Just as well that China decided not to bite Maldivian presidential envoy Mohamed Saeed’s bait to provide ‘security’ to its investments in the archipelago. Beijing has tentatively and diplomatically sidestepped the prospect of opening yet another front with India. If it had agreed to put boots on the ground, India too would have had little option but to respond precipitately. It has till now chosen not to get directly embroiled in the turmoil. New Delhi has held its counsel and not responded to President Abdulla Yameen’s primary rival Mohamed Nasheed’s overtures for ‘physical’ intervention after the dramatic standoff between the regime and the island nation’s Supreme Court.
India and China have been getting increasingly drawn into rehearsing their shadow battle in the South Asian neighbourhood. Beijing is deploying its economic muscle in New Delhi’s traditional domain of influence, encircling its markets via a capture of the access points around it. After Hambantota and Gwadar, it’s now playing for access to the 1.5 degree channel in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives crisis merely brings to the front stage the games Yameen has sought to play ever since he signed the Free Trade Agreement with Beijing, opening his country’s markets to cheap Chinese produce. That dimmed the spark of his FTA offer to India, not to speak of New Delhi’s existing 1981 trade pact with Malé, by which all essential commodities were being supplied in exchange for fish.
China, in actual fact, has been looking covetously at not the Maldivian market but the expansive Indian one, and New Delhi rightly suspects its engagement with smaller neighbours is meant to secure future access. New Delhi obviously needs to drop niceties when it’s called for. Malé should also learn what Kathmandu has, the hard way: a decisive tilt away from India is not practical. China cannot become a replacement for India, strategically or otherwise. China too would do well to recall that trade and commerce cannot flourish through conflict and boots on the ground, in a post-colonial world.