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China’s growing ties with Maldives give India the jitters

Although the Chinese footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is something New Delhi has learnt to live with despite an understandable unease, the rapid expansion in ties between Male and Beijing has become a larger cause of concern.

india Updated: Feb 23, 2018 07:58 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
China,Maldives,Indian Ocean
Maldivian president Abdullah Yameen with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing in December 2017. (Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Relative to India, China is a late entrant in the Maldives, a key Indian Ocean nation and the only SAARC member-state Prime Minister Narendra Modi is yet to visit.

But China may well have stolen a march over India, which hasn’t quite managed to have its concerns over happenings in the island nation addressed by Maldives president Abdullah Yameen, who extended the emergency in his country much to New Delhi’s dismay.

Maldives’ reluctance to follow its promised “India-first” policy has, in recent times, become an irritant for New Delhi. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj conveyed this to her Maldivian counterpart, Mohamed Asim, in as many words when they met in New Delhi last month, an official familiar with the development recalled. “The minister conveyed the message that the India-first policy is as important a part of taking bilateral ties forward as India’s neighbourhood-first policy,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Although the Chinese footprint in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is something New Delhi has learnt to live with despite an understandable unease, the rapid expansion in ties between Male and Beijing has become a larger cause of concern. The Maldives – located around 700 km from Indian shores – has become a showpiece of mega projects-driven Chinese foreign policy as well as an important player in President Xi Jinping’s marquee one-road-one-belt project. Chinese presence in the island nation has been growing steadily ever since Beijing opened an embassy in Male in 2011, about 37 years after India set up its mission there.

The Indian Ocean region has around 40 countries and is home to 40% of the world’s population. It touches Australia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and the eastern sea bend of Africa — making the countries that rim the ocean vital cogs in the geopolitical ambitions of both India and China.

Maldives has been a long-time ally of India but relations between that country and China have warmed rapidly in recent years. Maldives is only the country besides Pakistan that has a free-trade agreement with China, and this accord seems to have overshadowed the nation’s trade agreement providing for the export of essential commodities with India in 1981.

“Negotiations for the free-trade agreement (with China) took only three years to complete. And it was rushed through Parliament, making many opposition MPs express their concerns,” a second Indian official said, asking not to be identified. Soon enough, China kicked off a stream of mega projects – including the Friendship Bridge and Laamu Atoll Link Road – in the Maldives. Reciprocal visits by premiers Xi and Yameen to each other’s countries further boosted ties, and Male became an earnest partner in the one-road-one-belt project in the Indian Ocean. Over 97% of India’s international trade (by volume) and 75% (by value) passes through this region.

“China has used inducements and investments on a significant scale to strategically penetrate the Maldives, which is now slipping into a debt trap,” said strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellany.

The growing trade and investment ties between the two countries are increasing China’s political and strategic influence in the region, much to India’s discomfort. For instance, New Delhi’s hackles were raised when three Chinese naval warships docked in Male harbour in August 2016 in the first such “goodwill visit”.

So, what helped China step up its influence in the Maldives? Sachin Chaturvedi, director of New Delhi-based think-tank RIS, believes the answer lies in the approach. “A multisectoral approach has helped China increase its influence in trade, development cooperation and defence. This has given the country greater flexibility in envisioning and implementing its projects,” he said.

Experts believe the growing ties between the two countries hold major political consequences for India. “China’s support has spurred the Maldives’ unbridled lurch toward authoritarianism. Without being able to count on China’s support, Yameen wouldn’t have behaved the way he did recently,” said Chellany.

First Published: Feb 23, 2018 07:11 IST