Maldives have gone from a beach resort to a worry spot for India | Mint

Maldives have gone from a beach resort to a worry spot for India

Under an earlier regime, Malé had joined the BRI and signed a free-trade pact with China, although elements like a Chinese lookout post to monitor sea-lanes got scrapped after a power switch.
Under an earlier regime, Malé had joined the BRI and signed a free-trade pact with China, although elements like a Chinese lookout post to monitor sea-lanes got scrapped after a power switch.

Summary

  • his country of islands is veering away from India again, perhaps towards China. To foil a larger apparent Chinese plan to encircle us, New Delhi should deploy a range of resources.

For India, the story of a picturesque archipelago has developed picaresque overtones. A day after he took charge as president of Maldives on 17 November, Mohamed Muizzu asked India to withdraw its military personnel from the country. Coupled with his recent official tour of Turkey, breaking a tradition of the new leader’s first visit being to India, Malé is signalling a desire to break away from India’s sphere of influence. Though there have been hiccups in the past decade, New Delhi has long had a largely cordial relationship with the republic to its south-west. Its equatorial location in the Indian Ocean places it close to a key maritime corridor, making it an attractive spot for world powers with geo-strategic designs to set up a base. The islands of Diego Garcia, a US choice, are close-by. The worry is that Maldives could get co-opted by China for its ‘string of pearls’ game of surrounding India with bases.

While Turkey is a Nato ally of the US, it has not only rubbed New Delhi the wrong way on occasion, but also warmed visibly to China, which has made steady gains in our neighbourhood. In the guise of aid for infrastructure, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has pursued debt-trap diplomacy for the past decade, extending its reach in ways that could easily serve combat ends. Across our western border, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a BRI flank. On paper, it aims to link the People’s Republic with Pakistan’s Gwadar Port for trade movement, but access to the Arabian Sea could conceivably permit Asia’s wannabe hegemon to project hard power in the region. Islamabad, meanwhile, appears to have helped Beijing exploit Afghanistan’s isolation under the Taliban, given how close Chinese-Afghan ties have grown lately. China appears to have a BRI plan for Nepal and has leveraged this scheme to earn brownie points with Bangladesh too, even as its ‘salami slicing’ tactics have continued in the Himalayas. Beijing is in border-settlement talks with Bhutan and their outcome will have implications for our Siliguri Corridor, a thin stretch linking the bulk of our landmass with the Northeast that we must not leave vulnerable to a squeeze. To our south, Sri Lanka had to hand control of its Hambantota Port over to a state-owned Chinese firm on a 99-year lease in lieu of the BRI dues it had failed to pay. All considered, it does look as if Beijing is playing Go, a board game of strategic encirclement.

In all this, Maldives has been a swing state, openly flip-flopping between India and China. Under an earlier regime, Malé had joined the BRI and signed a free-trade pact with China, although elements like a Chinese lookout post to monitor sea-lanes got scrapped after a power switch. Now that Malé’s apparently turning away again, New Delhi has its challenge cut out. It must put its resources behind foiling Beijing’s designs on the archipelago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Muizzu recently met in Dubai along the sidelines of CoP-28 and reportedly agreed to set up a “core group" on ties that would also look into the matter of troop withdrawal. The stakes have clearly risen. We may need to outline substantive pay-offs in the future for Maldives should it align its interests firmly with ours. Realistic versions of such a package need to be crafted for other South Asian countries too. Over time, our neighbours seeing value in the emergence of our economy could bend the region’s dynamics against those bent on its disruption. This was meant to be an Asian Century, after all, not Chinese.

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