The diplomatic tug of war in Maldives seems to be going in favor of China as it seems to have gained a stronghold on President Yameen through “Debt Trap Diplomacy”, with inauguration of China funded Sinamale Bridge, which India chose to boycott. It is a flagship Chinese infrastructure project linking capital Male with the airport island, also referred as China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, with a heavy loan of $72 million besides $116 million grant by Chinese. President Yameen hopes that the optics of this project will perhaps get him some relief from down sliding domestic popularity for the next elections scheduled later this month, after dictatorial acts of targeting Supreme Court Judges and political opponents, unwanted emergency, and bulldozing Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, without a debate in Majlis.
…Chinese want to build an ocean observatory there, which could be a part of ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’…
Junking ‘India First Policy’: Current crisis with India
President Yameen seems to have unofficially junked the ‘India First Policy’, when it clearly asked India to remove its second gifted naval chopper (ALH Dhruv) from the Lammu atoll, on expiry of Letter of Exchange (LoE). Lammu being a wide atoll has a potential to be developed into a military base. It is widely believed that Chinese want to build an ocean observatory there, which could be a part of ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’, (which could later develop it into military base as it happened in South China Sea) together with ‘Debt Trap’ for a land grab, in case Maldives is unable to pay back the debt, as it has happened in many other countries. The other helicopter located at Addu atoll is also significant being the southernmost island.
Why can’t India Ignore Maldives?
Maldives archipelago is strategically so located that the shipping from the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman generally passes through Minicoy (India) and Maldives before sailing East towards Sri-Lanka or Malacca Straits or the Java Sea, Lombok Strait and vice versa, accounting for nearly half of the world’s shipping, including crucial oil for Japan and China. Its proximity to India with growing influence of China is another cause of concern, as it is learnt that China has plans to make a Joint Observation Station in Mukunudhu, together with a submarine base. Besides sham democracy under President Yameen, its new found love with Pakistan with their Army Chief visiting Maldives, and potential for radicalization is also an Indian concern.
What all Can India Do?
India, as a responsible nation recognizes that Maldives is a sovereign country with its right to choose its Government as well as its strategic partners. Any military intervention by India is not a viable option, unlike 1988, when India was invited by the elected President to intervene. India also cannot be a silent spectator to decline of democracy and disorder in immediate neighborhood, hence enhanced naval surface and sub- surface dominance, maritime patrolling in international water, and surveillance by all means needs to be resorted to, which I am sure is being done within international norms.
India can think of economic sanctions if President Yameen continues to pursue anti-India stance and manages to come back to power by fair/rigged elections.
As per media reports the two Indian naval helicopters, gifted to Maldives, are going to stay along with 48 member crew, is a positive diplomatic step. India needs to negotiate that status quo is maintained in the two atolls where these are located, at least till the elections are over. India could give them the Dornier aircraft as requested by them, as an excuse not to renew LoE later. Further negotiations can be done with the newly elected government.
India needs to generate the international opinion to prevent the anarchy and disorder in Maldives, along with other users of Indian Ocean. International pressure needs to be generated on President Yameen for conducting free and fair elections by ‘Smart Diplomacy’. President Yameen seems to be the preferred candidate to do business for China. He has supported the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. He will not mind taking Chinese help in whatever form possible for his regime survival. It is highly debatable that a future military base of China in Maldives will be a strength or vulnerability for them in light of distance involved from mainland, inadequate air cover, and high relative strength of Indian Navy and its strategic partners.
On economic front, India can think of economic sanctions if President Yameen continues to pursue anti India stance and manages to come back to power by fair/rigged elections. This however is a double edged weapon, because it can be counter-productive, pushing Maldives in Chinese orbit further. A travel advisory and restriction on tourism can give a decisive blow to their economy, because Maldives’ tourism industry is largest income generating industry, highly dependent on India. In case Maldives inclination is positive, India should continue with goodwill investments like building a Police Academy and other developmental projects.
India also needs to build up its own military capability not only in context of Maldives but other maritime commitments and threats. We need to have more resources to counter threats by PLA Navy submarines in our area of our maritime interest. We need to have good relations with Oman, and getting access to Port of Dukm in Oman, Agreements with France for access to their bases are positive steps in that direction. Periodic inter-operability exercises like Malabar Exercise will continue to send right messages regarding protection of Indian interest in Indian Ocean Region.