India and China vie for the Maldives

India and China vie for the Maldives

China’s increased engagement with the Maldives has fed into New Delhi’s concerns over China’s rising profile in the Indian Ocean.

They say that there are three sides to every story; yours, theirs and the truth. In the case of India and China’s competition in the Indian Ocean, we have three viewpoints and it is difficult to ascertain which is most accurate.

The first is India’s concern that China is muscling into its backyard by stepping up its interaction with Indian Ocean states such as the Maldives.

Indian policymakers claim that a string of pearls has emerged; a network of Chinese commercial and military facilities along the sea lines of communication designed to reduce India’s influence.

The second is China’s belief that a maritime silk road is needed to secure its economic future. With 80% of its petroleum imports passing through the Indian Ocean, there is logic behind its interaction with Indian Ocean states.

China’s view is that the investment and construction of ports in these countries simply serve an economic purpose which would bring benefits to the entire region not just China.

The third is the reaction of Indian Ocean states, in this case the Maldives, which has tried to pacify Indian concerns over increased Chinese investment into the country.

However, the Maldives continues to benefit from the competition between the two countries for influence in the Indian Ocean.

India’s view

India’s relationship with the Maldives is based upon ethnic, religious, security and historical links. Yet, what is most concerning to India is how advanced the Chinese relationship with the Maldives has become in a short space of time.

India already has security arrangements with Indian Ocean states and has installed radar surveillance on the atolls of the Maldives.

Yet, it is not activity in the security sphere that poses the biggest threat to India’s influence. It is in the Maldivian economic sector in which India is being replaced.

The start of construction of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge is one of a number of Chinese funded economic projects that have set alarms bells ringing in New Delhi.

These include investment in infrastructure, the country’s luxury hotels, and the construction of new homes and the provision of medical supplies. In fact Chinese tourists make up the majority of visitors to the country.

India argues that China’s investment in its neighbour is indicative of its activity around the Indian Ocean that is designed to choke India’s influence.

These include the establishment of Chinese naval outposts in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Myanmar, Gwadar in Pakistan and in the Seychelles.

However, India must realise that China represents an attractive alternative. The investment put into the Maldives is something the island nation cannot turn down.

Therefore, India must redouble its efforts with the Maldives to maintain its pre-eminence as an economic and security partner. We have seen a ramping up of cooperation between the two states but it remains to be seen how India will deal with China’s emergence in the Maldives.

China’s view

As expected, China’s view on this issue is quite the opposite. Instead of a string of pearls emerging, a maritime silk road is being produced to guarantee the prosperity of the entire region.

The Chinese point out that its engagement with the Maldives is actually of benefit to India as well. By developing the nation, it makes the protection of vital sea trade routes, which pass above the islands, easier to manage.

This is because it allows Chinese ships to refuel and restock whilst participating in the anti-piracy protection of container vessels in the Indian Ocean.

China is adamant that its investment in regional maritime infrastructure is economically motivated, bringing benefits to the host country.

However the differences between the image and the reality of China’s engagement have become blurred. On the one hand, China’s infrastructural investment in the Maldives has led to increased development.

Yet on the other, the amount of influence over the local government has seen changes in law which now allow foreign ownership of Maldivian land. This has opened the door for even more Chinese money to flow in.

China’s economic engagement is mutually beneficial but there is an underlying tone which is the expansion of Chinese influence in India’s backyard.

Despite this, it is not the concern of China whether India objects. The Maldives has two suitors, and it is up to both to make sure they are the first priority.

Maldives’ view

Many of India’s neighbouring states have welcomed an alternative economic and security partner. The Maldives is no different.

Politically, the Maldives has always experienced Indian interference if not backing as well. In security terms, India is seen as a net security provider.

However, China’s engagement has opened up new economic benefits to the country. It has allowed the Maldives to potentially play each superpower against each other.

The strategy of hedging, in international affairs, refers to a smaller state being neither dominated by a great power nor antagonizing it.

The Maldives is doing exactly this. It is engaging with both India and China and reaping the benefits of the two relationships.

For example, the recent Maldives Investment Forum held in China was countered by a visit by India’s foreign minister to the Maldives. The island nation understands that allowing the two countries to vie for it will be beneficial in the short and long term.

Importantly, these benefits have and will be within a variety of sectors including infrastructure, housing, education, health and security.

In this regard, as India and China vie for the Maldives, it is the Maldives that will undoubtedly benefit.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Devesh Rasgotra

Devesh Rasgotra is a specialist in South-East Asian affairs. His experience includes working at the International Institute for Strategic Studies where his focus was on maritime security in South-East Asia. He holds his MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.