As China Rises, India Intensifies Ties with Maldives

During a high level meeting on Sunday in the Maldivian capital of Malé, India and the Republic of Maldives agreed to measures that will see the intensification of their defense and security cooperation. Indian defense minister A.K. Antony met with his Maldivian counterpart Mohamed Nazim, where both nations pledged to create a united front to battle the challenges presented by terrorists and nonstate actors.

The main areas in which India and the Maldives will increase their cooperation include regional counterterrorism, anti-piracy and maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

“Maldives will stand side by side with India to ensure that maritime security of Indian Ocean is ensured, that the stability in the region is maintained and above all, that the threats that our two countries face, particularly from terrorist groups and other nonstate actors are eliminated,” said Nazim.

During his visit, Antony inaugurated a military hospital that was built with Indian assistance. He also conveyed that India had decided to extend the deployment of its ALH Dhruv helicopter, which has been operating in the Maldives since 2010, for another two years.

In the areas of dialogue and military cooperation, it was also announced that India will station a defense attaché in the Maldives. Furthermore, a team of flying instructors will be deployed to the Maldives to assist with the training of helicopters pilots. Simulator training at the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited facility in Bangalore will also be available to Maldivian pilots.

In a rare and honorable ceremony that further highlights the strength of Indo-Maldivian ties, defense minister Antony was accorded the Guard of Honor, something that is usually only reserved for the heads of states.

Antony stated that “India is proud of our partnership and engagement with Maldives and deeply value the friendship of the people of Maldives. Maldives can always count on India as a sincere friend.”

This is an opportune visit from India, as it is at a time when China is expanding its activity and spreading its influence in the Maldives. Due to its geographical location in the Indian Ocean alongside major shipping lanes, the Maldives is of strategic interest for both China and India. China has recently opened an embassy in Malé, which symbolises its increasing interest in the Maldives. However, it is yet to be seen whether or not the Maldives become another platform on which the Sino-Indian rivalry will play out.

This story first appeared at, September 17, 2012.

India Had No Reason to Save Maldives’ Nasheed

When it comes to foreign policy decisionmaking in a democracy two important quotes come to mind. First is Franklin R. Roosevelt’s conversation in May 1942 with his close advisor, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The American president at the time remarked, “You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”

Second is the incumbent president’s candid observation when he was running for the highest office in 2008. When Barack Obama was taking the heat from then Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign about his lack of national-security experience, he said, “Foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton.” Meeting world leader is not important, he added. “What I know is the people. I traveled to Pakistan when I was in college. I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

These two observations are important for any decisionmakers in foreign policy and at least the context of that has been rightly understood by the Indian foreign policy establishment when it comes to dealing with the Maldives.

There was great pressure on the part of the Indian government to intervene in the archipelago recently as President Mohammed Nasheed was feeling the heat of popular unrest in the streets. Nasheed, with his Western upbringing and Oxbridge accent had been touted as South Asia’s Barack Obama and was considered as a friend of India’s. It may have appeared to make sense to save him from being ousted to preserve India’s hegemony in South Asia. The argument is valid superficially for those who advocate a muscular Indian foreign policy without understanding the situation on the ground.

When India intervened in the Maldives in 1988 to save then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through Operation Cactus, the island nation’s leader had been a friend of India’s for nearly a decade. The initiators of the invasion were from Sri Lanka and had close links with the rebel organization there which India supported in a struggle for autonomy with Colombo. Therefore, it made sense for India to save President Gayoom and it proved right when he extended his loyalty for nearly two decades to New Delhi.

The situation at present in the Maldives is an internal occurrence. Nasheed made mistakes which never went well with New Delhi. He invited a “great game” between China and India in Indian Ocean region so that the Maldives could get funding from both great powers. He forgot a basic tenet about foreign policy in South Asia. If you try to be a cut above the rest with your charisma, it won’t wind you any friends in New Delhi.
Small nations have to play second fiddle to India in South Asia and Nasheed failed to remember it. His insistence that regional summits should do more than promote Indo-Pakistani dialogue and his close friendship with the West were not considered well in India for a long time.

Despite repeated appeals from New Delhi to control a radical Muslim incursion in the Southern Maldives, Nasheed didn’t care to provide logistics for Indian intelligence to gather information about the suspected perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

As he lost popular support at home, New Delhi had only to watch the scenario unfold and throw its support behind Nasheed’s challenger when the time was right.

There are people in India who have argued that it was their nation’s “responsibility to protect” Nasheed but they need to understand that India’s best days are ahead. It has to bid for time as Roosevelt did in 1941 and understand the peculiarities of the situation on the ground, as Obama did about the wars in the Middle East, before intervening. In that light, contrary to popular opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got it right when he allowed Nasheed to be removed from office.

China Island Hopping in the Indian Ocean

The best way to get success in strategy is through success. An historical case study was General Douglas MacArthur’s “island hopping” strategy in the Pacific during World War II. It involved capturing an island, building a base there and moving on toward the prime target.

China seems to be copying this strategy in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. In the former, it is seeking to contain India by forging alliances with island nations including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles and building a “string of pearls” of military bases from East Africa to Pakistan.

The strategy is designed to curtail Indian influence in the region so China, with the Americans distracted in the Middle East, can have a free run in other parts of Asia and across the Pacific Ocean but also to encroach upon African countries that welcome its yuan diplomacy — developmental and industrial support with no strings attached.

China has never announced this strategy publicly. A recent statement from the Chinese military that it’s considering an offer from the Seychelles to host a Chinese naval base confirms that the strategy exists however.

Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that it isn’t interested in building military bases in other places.

The Chinese “island hopping” strategy defies historical precedent and differs from the strategies of other and past great powers in that they were usually explicit about their intentions. China apparently believes that concealing its motives best serves its interests.

An increased Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean poses a challenge to India as it is trying to project itself as a great power beyond South Asia. The two Asian giants are vying for economic opportunities and international recognition. Renewed American engagement, which is likely to follow military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, could prove an obstacle to China’s designs and cause it to intensify its efforts now.

As the United States court nations ranging from Australia to Indonesia to Vietnam, the Chinese imperative to erect naval bases in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific will only seem more pressing.

Indo-Maldives Relations Continue to Blossom

South Asian leaders convened in the capital of the Maldives earlier this month. It was an appropriate venue for their summit as the island nation’s regional importance is set to increase when the region around the Indian Ocean takes center stage in the twenty-first century.

Indo-Maldives relations were affirmed in a joint statement. The two countries agreed to deepen existing strategic relations and improve cooperation in combating drug trafficking and terrorism. India also agreed to undertake a feasibility study into developing a port north of Malé in the Haa Dhaalu Atoll which would be a huge boon to the northern Maldives’ economy.

Before the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit commenced, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed vowed that his country would never menace India’s security, clearing apprehension in New Delhi that the atolls might be lured into China’s “yuan diplomacy.”

India maintains strategic relations with the Maldives for two reasons. Its intelligence services uncovered that a top operative of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamist organization that orchestrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks, attempted to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. The plot would have involved Lashkar-e-Taiba storing weapons on an uninhabited island.

In 2008, terrorist activity in the Maldives spiked with a bombing in Malé and the settlement of a jihadist community in Himandhoo, a previously uninhabited Maldivian atoll. India seeks to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with the Maldives to stamp out this presence.

India and the Maldives have also strengthened defense cooperation to counter China’s rise in the Indian Ocean area. Per a 2009 security agreement, India will construct a radar network across the atolls and link it to its coastal command. It also regularly surveys the islands with military flights and plans to erect an air force station in the Maldives.

The Maldives form a vital cog in India’s naval diplomacy. All great powers that have attempted to dominate the Indian Ocean sought a base in the Maldives, including the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, the Americans and the Soviets.

Unlike these past great powers, India has traditionally enjoyed close relations with the island nation. It notably helped the Maldivian government thwart a coup in 1988 which saved Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s presidency. Although his successor is of a very different political persuasion, Indo-Maldivian relations have continued to blossom under Mohamed Nasheed’s leadership because they serve the interests of both partners.

As India emerges as a great power, it is important that it appreciates the sensitivities of its neighboring states and not conduct its foreign policy from a Delhi centric point of view. For India to project “soft power” abroad, it has to be perceived as a “big brother” in Asia that doesn’t at all threaten the interests nor sovereignty of its vassals.

India Needs a Naval Diplomacy

Five hundred years ago this year, the Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque captured the Strait of Malacca and established supremacy for his country in the East Indies. Although Portugal couldn’t project power into the Asian hinterland with its limited military resources, it was strong enough to dominate a number of active trading outposts, including Goa in India and Macau in China. From these positions, the Portuguese managed, for a while, to control the European trade with South and East Asia. Today, a great power may aim to do the same.

In Monsoon (2010), Robert Kaplan characterizes the area between the Gulf of Aden in the west and Malacca in the east as the center stage of the twenty-first century. If India is to graduate from being a regional power in South Asia to a great power in the Asia Pacific, it is this pivotal ocean with its vital waterways that it should seek to control — whether directly, through hard power, or indirectly, with a soft power approach. Whatever its choices, India needs a clear naval diplomacy.

India is among few nations with the potential of being a continental and a maritime power simultaneously. Its policymakers have long concentrated on their hinterland where Pakistan loomed since independence as a natural rival. But as India’s economy is growing and its place in the world increasingly secure, it has to revive its maritime focus.

With a distinctive “Look East” policy, India boosted its trade relations with Southeast Asia. Indian naval officers regularly visited Southeast Asian countries as part of its naval diplomacy. Now, it has to extend that aim into the South Pacific if not beyond. Read more “India Needs a Naval Diplomacy”

China and India’s Strings of Pearls

India is unique among rising powers in that it is both a continental and a maritime power. In recent history, no country except for China and the United States has been able to project power as such.

Occupying a subcontinent with a coastline that runs nearly 8,000 miles, India is geographically privileged. But it is not alone. China, too, is both a continental and a naval power and set on extending its sphere of interest in the South China Sea.

In Beijing, the concern that India might soon rival its supremacy on the high seas is mounting. China has therefore adopted a “string of peals” strategy that prescribes the construction bases around the Indian Ocean, aimed at encircling India. Ports currently under construction include one situated on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, ten miles removed from what is one of the world’s busiest shipping lines, and another near Gwadar in Pakistan. China is also courting the littoral states of the Indian Ocean including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles, hoping to settle naval stations there in the near future.

China, in short, doesn’t want the Indian Ocean to be India’s Ocean, recognizing that this vast body of water is pivotal to its future international influence and economic growth.

The government of India has started to appreciate the Chinese strategy of late and is attempting to counter it with a naval diplomacy of its own. It is strengthening the military presence on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and engaging with the Maldives, trying to keep the Chinese out.

Traditionally, all powers that aspired to control the Indian Ocean have sought a base in the Maldives. The southernmost island, Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II. Gan met the requirements for safe, deep anchorage in a strategic area. In addition, Antsiranana on Madagascar, the Diego Garcia atoll as well as the Aldabra and Farquhar islands and Île Desroches in the Seychelles are important strategic locations in the western part of the sea.

The base on Gan was set up by Britain in response to Japanese advances against Singapore and Indonesia during World War II. During the Cold War, in 1957, it was transferred to the British Royal Air Force which vacated it in 1971 after the Maldives had gained independence. Following the British departure, Iran, Libya and the Soviet Union all tried to secure the Gan Island base to counter the American military presence in Diego Garcia.

The network of radars that India will be installing in the Maldives is largely to the benefit of the island nation which does not have a navy of its own. During discussions, the Maldivian authorities voices concern over the “crucial tasks of safeguarding and protecting their vast exclusive economic zone of the Maldives, while expressing its need to develop and enhance maritime surveillance and aerial mobility capabilities.” According to President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, the installation of the radars is already underway across ten atolls.

India and China’s standoff in the Indian Ocean was rightly predicted by Robert Kaplan in his seminal essay “Center Stage for the 21st Century” published in Foreign Affairs last year. Kaplan envisaged China and India competing for supremacy of the sea with the United States acting as balancer.

India actually sees a need to counter Chinese influence in oceans around the world. Indian naval officers with acquaintance in diplomacy are now considered candidates for ambassador and high commissioner posts across the Southern Hemisphere. A classic example is the appointment of Admiral Sureesh Mehta, former Chief of the Indian Navy, as High Commissioner to New Zealand. He will ensure that India’s strategic concerns are fulfilled even in the faraway Pacific where China is courting island states as Fiji, Vanatalu, and the Cook Islands.

An important first step for India is to establish embassies and high commissions on these islands where its presence is now limited or even nonexistence. Then it can truly pursue a naval diplomacy.

High Noon in the Maldives

Two years after the Maldives attainted the Wilsonian democracy, it’s witnessing a classic test of democratic ideals with a political struggle emerging between President Mohamed Nasheed and the opposition dominated parliament which has given Islamic terrorism a foothold in the young nation. The struggle has “invited” regional mediation from Sri Lanka with the countries as China, India and Pakistan wanting to have a crack at solving the problem as well. The United States, meanwhile, have urged Malé to accept international (i.e., not regional) mediation.

Now, what worries India and the United States the most is that with the Maldives struggling with its infant democracy, there is every chance of the political chaos being used by jihadi extremists to use the island nation as a springboard for terrorism. Indian intelligence was alerted recently from Western sources that the internationally banned terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is based in Pakistan, had been trying to set up base in isolated islands of the Maldives. The group may well use the Maldives, which has largely a Sunni Muslim population, to launch attacks throughout South Asia.

One instance when Islamic militancy raised its head was on September 29, 2007 when the Sultan Park bombing in Malé took place; the first ever Islamist terror strike in the Maldives. Though Islamic militancy isn’t entirely new to the Maldives — this started in the early 1980s under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — what is new is the clash between Salafi Sunni traditions versus the Shāfi’ī Sunni traditions. The latter is a culmination of the indigenous Maldivian culture whereas the former was imported through the return of students from the Arab world and Pakistan. Many of the “hardcored” Islamic motivated students are located in the southern atolls of the Maldives. They call themselves Super Salafis.

Small scale insurgency attacks started in the Maldives after it was believed that President Gayoom, who came to power in 1978 by citing his Islamic credentials polished at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, ditched his Islamic agenda. Now with the more Western liberal Oxford educated President Nasheed in power, the fissures between the Salafis and the ruling establishment has only increased. It’s particularly evident in the southern atolls. Precisely for this reason, the Maldives’ government is engaging with India to set up underground radars on all of its 26 atolls.

There are reports which also suggest that there’s an increase in the number of tourists from Pakistan to the Maldives. Annually, the islands hosts about 700,000 tourists, most of them from Europe and the United States which is part of the reason why Western governments are so concerned that jihadists might imitate the 2002 bombing that occurred in Bali, Indonesia.

Politically in the Maldives the government and opposition started a dialogue to ease tension on the advice of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake Jr. Blake traveled to Malé to mediate between the opposition and president while Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse visited the capital on July 7 on invitation from his Maldivian counterpart to help him out of the matrix that is the current political predicament. It’s to be noted that Rajapakse has political capital in the Maldives for successfully annihilating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last year.

As the great American poet Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In the case of the Maldives that sounds perfectly apt as the islands descend into a political chaos much like it did twenty years ago. At the time, in November 1988, Abdullah Luthufi and some eighty armed mercenaries of the Sri Lankan People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) attempted to overthrow the Maldivian government but failed when Indian forces intervened with some 1,600 troops send by air to restore order. This act helped seal Indo-Maldives relations and it was a classic example of the application of India’s Monroe Doctrine.

The present situation has not gone unnoticed in the capitals of today’s Asian giants. India considers the Maldives within the ambit of its Monroe Doctrine. In August 2009 a defense pact was signed between India and the Maldives. The last thing New Delhi wants is to have the islands succumb to internal power struggle with Islamic militancy on the rise around the Indian Ocean. China has active trade relations with the Maldives and it’s watching the ongoing political fiasco in Malé with great interest.

The seeds of the present discord in the Maldives go back to the 2009 parliamentary election when the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom managed to get only a simple majority in parliament with the help of the People’s Alliance (PA) and some independents. President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has 28 representatives and the support of four independents in the 77 seat parliament.

The Maldives function under a multiparty system with the president assembling a cabinet with parliamentary approval. Parliament also has the power to remove a minister with a motion of non confidence. Though DRP gained control of the legislature it fell short of the twothirds majority needed to impeach the president. At the same time, President Nasheed can’t dismiss the assembly until it completes its full five year term. The outcome has been a political deadlock.

The crisis reached its height in June when thirteen members of Nasheed’s cabinet resigned. The reason cited was somewhat new in any parliamentary democracy: they claimed to have “working problems” with parliament. Though the ministers were reappointed at the insistence of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa who undertook a one day goodwill tour to the Maldives on July 7 and managed to get the government and the opposition to agree to form a committee to address the political problem in the Maldives, the fissure is bound to last.

Historically, the Maldives had their first constitution in 1932. Since, the country was ruled as a constitutional monarchy. A republic was established in January 1953 but it was short lived and the monarchy was restored in August of that same year. A second republic was proclaimed in November 1968. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the second president of the republic in 1978 and held power till the decisive October 2008 elections when Nasheed secured the presidency.

The problem with the Maldives’ politics is multiplied by the paradox of its constitution. The constitution, which was adopted in August 2008, establishes a presidential system of government though vests significant power with parliament. It is a classic example of decentralization with extended checks and balances. This becomes problematic in case parliament is controlled by the opposition as is the case in the Maldives today. The opposition is then able to obstruct the core functions of the executive, such as raising taxes and providing subsidies.

The escalating political rift in the Maldives casts doubt upon Malé’s ability to host the 17th South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation Summit next year. The Maldives were supposed to host the 16th SAARC summit in July 2008 which the government was unable to facilitate because of preparations for the October elections.

Those elections led Mohamed Nasheed to victory against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom was considered an oppressive ruler with a record of being Asia’s longest serving head of state; Gayoom was in power for thirty consecutive years.

In many ways, President Nasheed was thought of as the Maldives’s Barack Obama. Just like Obama won the November 2008 elections in the United States on a message of hope and change, Nasheed was able to overthrow Gayoom’s “regime” campaigning on a message of “audacity of hope.” Like Obama, in many ways, Nasheed comes off far too liberal in a conservative society as the Maldives however which is populated by 300,000 Sunni Muslims. It remains to be seen whether President Nasheed will be able to bring his dissents and opposition together in the young democratic nation.

In conclusion it must be noted that the Maldives are in great strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Traditionally, all great powers that aspired to control the sea have sought to establish a base there — Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, the United States and more recently, the Soviet Union. The southernmost island of the Maldives, the Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II.

The last thing anyone wants is for the Maldives to become a safe haven for Islamic insurgents which why leaders as President Mahinda Rajapakse and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake had undertaken a “shuttle diplomacy” to ease the tension.