By Dan Southerland*
China has expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean, causing India to respond with a military build-up and far-reaching diplomatic contacts with potential allies.
During and after the time that Indian troops ended a more than two-month-long Himalayan standoff with Chinese soldiers in the remote kingdom of Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau last August, nationalistic feelings have been running high in India.
In what some Indians refer to as “Post-Doklam Development,” India has been ramping up infrastructure projects along its long and poorly demarcated border with China.
New Delhi has also speeded up the acquisition of new weapons and their deployment, according to Debasis Dash, a researcher specializing in strategic affairs who is currently studying at the University of Malaya.
According to the Times of India, the Indian government plans to recruit 15 new battalions of troops to bolster border defenses along its borders with China and Pakistan. This would come to about 15,000 men.
Three nuclear powers—China, India, and India’s long-time nemesis, Pakistan—are engaged in this strategic power game.
On the diplomatic front, India has been deepening ties with Southeast Asian nations, many of which have been looking to India to counterbalance China’s growing power and influence.
In order to protect sea lanes, India has bolstered its ties with Australia and Japan while looking to them for assistance. As the Financial Times noted recently, the idea of an “Indo-Pacific” region with India playing a more active strategic role has been endorsed by Australia, Japan, and U.S. President Donald Trump.
But India now faces a crisis in the Maldives islands, located near the southwestern tip of the Indian subcontinent, that should test how forcefully India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is prepared to respond to growing Chinese influence.
The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has appealed to India to intervene in the Maldives to deal with the ongoing political crisis there.
It’s no secret that Prime Minister Modi was distressed at the ouster of Nasheed in a coup in 2012. After being jailed, Nasheed was allowed to go into exile for medical treatment and now lives in Sri Lanka.
Modi and the Maldives
India’s sensitivity to Chinese moves in its backyard became apparent early last month when the parliament of the Maldives, the smallest and least populous nation in South Asia, endorsed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China.
The New Delhi-based Indian Express said that the Maldives’ parliament “rushed through” the FTA despite much internal criticism of it.
It was the Maldives’ first such agreement with any country.
On Feb. 5, facing popular unrest, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency. Yameen then sent troops into the streets of Male, the nation’s capital, to maintain control.
Yameen had directed the arrest of two Supreme Court justices shortly after the high court issued a ruling calling for the release of jailed opposition politicians in the Maldives.
The Maldives, an island chain with a population of roughly 400,000 people, is best known for its luxury resorts and coral reefs. But because of its location just southwest of the southern tip of India near vital international shipping lanes, India considers it strategically important.
According to The New York Times, Nasheed had become an international celebrity because of his work to combat climate change. He also happened to be the country’s first and only democratically elected leader. So his words carry weight both in the region and beyond.
On Feb. 2, Nasheed had said that he planned to run again for office. But President Yameen, now ruling under what amounts to martial law, was already making plans to run for reelection later this year. With all of his opponents jailed or in exile, he would be running unopposed.
Nasheed urged India to send an envoy to the Maldives backed by the military,” according to a report from New Delhi by Amy Kazin of The Financial Times over the past weekend (Feb. 10-11).
But it’s not at all clear at this point whether Prime Minister Modi would consider intervening in the Maldives.
U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Modi on Feb. 8 to discuss various topics, including the situation in the Maldives. The two “expressed concern about the political crisis in the Maldives and the importance of respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law,” according to a statement issued by the White House.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, meanwhile, described the moves made by Maldives President Yameen as an “all-out assault on democracy.”
China, on the other hand, has come out strongly in defense of the Maldives leader.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told an envoy from the Maldives on Feb. 8 that China believes the Maldives government and people have “the wisdom and ability to appropriately handle the issue facing them and return the country to normal order in accordance with the law.”
China has invested heavily in the Maldives. As The Economist magazine explains in its current issue (Feb. 10-16), China has backed several Chinese projects in the Maldives with loans.
The projects include a hospital, a U.S. $800 million expansion of the airport, and a China Maldives Friendship Bridge between the capital and the airport.
According to The Economist, “There is no public tendering, and no budgets have been published.”
“Diplomats and NGOs suspect costs have been wildly inflated,” the magazine’s “Banyan” columnist says. “Any default, and China can extract concessions, such as a base on the Indian Ocean.”
Meanwhile, everyone assumes that Chinese cash is “lining politicians’ pockets” in the Maldives.
Former President Nasheed has alleged that nearly a quarter of the Maldives’ budget goes to interest payments. Others on the island itself estimate that three-fifths of the debts that the country is amassing are owed to China. Nasheed calls it a “debt trap” that gives China huge leverage over the Maldives.
Indian relations with the Maldives have deteriorated since 2012, when the Maldives expropriated its international airport from an Indian company which had a contract to upgrade and operate the airport.
China in recent years has forged closer ties with India’s neighbors, including Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Financial Times reported that in 2015, the Maldives amended its constitution, allowing foreigners to buy land, thus paving the way for Chinese companies to buy islands, which India says have potential military use.
The newspaper also said that two Chinese military ships docked at a Maldivian port last August. Other reports say that it was three ships.
India has long considered the Maldives to be part of its sphere of influence, given its proximity to India as well as the historical ties between the two countries.
In 1988, India intervened in the Maldives with a military force to prevent an attempted coup backed by an armed Sri Lankan separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers.
Now Indian foreign policy hawks and some foreign policy analysts see China’s growing presence in the Maldives as a test of India’s claim to be a rising power capable of maintaining regional security.
In one much-quoted comment, a Rumel Dahiya, a retired Indian Army brigadier general, said that “if India cannot even safeguard its primary interests so close to its mainland, then it can hardly be trusted to become a net security provider for the wider region.”
Dahiya’s comment was published by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
According to Stratfor, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank and consultancy, if India intervenes in the Maldives, it could “tilt the regional political scales in favor of China,” which has already benefited from anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal.
Sending Indian troops into the Maldives, Stratfor says, “would undoubtedly reinforce New Delhi’s image as a domineering hegemon unafraid to use force against its smaller neighbors.”
For decades, the Maldives was considered a model Islamic nation, says Stratfor. Its Muslim majority practiced a tolerant form of Islam. But in recent years its Muslims have leaned toward Salafist and Wahabi forms of Islam. Some of this has come from students who studied these ultra-conservative ideologies in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, a supporter of the current government in the Maldives.
The Pakistani factor
Even as it copes with China, India continues to consider neighboring Pakistan to be a major security threat. India has fought five wars with Pakistan since 1947. Skirmishes between the two sides in divided Kashmir have become routine over the decades.
So it’s obvious that India would be concerned about reports that China is planning to build a naval base close to the Pakistani port of Gwadar.
Gwadar is located on the Arabian Sea only 690 nautical miles west of Mumbai.
Both China and Pakistan deny reports of a plan to build a Chinese naval base at Gwadar. But The Economist notes that construction at the port is planned as part of a $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is intended to connect landlocked western China to the Arabian Sea.
The United States, meanwhile, announced on Jan. 4 that it would suspend most U.S. security assistance to Pakistan, pending a stronger effort by Pakistan to expel the Taliban and enemies of Afghanistan’s government from the Pakistani side of the two countries’ border.
Such a development would have been unthinkable during the Cold War years when Pakistan was considered a staunch military ally of the United States.
The suspension of security aid would cost Pakistan an estimated U.S. $2 billion in aid already budgeted.
But China, describing Pakistan as its “irreplaceable all-weather friend,” seems more than ready to make up for any shortfall in security funding for the South Asian country.
Analysts explain that for Pakistan, Gwadar has the potential to act as a counter to any Indian attempt to blockade the port of Karachi, the most populous city in Pakistan. Karachi’s port handles more than 60 percent of the country’s cargo.
Joel Wuthnow, a research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University, says that “Indian strategists worry that Chinese investments in the Indian Ocean region, such as port development projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, will precipitate a greater Chinese naval presence in India’s backyard.”
Dr. Wuthnow spoke at a hearing on China’s Belt and Road Initiative held by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Jan. 25.
The bottom line: Deep mutual mistrust appears to be the only constant factor in Indian-Pakistani relations. But mutual nuclear deterrence seems to be working.
*Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.