China's growing influence

It was a decisive moment for India in Male way back in November 1988. Dozens of

oppositionbacked mercenaries had descended on the Maldives capital and attacked president

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's palace to overthrow his government . A handful of guards

engaged the attackers, allowing Gayoom to seek New Delhi's help. Within hours, India

obliged and flew in 1,600 paratroopers to frustrate the coup.

 

India's timely help - considering Maldives had no army or navy - underscored its influence in a

region which straddles the major sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. But more than two decades

later, experts blame India for frittering away its advantage as China jockeys with it for

influence in the region, writes Sameer Arshad in Times of India.

 

"India has, as usual, been very late in realizing China's seriousness about Maldives. Like all its

neighbours ( Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka), New Delhi continued to believe Maldives will

remain in its pocket,'' says Harsh V Pant, a lecturer at King's College Defence Studies,

warning of "real difficulty" for India if Maldives becomes another "pearl in China's string of

facilities around its periphery''.

 

China's economic, political and diplomatic investment in Maldives is significant as it was not on

its radar till recently, says Pant. "China has given India a run for its money, and even left it

behind in some cases, in Maldives.''

 

The facts speak for themselves. China became the first non-South Asian country to have a

mission in Maldives - a country of around four lakh people - days before Prime Minister

Manmohan Singh's visit in November. Its trade with Maldives reached nearly $64m in 2010,

up 56% against 2009. Compare that with India's , which declined from Rs 608.21 crore in

2008-09 to Rs 395.57 crore in 2009-10 . China is also boosting infrastructure with a Chinese

company constructing 1,000 houses there. China also built the foreign ministry and national

museum buildings in Male in July 2010. In addition, direct charter and commercial flights were

launched between the two countries the same year. The standing committee chairman of the

National People's Congress, Wu Bangguo, was the first top Chinese official to visit Maldives

in May 2011. Before that in May 2010, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed had visited

Beijing and secured an aid of $8 million.

 

These are the positive exchanges. More ominously , 'Maldives Today' , a current affairs portal,

cited an unconfirmed report in November 2010 saying China had secured a military base with

the capacity to deploy N-submarines on Maldives' Marao Island. It reportedly coaxed

Gayoom to let it establish the base with Pakistan's help. The 'Jakarta Post' , a newspaper from

Indonesia, had quoted an unmanned official as saying that a Pakistani delegation had visited

Maldives in February 2001 and pressurized it for the base using "the Islamic card'' .

Though there's no independent confirmation of the base, Robert D Kaplan, senior fellow at the

Washington-based Center for a New American Security , warns that "China's probing and

expansion into the Seychelles and Maldives'' should be of more concern to India. "China's

port projects (around India in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka) are commercial ventures with

strategic and military potential . Gwadar (deep sea port in Pakistan) is far from realized.''

These ports are seen as part of Beijing's "policy to choke India'' . China is also reportedly

constructing its first overseas military base in the Seychelles, not far from Maldives.

But there seems to be a friendlier shift towards India after Nasheed took over in 2008. He

chose India for his first overseas visit and allowed it to deploy coastal radars and patrol its

territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in 2009. An Indian company was also allowed

to refurbish an airbase there to host Indian reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft . This shift

is part of a strategy, explains Pant. "Smaller states like to play the China card against India and

Maldives has also benefited from it.''

 

This was evident during Singh's November visit - the first by an Indian PM in a decade. The

two countries signed a framework agreement for cooperation in a slew of sectors. India also

extended assistance worth $140m to Maldives and is likely to develop a port there, besides

supporting its candidature for the UNSC non-permanent seat (2019-20 ). Plus, Indian private

sector companies have pledged investments worth $1bn there.

 

The increasing competition between China and India, though, is being viewed with concern by

the press there. 'Maldives Today' reported on November 26, 2011 that "Indian influence in

(the) Indian Ocean grew bigger when Indian giant company GMR took over Male

international airport. Many suspect it as a broader policy of Indian government to have control

in the Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean's geopolitics can become quite complicated....'' It further

added that the India-China "fight over'' the region "is hurting'' Maldives.

But then, politics is the art of survival.