The phone call between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi on Thursday night, with Maldives featuring prominently in conversation, should not be underestimated. We are witnessing here the embryonic architecture of an Indo-Pacific strategy, where democratic forces are converging to resist China's persistent bullying tactics in south Asia. Domestic political turmoil has thrown tiny Maldives into the eye of a giant geopolitical storm.
China is obviously aware of the stakes. The following day, its foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters that the "current situation in the Maldives is its internal affairs" and "non-interference in other countries is an important principle of international relations".
News agency PTI quoted "official sources" to report that Beijing is in touch with India to "discuss a way to resolve the crisis" because it doesn't want Maldives to become the latest "flashpoint". This is equally significant. The fact that Beijing has been forced to come out with rejoinders and clarifications point to its worry.
China obviously sees Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy as a threat to its hegemony and wouldn't want to let go of its growing strategic space in the Maldives. In the international arena, it has emerged as the only backer for Abdulla Yameen, the authoritarian Maldivian president who has jailed the Supreme Court chief justice, key Opposition leaders and has clamped down on democracy by promulgating an Emergency.
China has succeeded in entrenching the Maldivian economy but its political game is still dependent to some extent on propping up the Yameen regime. It fears a swing in India's favour if Opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed returns to power.
Nasheed, a pro-New Delhi former president, has been voicing his concern against China's creeping colonialism, and in a recent interview, he again urged India to step in and check Beijing's aggressive land grab in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
"It's not just our problem; it's your problem as well. In my view, two issues make it India's problem: Radical Islam and land grab," Nasheed told Sachin Parashar of The Times of India, adding, "We know that they have 17 islands now where they are talking about investing $40 million but we don't really know what is the purpose of that."
China's cards were revealed when Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Maldivian "special envoy" Mohamed Saeed that "China will not interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives. This is also an important principle enshrined by the UN charter. We support the Maldives government to properly resolve issues through dialogue and consultation with relevant parties and uphold independence, sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests of Maldives," according to spokesperson Geng Shuang.
Note that in Wang's statement there was stress on the words "independence, sovereignty, legitimate rights and interests", but no mention of "democracy", as that would have put President Yameen under pressure.
Moreover, for a country that has consistently flouted international law and shown blatant and repeated disregard for international rules-based order, China's sudden invoking of "principles of UN charter" is no less than Devil quoting from the scripture.
Wang also reportedly claimed that "China has offered selfless assistance to Maldives for its social development". Once the laughter has died down, let's consider that China's actions in the island nation have been so benign and well-meaning that the Maldivian Constitution was amended by a pliant president to allow foreign ownership of land and a controversial free-trade agreement was rushed through to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
For India and the US, therefore, the strategic objectives are clear. Allowing Maldives to become a Chinese satellite will have grave security consequences for India and may spell an early demise for Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy.
The readout put forward by the White House therefore stressed that both "leaders (have) pledged to continue working together to enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region". Also, "both leaders expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives and the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law". Just as China deliberately omitted the word 'democracy', India and the US were careful to stress on it.
The importance of the developments in Maldives cannot be overstated. The delicate geopolitical balance arising out of Chinese geostrategic initiatives in Indian Ocean and Indo-US response may be decided in one favour or another depending upon how India, above all, responds.
In his piece for The Print, author Andrew Small, senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, writes, "Maldives is likely to emerge as a test case — for India's strategic economic agenda in its neighborhood; for the Trump administration's Indo-Pacific strategy, which is supposed to have precisely these cases in its sights... A success story for the democratic powers would begin to change the narrative around China’s Belt and Road initiative in the region... A failure to find ways to bolster the region's smallest country would instead validate the counter-narrative... that the talk in New Delhi and Washington is not being backed up with resources and that, whether you like China or not, there is no alternative."
India is trying to explore diplomatic options. In a departure from usual practice, the Ministry of External Affairs' spokesperson issued a release from Jordan — where Prime Minister Modi, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval were headed en route to Palestine — while reacting to Chinese statements on Maldives.
"China has said that the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in the Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in the Maldives, instead of doing the opposite," the release said, according to The Indian Express.
India is also reportedly soliciting the United Nations to send a "fact-finding mission of impartial observers" to assess the situation on the ground and nudge the Abdulla Yameen government into restoring democracy", reported The Times of India.
It is clear that India is keen not to let go of its strategic hold to China. New Delhi's objectives tie neatly with Trump administration's vision for a "free and open Indo-Pacific". During his address at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam last November, Trump had reiterated that it is in "America's interests to have partners throughout this region that are thriving, prosperous, and dependent on no one. We will not make decisions for the purpose of power or patronage. We will never ask our partners to surrender their sovereignty, privacy, and intellectual property, or to limit contracts to state-owned suppliers".
The problem for India is that its diplomatic initiatives lack an institutional framework and an overarching grand design, in absence of which its regional influence remains stunted. It also suffers from bureaucratic inertia in delivering on projects and promises. Maldives will test India’s resolve and reach as a regional power.
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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2018 17:11:56 IST