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Maldives crisis poses a security dilemma for India akin to Doka La, but with a devilish twist

In his book Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House, journalist and author Michael Wolff gives an interesting account of a private dinner which he attended on 3 January, 2017, around two weeks before Donald Trump was sworn in as president. The "small dinner arranged by mutual friends", as the author put it, was also attended by Steve Bannon, then among the most influential figures in United States' politics.

Trump and domestic politics were obviously on the menu but Bannon focused on China, calling it "the real enemy" and the "first front in a new Cold War". The then executive chairman of Breitbart and soon-to-be chief strategist of Trump, Bannon apparently said: "China's everything. Nothing else matters. We don't get China right, we don't get anything right."

He went on to call Chinese the most "rational people" and compared Xi Jinping's China with Imperial Germany. (Page 7, Little, Brown publication).

Fiile image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and China's president Xi Jinping. Reuters

Fiile image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen and China's president Xi Jinping. Reuters

There's no reason to think that China has stopped being the focal point of American interest following Bannon's ouster. Here's what US Senator Marco Rubio had to say before a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Tuesday:

"The biggest issue of our time in my view, and I think in the view of most of the members of this Committee... is China and the risk they pose. I'm not sure in the 240-something-odd-year history of this nation we have ever faced a competitor and potential adversary of this scale, scope and capacity... They are carrying out a well-orchestrated, well-executed, very patient long-term strategy to replace the United States as the most powerful and influential nation on earth."

Senator Rubio also raised these concerns with the Director of National Intelligence and Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to a media release.

This is not a measure of US paranoia but a check on a fast-dawning reality. The 19th Communist Party Congress gave us a ringside view of Xi Jinping's leadership, ideology and vision. In his speech, the Chinese president laid out granular details about how he wants to make China a "fully modern economy" by 2035 and a "great power" by mid-century. He wasn't bluffing.

These two perspectives, therefore, are necessary to contextualise the magnitude of the threat that China's assertive rise poses for India. To be clear, China considers India too insignificant to be perceived as a competitor but its philosophy of aggression driven by Xi's overarching ambition jeopardises India's strategic interests, undermines its regional influence and poses a threat to its national security.
Nowhere has this tension played out more accurately than in Doka La and now in the Maldives.

The turmoil in the tiny island nation in India's backyard poses a security dilemma exactly of the Doka La kind and could be counted as a maritime sequel to the original thriller in the high Himalayas. In the nature of sequels, the Maldives stalemate is also a more twisted problem for India to solve.

In Doka La, China moved in to lay claim over a barren patch of land in the Himalayan tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan, ignoring bilateral and trilateral treaties and the tiny kingdom's sovereign claims. The move exposed India's strategic vulnerability in the Siliguri Corridor and New Delhi was forced to step in.

In the Maldives, military aggression has been replaced by economic coercion but the playbook is similar. In plain terms, through a combination of chequebook diplomacy and predatory economics, Beijing is doing an aggressive takeover of yet another South Asian nation to consolidate its hold on the Indian Ocean Region and strategically encircle India.

To quote from Centre for Land Warfare Studies senior fellow Monika Chansoria's piece in Sunday Guardian, "official Chinese publications including Xinhua have advocated and 'advised' the PLA Navy to build as many as 18 overseas naval military bases in the greater Indian Ocean area, possibly including: Chongjin port (North Korea), Moresby port (Papua New Guinea), Sihanoukville port (Cambodia), Koh Lanta port (Thailand), Sittwe port (Myanmar), Dhaka port (Bangladesh), Gwadar port (Pakistan), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Maldives, Seychelles, Djibouti port (Djibouti), Lagos port (Nigeria), Mombasa port (Kenya), Dar-es-Salaam port (Tanzania), Luanda port (Angola) and the Walvis Bay port (Namibia)."

And China is moving fast to secure these objectives. It has swallowed Tibet, semi-colonised Nepal and Pakistan, taken over Hambantota port on a 99-year lease from Sri Lanka, secured maritime presence in the Horn of Africa and extended influence over Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Philippines.

The Maldives islands are next. As part of its "selfless assistance for (Maldives') economic and social development" and for the "benefit" of the "Maldivian people", China has already signed a free-trade deal and a host of maritime trade and infrastructure projects that have pushed a surplus Maldivian economy deep into the red.

According to former president Mohamed Nasheed, a stringent anti-China voice, about 80 percent of total Maldivian foreign debt is owed to China through "vanity projects" like roads, bridges and airports that go nowhere or sit empty. The payment of this debt must be initiated by 2020, failing which equity ownership will be transferred to China which basically means, Nasheed told Asia Nikkei Review, that "without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land than the East India Company at the height of the 19th century."

This is where the Maldives pose a more complicated challenge for India because instead of friendly Bhutan that stood its ground against Chinese might and remained on India's side, Maldives' panda-hugging tinpot Abdulla Yameen has walked over and sat on China's lap.

He has already allowed Chinese warships to dock in Male, ignored India's insistence on the restoration of democracy and rule of law and in a measure of the atoll nation's changing dynamic with India, has issued a thinly veiled warning against Indian military intervention. He has also stopped just short of blaming New Delhi for the crisis.

A series of recent media releases make it clear that Indian involvement of any kind is unwarranted. The letter of civility and friendship masks a subtext of aggression. For instance, the Maldivian ministry of defence and national security reminds India that "the government of Maldives would like to reiterate that it has maintained good relations with India since the Maldives declared independence and firmly believes that India would not act on any such calls (for military intervention)". The release also states that Indian military action would "constitute a threat to the nation's independence and national security".

A separate release by Maldives' foreign ministry puts the entire onus of the current crisis on Chief Justice of Supreme Court Abdulla Saeed and states that "this Constitutional crisis emerged from direct and deliberate interference by outside actors upon the Judiciary." The inference is clear.

It is easy to see who is underwriting Yameen's boldness. China usually employs its state-controlled media to deliver messages that are best avoided through official channels. This has the dual benefit of getting the message across while maintaining plausible deniability.
While the Chinese embassy in New Delhi (not the foreign ministry in Beijing) again warned against outside intervention: "We believe the Maldivian government and people have the wisdom and ability to properly handle the problems they face and restore order in the country according to the law."

The Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper in its editorial warned India that China will take "necessary measures to stop India if New Delhi moves to intervene militarily." It claimed further that "China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, but that does not mean that Beijing will sit idly by as New Delhi breaks the principle. If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi. India should not underestimate China's opposition to unilateral military intervention."

The nakedness of the threat masks a degree of bravado. In other words, it does seem as if China is bluffing, as it did during Doka La where India had the strategic advantage. The situation is largely similar because India enjoys a clear advantage in terms of maritime capabilities in its own backyard. However, this is a finite advantage and likely to evaporate fast if New Delhi decides ultimately on non-intervention.


Updated Date: Feb 14, 2018 19:54 PM

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