The recent movement of a Chinese naval flotilla into the Indian Ocean led to whispers of a possible military intervention in Maldives. The Chinese movement has taken place at a time when the archipelago is undergoing a constitutional crisis and is under emergency. Though the rumors were quickly dispelled since the Chinese warships were at least 2500 nautical miles away undergoing ‘an exercise’ and promptly returned to South China Sea; the possibility of a future Chinese military intervention in Maldives has emerged as a concern in international relations.
Chinese movement in Indian Ocean is the logical culmination of its economic and military empowerment. An empowered China is slowly coming out of the ‘hide and bide’ politics adopted by Deng Xiaoping and resorting to coercive diplomacy through some open and blatant display of military power. After having successfully tested the nerves of the US and other stakeholders in South China Sea, China wants to test its blue-water capabilities, akin to what other superpowers have done in the past! China is working on a ‘two ocean’ strategy to reach out to the Indian Ocean, now also called Indo – Pacific, and claim the position of a superpower.
China’s superpower ambitions are best reflected in One Belt, One Road (OBOR) or its offshoot like the Maritime Silk Route. Small countries like Maldives are potential footholds in such projects. Maldives is also an important part of China’s ‘string of pearls’ containment strategy. Chinese strategic thinkers have been quite candid in establishing a foothold in Maldives and China, in fact, went all the length in 2014 to provide water aid to Maldives. However, if China intended to make a move towards Maldives in the present crisis and change the behavioural outcome of other stakeholders in the game, the bluff is off, at least for now.
Will China be tempted to go for a military intervention in future? Several factors allude to this hypothesis. First, international relations is replete with examples where superpowers and great powers resorted to military interventions in small countries. China, in the past, did opt for military interventions in Korea and Vietnam. A rising China, propelled by nationalism and aggressive strategic culture, is likely to repeat these times tested tools in future to project its superpower status. Therefore, a hypothetical Chinese military intervention in Maldives is very much a possibility given its huge stakes and investments in the archipelago. The international reactions would be inconsequential as long as the regime in Maldives solicits such collusion with Beijing.
Second, China has since long been working on military operations other than war (MOOTW). Such operations would be invariably be part of its resolve to enhance its reputation in international relations. A series of Chinese white papers on defence have commented on MOOTW and China has been honing its skills in MOOTW, either through bilateral military exercises (more than 150 per year) or on its own! Chinese generals have perceived this to be the best tool for expansion of ‘Chinese sphere of influence’.
Third, the prestigious journal of International Security carried a paper by Michael Beckley (fall edition; 2017) on Chinese naval expansion. China is, without any doubt, a powerful regional naval power in East Asia and is spreading its influence to other oceanic tracts. It would take the combined effort on part of all regional powers to keep China in check. Coalition building exercises are quite difficult to build and sustain as has been evident from the painful experience of ASEAN and other regional groupings in socializing China.
Fourth, China is building up foreign bases with Djibouti in Africa already the first stopover. Work is on Gwadar in Pakistan where Chinese submarines are going to be positioned. China also has committed fuel and replenishment facilities for its military vessels in Sri Lanka. These bases facilitate Chinese maritime missions and anti piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. Maldives falls very much in the catchment zone from these bases.
Capacity apart, Chinese intentions in Maldives also lend credence to its assertive policy towards Maldives. Until few years back, Maldives was playing the balancing game as most small nations do; leveraging its position for maximum advantage with big neighbours. The Yameen regime, however, has shown sharp inclination towards China and has opened its doors for Beijing in almost all sectors, including parting away of the strategic Gun Island. Throughout the crisis period, China has been warning, directly and indirectly, all countries to keep away. Behind the veil of threats, lie however, the Chinese unease of letting others dilute its subjugation of Maldives’ economic and social life.
China’s interventionist desire may have turned out to be untrue for the moment; futuristic decisions from Beijing would be unaffected by international pressure. Even without actually intervening, the Indian Ocean exercise by China has led to sudden metamorphosis of Maldives into another fault-line jeopardizing Asian security and reinforce the ‘China threat theory’.
China’s naval missions are indications that Xi Jinping’s‘ restless empire’ is out to pursue and continue an aggressive posture to new geopolitical spots. Military balancing alone would not be sufficient; constructive and continuous engagement with the local regime would be required to wean Maldives away from the Chinese clutches. Else, Maldives could one day turn into a Chinese protectorate!