Trouble in the Maldives is always going to be of interest to two nations in particular: India and China. With the recent political unrest and resignation of President Mohamad Nasheed in early February under what is being termed a coup, the situation in the Maldives is looking grave. India is keen to facilitate political reconciliation in the country and to reestablish itself as Maldives’ best friend in the region, while China is waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of any opportunity the unrest presents.
Interestingly, at the same time as India is viewing both Pakistan and China as an increased threat, there are cooperative signs between these nations as well.
Political Landscape of Maldives
Mohamed Nasheed is sometimes referred to as the ‘Godfather of the Arab Spring.’ He was a political activist and protested against the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives. In 2008, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom stepped down after the country’s first free election, where Mohamed Nasheed assumed the presidency. Three years later and the once-lauded President has been forced to step down, he says at gun point, after weeks of violent protests against him.
The Maldivian people grew disenchanted with their President after allegations of continued corruption and failed promises for change. The final straw was when Mohamed Nasheed detained Abdulla Mohamed, Chief Justice of the criminal court. Protests began in earnest and weeks later Mohamed Nasheed was stepping down from his role, to be replaced by his Vice President Waheed Hassan. Waheed Hassan has since called his former president a dictator. The lessons for Arab countries in the after-phase of the Arab Spring are clear.
India And Maldives
While the happenings in the Maldives are perhaps considered a storm in a teacup on the global scale, they are of intense concern to India and China.
India has long courted favor in the Maldives, as much to have a strong presence in the Indian Ocean as to ward off China from doing the same. Indian interests were safeguarded under Nasheed, who confirmed an accord with India protecting Indian interests in the region when he stated while still in office: “We have always categorically stated that we do not want foreign powers, in particular the Chinese, interfering in the Indian Ocean.” The Indian government is so concerned with the instability in the region, that it has sent foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai to convene peace talks between the opposing parties in the Maldives.
Mathai has managed to bring the parties to agreement on early presidential elections, but has also come under fire for appearing to interfere in another country’s internal affairs. India is strongly denying this charge. For India, the crucial thing is to deny China a strong foothold in the country, and it will risk appearing to interfere to achieve this.
China And Maldives
Chinese ambitions in the Maldives stem from the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy, a desire for Chinese ports and positions that extend from Port Sudan to Hong Kong. Already they have one port in the Maldives, but India’s close relationship with the Maldives has kept it from developing into more of a stronghold. Other ports in the String of Pearls include the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the Chittagong port in Bangladesh and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. India rightly fears the string tightening around its neck.
The Chinese vision for its sea lines in the Indian Ocean highlights the lack of grand strategy in evidence in India. There is certainly a defensive strategy to protect Indian interests, by partnering with Chinese rivals Japan and Vietnam, however there is little in the way of developmental strategy to counter the Chinese influence. India will likely have to partner with the US in the region to counterbalance the strong position of the Chinese. This could be why the US has recently deployed counter-terrorist operatives in India, as well as the Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Three of the countries are host to Chinese ports.
US Pacific commander Admiral Robert Willard told a congressional hearing on the subject that: “We are working very closely with India with regard to their counter-terrorism capabilities and in particular on the maritime domain but also government to government.” The particular threat Willard mentioned was Lashkar-e-Toiba (Let) based out of Pakistan.
Competition And Cooperation
Interestingly, at the same time as India is viewing both Pakistan and China as an increased threat, there are cooperative signs between these nations as well. Pakistan has just announced that trade with India will be normalized by the end of 2012. This will hopefully bring the trade between the two rivals from $2.7 billion per year to around $9 billion per year once all trade barriers are lifted.
At the same time, Indian military is gearing up to conduct one of its largest war games, less than 200 kilometers from Pakistani border in the Bikaner and Shri Ganganagar districts in Rajasthan. A few months earlier, the country conducted an exercise ‘Sudarshan Shakti’ in Pokharan. The exercise named Shoorveer or Brave Warrior will take place from March to May and will see the deployment of 20,000 troops and 200 Russian-made tanks. Indian Army spokesman colonel Jagdeep Dahiya has stated that the drill would be one of the largest maneuvers ever conducted, involving Su-30MKI, Mirage 2000, Jaguars and the AWACs.
“Battlefield transparency and operational plans based on real-time situational awareness will be
enhanced using intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) inputs from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, radars and satellites,” he added. Dahiya dismissed fears that the drills will heighten tensions with Pakistan, saying India informs Pakistan ahead of such large-scale exercises.
On the other hand, China and India have just launched their first ever maritime talks, with Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna promising that all of the ‘sticky’ issues between the countries were addressed: “Every possible issue that is raised whenever India-China dialogue takes place were raised and we have understood each other’s position and we have understood the perspective and we will continue to exchange these.”
While India and China, are doing the simultaneous dance of cooperation and competition, at present Indian influence in the Maldives looks to remain strong.