As the political crisis in the Maldives deepens with former President Mohamed Nasheed taking refuge in the Indian High Commission in Male two weeks ago, the undercurrents of a cold war in the Indian Ocean have become evident.
When Singapore fell to Japan during World War II, Sri Lanka, especially Trincomalee assumed a strategic importance. The allied forces believed that whoever controlled Trincomalee could control the Indian Ocean.
Since then, much sea water has lashed the natural cliff of the Trincomalee port. Over the years, the entry of high-tech weaponry and military satellites into the arsenal of big powers and the upgrading of bases in the Indian Ocean region have diminished the strategic importance of Trincomalee. Yet, as far as the security of the Indian Ocean is concerned, Sri Lanka has still not lost its strategic importance. In the hi-tech era, the focus is on the port city of Hambantota. This is why the involvement of China in the development of the port has raised concerns among security experts in India and the West.
Today, security experts believe that whoever controls Hambantota controls the Indian Ocean. This is because there is no country south of Sri Lanka right up to Antarctica, which is widely regarded as international territory. South of Hambantota lies one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Some 200 to 300 mega-vessels pass by Hambantota every day, facilitating the trade of oil and consumer goods between the Middle East-the African west coast and China, Japan, Australia, South Korea and other nations in the Asia Pacific region. However, what makes the Indian Ocean strategically important to China is Beijing’s energy dependence on the Middle East. If a hostile power blocks the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, China would be economically doomed, because oil from Central Asia, its second main energy source, is not sufficient to meet its requirment.
China has a plan B in the event the Indian Ocean falls into the hands of a hostile power. This plan involves a land route from the Chinese mainland to the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the troubled province of Baluchistan. China is keen to extend the Karakoram highway -- which now connects China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit–Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions -- up to Gwadar. However, the Taliban rebellion in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the separatist and sectarian violence in Baluchistan have delayed the project. Some analysts wonder whether the troubles in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Baluchistan are an attempt by outside forces to deny China access via land to the Middle East.
The military presence of the United States in the Indian Ocean stems from its main base in Diego Garcia and facilities in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These bases and facilities give a strategic advantage to the United States over other Indian Ocean powers – mainly China and India. China, a new entrant to the Indian Ocean, is rapidly developing its blue water navy, probably to catch up with the US. But such moves have raised alarm in India. Even the US has begun to take the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean seriously. That’s why the Indian Ocean figured large in the United States’ ‘Pivot to Asia’ defence policy launched last year.
In the 1970s, India declared what was known in security circles as the “Indira doctrine” or India’s version of the United States “Monroe doctrine”. The Indira doctrine had a message to the regional countries that they should first seek India’s help before seeking the help of outside powers. In other words, India did not want outside powers in South Asian waters. This doctrine saw India scuttling Sri Lanka’s proposal to make the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace. Even the 1987 Indo-Lanka treaty, which was forced on Sri Lanka as a solution to the ethnic conflict, had the characteristics of an Indira doctrine dictate.
Though India today seldom mentions the doctrine by name in public, there is no indication it has abandoned it. The great game in the Indian Ocean is on with India and the United States teaming up to check China’s influence in the region.
It is in this context that the political developments in the Maldives emerge as part of the great game. With the end of the separatist war in Sri Lanka, India has lost its hold on its southern neighbour. India looks upon China’s every move in Sri Lanka with suspicion. When China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie visited Sri Lanka last year and offered $100 million for the Sri Lanka army, the Indian media saw it as an attempt by Beijing to bribe the Sri Lankan military.
With China’s footprint in Sri Lanka getting bigger, India’s attention has turned towards the Maldives. China also entered the race and established an embassy in 2011 in Male -- and ever since the number of Chinese tourists visiting the Indian Ocean archipelago has been on the rise, adding to the security worries of India and the United States.
Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed enters Indian High Commission on February 13 - AFP
Attempts by rival powers India and China to woo the Maldives have only given rise to a situation which existed in the decades gone by in Sri Lanka, where the United National Party governments were seen as pro-West and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party governments as pro-Soviet. The Maldives’ ousted President Mohamed Nasheed was seen as leaning towards India. His opponents allege that the Nasheed regime sold the management of the Male International Airport to an Indian multinational firm, GMR, for a song. The Male airport is to the Maldivian citizens a national symbol and is emotionally close to their hearts. It was built by voluntary labour and donations of the people who were hurt when Sri Lanka, which operated the only airline in an out of the Maldives, suddenly stopped flights, citing safety concerns.
Thus when Nasheed handed over the airport to GMR on a 25-year contract, many Maldivians were furious. They charged that the deal lacked transparency and the money which the country got was just a pittance – US$ 78 million. Besides GMR, many development projects went to Indian firms, including Tata, during the Nasheed regime. These investments prompted Nasheed’s opponents to call him an Indian lackey. This was one of the main reasons for the protests that led to the ouster of Nasheed in February last year.
After the dust raised by the political upheaval settled, the new government of Mohamed Waheed in November last year cancelled the GMR deal in what many analysts in India saw as a Chinese-inspired move. The cancellation came two months after Waheed returned from a state visit to China. Waheed, of course, denied that he was prodded by China to do that.
But today China is one of the Maldives’ biggest donors. During Waheed’s visit to Beijing in September, China pledged US$ 500 million in aid – nearly one quarter of the Maldives’ GDP. Waheed told the Chinese news agency Xinhua, “China, unlike other influential countries, looks at international affairs of small countries, like the Maldives, from a unique perspective.” He was apparently taking a swipe at India when he said “unlike other influential countries”.
While this big power great game over small countries was going on in the Indian Ocean, Nasheed, the Maldives’ first president to be elected under a multi-party system, sought refuge in the Indian high commission in Male. He was facing several arrest warrants. Many in the Maldives wonder whether he was acting on Indian advice.
On Wednesday the police told a Maldivian court they were unable to produce the suspect as he was inside the Indian High Commission. Among the charges he faces is the unlawful arrest and detention of the chief judge of the criminal court. Nasheed says the charges were politically motivated and aimed at preventing him from contesting the presidential election on September 7.
Nasheed’s presence in the Indian HC premises has stirred an international crisis similar to the one that arose after Wikileaks founder Julian Assnage walked into the Ecuadorian embassy in London and sought refuge there.
On Sunday, the Maldivian regime summoned the Indian High Commissioner and handed him what Maldivian sources described as a ‘hot protest note’. It was probably the first such note to rock the India-Maldives relations. One wonders whether the Maldives plucked up courage to take on a mighty India because of Waheed’s new-found friendship with China.
In the meantime India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid got in touch with the Maldivian counterpart Abdul Samad Abdullah and agreed to send a top-level delegation to solve the standoff.
The Indian delegation arrived in Male on Wednesday to hold talks with Waheed. Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party said it wanted a guarantee from India that Nasheed would not be arrested and would be allowed to contest the presidential election. India has said it wants the presidential election to be inclusive – meaning that nobody should be barred from the process. The US, the European Union and the UN have also taken a stand similar to that of India.
China, in a first reaction to the diplomatic crisis, said this week that it sincerely hoped that Maldives could maintain peace, stability and development. It said it believed that relevant issues could be properly handled. The carefully worded remarks came in response to a query raised by the Indian news agency PTI via email.
The big power involvement has made what was essentially a domestic crisis of a small country an international leviathan. Has the Maldives been caught up in the emerging cold war in the Indian Ocean? This is the big question. In comparison to this question, other questions such as “Will Nasheed be allowed to contest the September election?” pale into insignificance.