The continued political crisis in the Maldives began on February 6, after President Abdulla Yameen ordered the arrest of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the country along with a former president and declared a state of emergency. The crisis may appear to be an internal power struggle between the Supreme Court and the government of the South Asian island country, but it has wider geopolitical ramifications, and has spiraled into a power struggle between India and China.
The inception of the crisis goes back to 2013, when Yameen staged a coup and wrested power from the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Nasheed, who has since been living in exile in Sri Lanka. Soon after Yameen declared the emergency last month, Nasheed reached out to India and requested a military intervention to resolve the crisis.
The Indian government decided to tread softly, and issued a series of statements expressing concern over the situation, which Maldives defiantly rebuffed. The White House also issued a statement that U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives over a phone call.
As the biggest regional power, India has assumed the role of protector of the archipelago situated to India’s southwest. Nasheed’s request to India for military help has a historical precedent. In 1988, the Indian Army foiled a coup attempt by a group of mercenaries and rebels at the request of the Maldives’ president. India and the Maldives share deep historical, cultural, and economic ties. India’s bilateral and financial assistance of the Maldives has been reciprocated through a self-proclaimed “India first” policy by the nation.
India’s status as peacekeeper of the region and primary regional partner of the Maldives has been challenged in recent years, as Yameen, who is perceived as “pro-China” in India, decided to use the Maldives’ strategic location on the Indian Ocean to play one power against the other.
China is invested in the Maldives in particular through economic means, under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2014, China began to develop major infrastructure projects in the island nation, carried out by Chinese state-owned companies, which so far have focused on two flagship projects. One is a bridge, now under construction, linking the capital Male to a nearby island. The other is an expansion of the capital’s airport, a project awarded to a Chinese company in 2014. The Maldives has also leased an uninhabited island (Feydhoo Finolhu) to a Chinese enterprise for 50 years at a price of around $4 million, with plans to develop infrastructure for tourism. On December 7, 2017, China and the Maldives signed a free trade agreement.
Yameen, during his first official visit abroad to India in 2014, said that while the Maldives has “close ties” with China, “nothing will precede ties with India, which are far more precious.” However, his actions have not matched those words. Today, Chinese loans for projects already account for around 70 percent of the Maldives’ national debt. From his exile, Nasheed has accused the Yameen government of allowing a Chinese “‘land grab’ of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure, and even essential utilities,” which in his view “not only undermines the independence of the Maldives, but the security of the entire Indian Ocean region.” China has dismissed accusations from the former leader Nasheed as “absolute nonsense.”
Nevertheless, China’s massive lending to the Maldives puts into question the island state’s ability to repay its debts, with speculation that this translates into increasing political leverage for China. In addition, it appears that the BRI is not only about increasing economic ties but also about expanding China’s geostrategic ventures in the maritime realm. In August 2017, three Chinese warships docked in the Maldives for joint training sessions. More recently, amid the state of emergency in the Maldives, 11 Chinese warships reportedly sailed into the eastern Indian Ocean in February. Some assume this “may have helped deter an Indian intervention in the Maldives.”
“China has been eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, as part of its effort to built its ‘string of pearls’: a chain of military installations and economic projects aimed at projecting Chinese power in the Indian Ocean”, wrote Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, in a recent editorial. But India, he stated, has a lot to lose, “if it aggravates an already volatile political situation in its maritime backyard by intervening militarily.”
Over the past month, there has been great debate over India’s choices in the Maldives. “India’s options now are severely constrained,” Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at the India Institute at King’s College, London, told the European Council on Foreign Relations. Pant believes that India’s regional power status has come under a cloud because of its failure to act decisively in the current crisis. All that India can do now, along with powers like the United States, EU, and Saudi Arabia, is to put pressure on Maldives through the threat of isolation, he says. For a country that sustains itself through contact with the outside world as a premier travel destination, it may yet be an effective means.
If India wants to apply diplomatic pressure, it has some possible partners. The EU, in addition to some of its member states (Germany or the United Kingdom), too has raised concerns over the crisis in the Maldives. The EU called on the Maldivian institutions to “lift immediately the state of emergency and restore all constitutionally guaranteed rights” and warned that if the current situation failed to improve, targeted measures might be considered. The EU is the Maldives’ largest export partner and the EU member states are as much a driver of the Maldives’ tourism industry as China is. In addition, the EU has been providing development assistance, in particular in the context of climate change.
At the same time, the EU has expressed repeatedly concerns over the deteriorating situation on human rights and democracy under the Yameen government, which faces little to no criticism from other partners, such as China. Recently, Yameen even refused to meet a visiting EU delegation. The potential impact of the Maldives’ political turmoil on regional stability is no less an interests of the EU. Given the Maldives’ rising strategic importance, the EU should continue using its influence to bring calm to the situation.
Sunaina Kumar is an Indian journalist. Dr. Angela Stanzel is a Senior Policy Fellow in the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.