief justice of the Maldivian supreme Court and his deputy for issuing an unpleasant order, sacking two police commissioners and the director of prisons for saying that they would implement the court order, not permitting the court reinstated MPs to take part in parliamentary proceedings, and finally arresting his own mentor and facilitator, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has now become the ‘Grand Patriarch’ of the Opposition.

Does all this merit an Indian military intervention? Perhaps not, but the fact that Nasheed sought such an intervention is a sign of helplessness at India’s continued inability to intervene at several inflection points in the past, when democratic norms and rule of law was systematically undermined by Yameen.

China’s Warnings to India

Now with China telling India and other countries to lay off their hands from what is purely an ‘internal matter’ of a sovereign country, we clearly have a competitor in our backyard. More important than the rhetoric have been the reports of PLA Navy’s movements in the eastern seaboard of the Indian Ocean.

It was reported a week ago that 11 Chinese warships sailed into the east Indian Ocean in February 2018, amid a state of emergency in the Maldives. A fleet of destroyers, at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers entered the Indian Ocean, according to news portal Sina.com.cn.

Though sources in our defence ministry clarified that there were no such movements anywhere near the Maldives and that the Chinese ships were at least 2,500 nautical miles away from our neighboring archipalego, scaremongering has started. More recently, there have been reports of a Joint Ocean Observation Station that China is ‘looking to establish’ in the Maldives. The so-called observatory is to be located in Makunudhoo island, the westernmost atoll to the north of Male’, closest to the Indian coastline.

That Yameen’s government was negotiating the lease of these islands in the northernmost atoll to China was known to us over three years ago. What have we done since then?

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China Sends Mixed Signals

Now to say that this observatory will not only be a watching station and a listening post with radars and SIGINT (Signals intelligence) facilities, but will also have ‘military application with provision for a submarine base’ should not come as a surprise to anyone in the strategic community in Delhi.

One comforting thought, though, is that it is still in the planning stage. But with China, proposals become a reality at breathtaking speed. Yameen, by having signed the Free Trade Agreement with China in December 2017 (only the second country after Pakistan in the neighborhood) and pledging to align the country along the Maritime Silk Route as part of the Belt and Road Initiative of China, has made it clear as to where he wants to position his country.

With China’s presence becoming so ominously imminent, can India dare to do anything in the Maldives? Is China really interested in protecting and defending Yameen or is it ‘payback time’ for China, due to India’s excessive interest in Vietnam?

A Litmus Test

Yes, it is agreed that foreign policy cannot be compartmentalised into regions and we cannot sacrifice one region to protect the other, and it should be essentially a projection of what you are and you stand for as a country.

Let us say, India stands for rule-based governance in international relations, but when you join hands with one group of nations (ASEAN) against the other, which is not exactly following the high moral principle but its own ‘narrow self interest’, you should be ready to face retaliation.

Enunciating principles is easy but to stand by them is tough. Will the quad come to your aid if you decide to confront China in the Maldivian waters? It’s too premature to test this as yet, as it is an unstructured institution. Secondly, with President Trump in the White House, none would bet on his words.

China is testing India’s ability to stand up for its convictions and for its interests in the neighborhood, first in Bhutan (on the Doklam issue) and now in the Maldives. If we let our neighborhood be in the grip of China, our ambitious policies such as Look East and Act East would remain quite hollow.

It may look quite dramatic to have 10 Heads of States on one platform to witness our Republic Day parade, but what is in it for us in Brunei and the Philippines if not in our neighbourhood?

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‘Net Provider of Security’

It has become fashionable for our Chiefs of Army and the Navy to talk of India being a ‘net provider of security’ in our neighborhood, including the Indian Ocean. While it sounds very impressive, what exactly do they mean by it? Are we really capable of providing it or is it just an ‘aspirational thing’?

Are we truly committing to protect our neighbourhood from external threats? Well, Doklam is a case in point and while Bhutan may have heaved a sigh of relief that China’s road construction may not come exactly at the tri-junction, but a few kilometres away, it would be anybody’s guess as to when China would strike again and with what force. Or would China simply buy up Bhutan with expensive investments that it can ill afford?

As our neighbors, starting with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives mortgage their land along with their sovereignty to China’s easy flowing cash, India has to come up with more ingenious ways of winning over friends by using all the old tricks: ‘Sama, Dana, Bheda and Danda’.

There is much that our agencies can do in the neighborhood. ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas’ seems to be not working. If they want ‘vikas’ (progress) with Chinese characteristics, then what happens to your policy?

(The author is a retired diplomat, and is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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