Maldives finally managed to complete its presidential elections when last week Abdulla Yameen Gayoom, the half-brother of the country’s former strongman, defeated former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, securing 51.3 per cent of the popular vote in a bitterly fought election. India had worked hard to ensure the polls were held on schedule within the framework of the country’s constitution and that all candidates including Nasheed were allowed to take part in a transparent manner. Despite this, though Nasheed won the first round easily, a number of factors including the Supreme Court, Election Commission and the police force ensured that the second round or run-off kept getting postponed. In the end, though the openly pro-India candidate could not win, India had to hail the elections as a vote for democratic pluralism in Maldives.
India has to trudge very carefully in Maldives. With just 3,20,000 nationals, Maldives has assumed a disproportionately large profile primarily due to its geopolitical position astride strategic sea lines of communication and China’s attempt to win influence. The rivalry was brought to light when Maldives cancelled a lucrative contract granted to Indian and Malaysia companies amid speculation that a Chinese firm was behind the move, although the reality could be more prosaic. In November 2012, the Maldivian government unilaterally terminated an agreement with India’s GMR Infrastructure Ltd, and Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad to operate and modernise Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male, citing irregularities in awarding the $511-million contract.
The two firms were jointly awarded the 25-year contract in 2010. The largest Indian foreign direct investment in Maldives had huge symbolic importance for India’s profile in the atoll nation. GMR took the battle all the way to the Singapore Supreme Court, which ruled that Maldives indeed had the power to take control of the airport. GMR intends to seek compensation of over $800 million from the Maldivian government for terminating the deal whereas Male is insisting on a forensic audit from an international firm. Many in India had expected New Delhi to escalate the conflict, by declining to release annual budgetary support of $25 million, forcefully reminding Male of its security dependence on India. Ignoring such calls, India was, in fact, quick to convey to Maldives that if there were political reasons for the contract’s cancellation, these “shouldn’t spill over into a very, very important relationship, a very valuable relationship” between the two states. Two days after the project’s cancellation, the Maldives defence minister flew to Beijing.
New Delhi recognises the strategic importance of Maldives. Any escalation by India would have only fanned anti-India sentiments in the island nation, allowing other powers, especially China, to further entrench themselves at India’s expense. India refused to take sides when Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of Maldives, was ousted from power and immediately reached out to the new president, assuring him of continuing co-operation. The reason is simple: India simply cannot afford to alienate the government in Male given China’s growing reach. The president of Maldives was in China in October last year when Beijing announced a $500-million package of economic assistance for Male. New Delhi views Maldives as central to the emerging strategic landscape in the Indian Ocean.
India had always viewed Maldives as important for maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region, but attempts by Beijing to expand its footprint in Maldives and the region have raised the stakes for New Delhi. China has also been busy forging special ties with other island nations on India’s periphery including Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius.
China’s attempt to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean came into stark relief last year when reports emerged of an offer from Seychelles— another strategically located island nation in the Ocean—to China for a base to provide relief and resupply facilities to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Though promptly denied by Beijing, the offer underscored the changing balance of power in the region. India has traditionally been the main defence provider for Seychelles, providing armaments and training to its Peoples’ Defence Forces or SPDF. India extended a $50-million line of credit and $25-million grant to Seychelles in 2012 in a bid to cement strategic ties.
China has been proactive in courting Seychelles since former president Hu Jintao’s visit to the island nation in 2007. Much to India’s consternation, Beijing now participates in training SPDF and provides military hardware. China has expanded military co-operation with Seychelles, providing two Y-2 turboprop aircraft for surveillance of the economic exclusion zone. At a time when domestic political constraints have made it difficult for New Delhi to reach out to Colombo, Beijing has been quick to fill the vacuum. The recent decision by India’s prime minister not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo under pressure from the Tamil political parties will further alienate Sri Lanka from India. Even Mauritius, the security of which is virtually guaranteed by Indian naval presence, can’t resist the lure of Beijing funds.
With the rise in the military capabilities of China and India, the two are increasingly rubbing against each other; China expands its presence in the Indian Ocean region and India makes its presence felt in East and Southeast Asia. In this context, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid has even suggested that India must accept “the new reality” of China’s presence in areas it considers exclusive, seeming acknowledgement that both the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions are rapidly being shaped by the Chinese presence.
China’s rising profile in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region isn’t news. What’s significant is the diminishing role of India and the rapidity with which New Delhi has ceded strategic space to Beijing in regions traditionally considered India’s periphery. China’s quiet assertion has allowed various smaller countries to play China off against India. Most states in the region now use the China card to balance against India’s predominance. Forced to exist between two giant neighbours, the smaller states have responded with a careful balancing act. New Delhi’s cautious response to the recent election results in Maldives, therefore, should not be surprising.
The author is a reader in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.