Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times
China, the sole defender of the Maldives’ embattled autocrat, Abdulla Yameen, has issued an open threat through a state mouthpiece: If India militarily intervenes in the Maldives, Beijing won’t “sit idly by” but will “take action to stop” it. This essentially is an empty threat because China has no credible capability to sustain a military operation far from its shores. Despite China’s rising naval power, taking on India in its own maritime backyard will be a fool’s errand.
India could call China’s bluff through quick military action that deposes Yameen and installs the jailed Supreme Court chief justice as the interim president to oversee fair elections under UN supervision. In truth, an Indian intervention is not on the cards, in part because such action would trample on the principles India has long championed.
India has carefully weighed all the factors and resolved not to intervene at present in the vicious politics of the increasingly radicalized Maldives. If the crisis there were to escalate to civil war-like conditions, with street clashes erupting in the capital Malé, where two-fifths of the nation’s total population lives, India could, of course, intervene in the name of “responsibility to protect”, the moral principle NATO invoked to counterproductively overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
India had a narrow window of opportunity to intervene immediately after Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed many, including his elderly half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose dictatorship lasted three decades largely because Indian paratroopers in 1988 salvaged his presidency from coup plotters who seized control of much of Malé. Before Yameen fell out with Gayoom, he actually ran a family dictatorship, with Gayoom’s daughter his foreign minister.
Beijing’s threat at this stage is not only Doklam-style psychological warfare against India but, more importantly, also an effort to curry favour with the internationally isolated Yameen. By claiming to shield him from India’s potential action, China wants to expand its strategic footprint in the Maldives, where it has already acquired several of the country’s 1,190 atolls for projects. The Maldives’ first and only democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted at gunpoint by Gayoom’s pro-Islamist cronies, claims China’s “land grab” has netted 17 islets.
While India has wisely refrained from any precipitous action in response to Yameen’s unbridled lurch toward authoritarianism, it faces a pressing foreign-policy challenge extending beyond the Maldivian crisis. Make no mistake: India’s rapidly eroding influence in its strategic backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking strategy. India’s inaction and missteps have aided China’s aggressive diplomacy, with Chinese clout increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. With Beijing seeking to establish a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives, China is opening an oceanic threat against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong.
On the Maldives, India’s moment of truth came not with the latest emergency proclamation but in February 2012 when Nasheed made desperate phone calls to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pleading for an Indian intervention against the Islamists besieging his office. Nasheed, however, had roiled New Delhi with his overtures to Beijing, including personally inaugurating the newly established Chinese Embassy on the day Singh arrived in Malé for a SAARC summit. India’s refusal to take a long-term strategic view and prevent Nasheed’s overthrow has had important consequences, including empowering the Islamists and ceding more space to China. Just months after Nasheed’s ouster, the Maldives expropriated its main international airport from India’s GMR Infrastructure.
In recent years, an emboldened Maldives has increasingly acted against India’s strategic interests with impunity. Six months ago, it sent New Delhi a chilling message by welcoming three Chinese frigates, which docked in Malé and Girifushi Island and imparted special training to Maldivian troops. Yameen amended the Constitution in 2015 to legalize foreign ownership of land in a way tailored for China, requiring a minimal $1-billion construction project that reclaims at least 70% of the desired land from the ocean. New Delhi’s carrots-only approach also encouraged Yameen more recently to sign a free-trade agreement with China that seems designed to use the Maldives as a conduit for the flow of Chinese goods to the Indian market.
India must now start wielding the stick. With other democratic powers, it should impose punishing sanctions. However, the right powers to militarily intervene in the Maldives are the U.S. and Britain because, unlike India, they have little to lose and democracy promotion is a legitimate foreign-policy plank for them. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean threatens not just India’s security but also the Diego Garcia-centred Anglo-American naval pre-eminence in the region.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.
© The Hindustan Times, 2018.