Above: Maldives President Abdulla Yameen (standing, left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (standing, right) witness the signing of agreements between their countries, in Nanjing, 2014/Photo: UNI
As China makes inroads into the Maldives, a willing ally, the world watches nervously at the growing economic and military might of a country which thinks nothing of infringing on others’ territory
~By Seema Guha
China is no longer coy about projecting its power on the global stage. Its assertive manoeuvres in the South China Sea and the Pacific have been of concern to the world. But now, Chinese ships and submarines also frequent the Indian Ocean, raising alarm bells not just in New Delhi but also in Washing-ton. A self-confident China is now asserting its place in the world as a global player. It is not just an economic powerhouse but also a military and naval force ready to play its role as a great power.
The world is watching China’s every move with anxiety. China set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa last year. Not that other nations do not have bases there. The small African nation has smartly turned its location on the western edge of the Indian Ocean, about 20 miles across from Yemen and in the vicinity of Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal, into a paying proposition. The US, UK, France, Spain and Japan already have bases there. Saudi Arabia is also planning a naval presence in that country. But China’s decision to project its military presence there has caught the world’s eye and it is said that it has spent over $14 billion in infrastructure development since 2015.
Chinese presence in the Maldives, another Indian Ocean island nation, too is visibly growing each day. President Abdulla Yameen, who had cracked down on the opposition, jailed political leaders and judges and runs a dictatorial regime, is cosy with China. Beijing does not, as a rule, interfere or comment on domestic issues. The Maldives and China signed a free trade agreement last December and the latter is spreading its wings in the island. Ahmed Naseem, a former foreign minister and an opponent of Yameen, said during a recent visit to the US that the Chinese were grabbing land in the Maldives and were likely to build a naval base there.
The opposition was possibly referring to land grab by the Chinese in the context of legislation introduced by President Yameen in July 2015, which allows foreigners to own land in the Maldives provided they invest $1 billion there and 70 percent of the plot is reclaimed from the sea. China has expertise in dredging sand from the sea and building islands across the South China Sea.
Maldives has made it easy now for China to buy land and build. In 2015, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) opposed the move in the parliament, but was overruled. The MDP felt then that the legislation would give unprecedented access to foreign parties to operate in the island. The fear of China using this clause for building a military base was very much a factor in the MDP decision not to ratify the legislation.
“We have seen concerting developments in Maldives as far as the Chinese influence is concerned,” Joe Felter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, was quoted as saying in an interview recently. Reacting to Ahmed Naseem’s charges, Felter said: “It’s in India’s backyard. We know it’s of concern to India. So, yes, (the situation in Maldives) is a concern. We will see how it plays out.’’ The Pentagon official went on to say: “If you look at similar activities across the region, it gives us some cause for concern. From Djibouti to Gwadar port to Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, and now potentially the Maldives and then extending further east, it’s of concern. We believe the interests of all states—large and small—are best served by maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific and a rules-based order. Some of China’s activities that we’ve observed give us concern because they do not seem to be consistent with those interests. I suspect India shares these concerns as well.”
New Delhi certainly agrees on a rules-based Indo-Pacific as well as an Indian Ocean not dominated by the Chinese Navy. This is why India is reaching out to island nations in the Indian Ocean. India was to have a base in the Seychelles, but the agreement signed has not been ratified yet by that country’s parliament. It is a fact that India will take decades to match China’s military prowess. The Chinese Army, Navy and Air Force have been steadily built up and it can now boast of having a well-equipped and modern fighting machine, and a naval capacity built to protect assets across Africa and Asia.
New Delhi is aware of all this and is building up alliances to thwart Chinese dominance. The US sees Chinese moves as an attempt to one day challenge its own pre-eminent position in the world. Anxious about China’s growing economic and military clout, it wants to help India modernise its defence forces and build its economy to counter its neighbour. Former President George W Bush had this in mind when he offered to sign the India-US civil nuclear pact. It suits both India and the US to work together in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN nations, which have thriving economic ties with China, are also wary of Beijing’s overwhelming presence in the region. They too want India to balance the Chinese dragon. Besides, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan all contest Beijing’s claim to the entire South China Sea.
Meanwhile, China is keeping a wary eye on blossoming Indo-US ties. New Delhi’s close relations with Japan and Australia and the Malabar exercises (where the navies of India-US-Japan hold annual exercises) are all aimed with an eye on China. The quadrilateral, or loose defence agreement with US, Japan and Australia, is already on but will take a few years to crystallise into a meaningful bloc.
India and China have a boundary issue, which continues to fester. The Doklam stand-off was resolved but left a bad taste in the mouth. In Arunachal, too, there are alleged incursions. India is opposed to Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road and maritime initiative, seeing it like the US and other western countries as a means not just to promote trade but as a projection of Chinese power.
In recent weeks, New Delhi is trying to repair ties with China. Its relationship with China is complex and cannot be allowed to drift. It had advised senior officials and ministers not to attend the Thank You India programme, which was organised by the Tibetan government in exile at McLeodganj to mark 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India.
The Narendra Modi government, meanwhile, has been playing the Tibetan card, irking China further. So did the UPA from time to time. But Modi has done it more regularly. During the Doklam stand-off, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, unfurled the Tibetan flag. Later, it was clarified that it was a prayer flag on the shore of Pangong Tso in Ladakh. The lake borders Tibet and lies in both India and China and the Line of Actual Control passes through it. This enraged China. Now, however, both sides are hoping to calm ties and have a less volatile relationship.
“There are subtle indications that some amount of adjustment is being made in South Block to make this complex relationship with China work better,’’ said Alka Acharya, professor, Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Studies), JNU, New Delhi.