In the first days of February we have witnessed what some describe as a coup d’état in the tiny island-country of the Maldives, where president Abdulla Yameen cracked down on the Supreme Court and the opposition. The ensuing crisis will determine the geopolitical future of the Maldives, at least for a short-term, and might be pivotal in the competition over the Indo-Pacific.
The crisis was ignited when president Yameen refused to honor a Supreme Court’s ruling that required the release of 9 opposition members whose arrest and detention it deemed unlawful and, perhaps more importantly, ordered reinstatement of 12 members of parliament who were previously deposed for abandoning Mr. Yameen’s party. That move would have given the opposition majority in the legislature. Faced with a prospect of a serious threat to his power, coming from the opposition led by two former presidents: Mohamed Nasheed and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who also happens to be Mr. Yameen’s half-brother, president Yameen refused to honor the ruling and instead dispatched security forces to detain disobedient opposition members, including Mr. Gayoom (Mr. Nasheed is in exile since 2016).
What makes this slide towards dictatorship in the tiny island country so geopolitically relevant is its strategic position in the middle of the Indian Ocean and at the center of one of the most important trade routes in the world. Geopolitical allegiance of this small nation is especially important to India and China, since both of these countries regard the archipelago as their own sphere of influence and a critical geographical location for their national security. The crisis is no less important to the US, as the de-facto guarantor of security on international waters. Thus, the Maldives are, willingly or not, a subject of great power competition.
Mr. Yameen has shown unmistakable sympathy for China and there is no doubt that his policy will drive the country deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence, as a larger Chinese scheme to extend its reach over the shores of the Indian Ocean and towards Africa and Europe. Chinese protection is especially appealing to regimes with a doubtful human rights record like Mr. Yameen’s, because of its no-strings-attached formula of investment, loans and aid packages that don’t require adhering to democratic values, contrary to most of Western offers. President Yameen might therefore see his allegiance to China as a safe way to secure his grip on power by gaining a powerful patron funding and protecting him.
Chinese benevolence doesn’t come free, though. Huge sums of money lent to the small nation of nearly 400,000 people raise concerns over its ability to ever repay the debt, which in turn poses a risk of the Maldives finding itself on Chinese mercy. China already owns more than 70% of the Maldives’ external debt and an astonishing amount of nearly 25% of the country’s budget goes to cover interest payments each year. Moreover, as a part of a practice know well throughout the world, most recently in Ethiopia and Hungary, Chinese infrastructure loans are given on a condition of having Chinese state-owned companies landing all (or most of) the contracts. Some have described this practice as predatory ad unfair, while Chinese media prefer to speak of a grand program of lifting the third world countries out of poverty, as an alternative to Western democracy + free market model, that allegedly fails to perform in certain circumstances.
This Chinese bid for influence in the Maldives is unacceptable to India, because of the long-standing rivalry of the two countries and the Maldives’ proximity to mainland India. With tensions recently rising between these two old rivals, many have professed an Indo-Chinese naval confrontation. In such an event, control over the Maldives would prove to be a priceless asset. It is even more important when geographical circumstances are taken into account. As FP once argued, China, despite its relative military advantage, cannot be sure of defeating India on her waters. One of the reasons cited by James Holmes is India navy’s direct, relatively short routes to potential scenes of battle while the PLA navy must project forces across long, distended, potentially contested sea routes just to reach the fight. That disadvantage could be eliminated by establishing a military base on the Maldivian soil. The idea of the base is still purely theoretical, but each year of Abdulla Yameen’s dictatorial rule on Chinese expense could bring it closer. One step towards has been already taken, when Maldivian legislature passed a constitutional amendment allowing foreign land ownership (as opposed to a previous limit to a 99-year lease) if an entity or country invests at least $1 billion.
This is why India is so determined to keep the Maldives in fold. It even has a history of military interventionism in its neighbor’s affairs – the 1988 Operation Cactus. Hours after the recent coup, ex-president Nasheed, known for his anti-Chinese views, publicly called upon India to dispatch an envoy supported by a military expedition to bring Mr. Yameen’s abuse to an end. No such thing happened as of today. It might be due to China’s warning, that the Maldives’ sovereignty should be respected, and the nation should be permitted to resolve its issues on its own. On February 20, a Chinese warship flotilla of eleven ships, including a destroyer, has entered the Indian Ocean marking a movement towards the crisis-ridded island. However, according to Indian Navy sources the fleet has since turned away and sailed back to the South China Sea. That would be yet another subtle, but clear signal from China that it would not tolerate a 1988-style Indian intervention in the Maldives.
The next several weeks will reveal if India is willing to risk a fallout with China in order to protect its strategic perimeter, and if the US is willing to throw its power into the equation. Without outside intervention, be it military, economic, or both, Abdulla Yameen’s coup is likely to succeed. Will it bring him a long-lasting rule and a strategic advantage to China, remains to be seen.
źródło zdjęcia: https://pixabay.com/pl/malediwy-kokosowego-drzewa-morze-262507/