Hand-wringing about a ‘democracy deficit’ notwithstanding, the real aim is to counter China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean
Developments in Maldives have begun unfolding according to script. India, the United States and Britain are spearheading the demand that Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen comply with the order by his country’s Supreme Court to release his political opponents from prison and reinstate 12 former lawmakers as members of Parliament.
The script has a striking resemblance to what happened in Sri Lanka in 2014, with some minor variations on the fundamental theme – regime change. Thus, as in Sri Lanka, sworn enemies who had been at each other’s throats for decades suddenly made strange bedfellows to oust the strongman in the presidential palace, and as dawn broke one fine day, the ground beneath the regime shifted dramatically.
In the earlier case, a defecting faction of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party aligned with its sworn enemy, the United National Party, undermining thereby the towering incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grip on power. Now a similar realignment has happened in Maldives, which now threatens President Yameen’s continuance in power.
This latest unholy alliance is between two former presidents, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (a cousin of the incumbent president) and a man who once overthrew Gayoom, Mohamed Nasheed. Gayoom and Nasheed have been sworn enemies. What adds to the intrigue is the mysterious role by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abdullah Saeed – who was, incidentally, appointed to the top court in 2009 by Nasheed when he was in power.
To what extent external powers promoted this opportunistic alliance to dethrone Yameen is a moot point. The US ambassador (based in Colombo) has been working closely with New Delhi to “promote” democracy. Nasheed and Saeed have visited Delhi in recent months at India’s invitation. Nasheed even addressed a panel at Brookings India to present his case for regime change in his country. Nasheed is a cult figure in London and Washington.
In sum, there is close coordination between New Delhi and Washington to get rid of Yameeen, who is branded as “pro-China.” Indeed, geopolitics is at the root of the current crisis in Maldives.
The missing link has been the secret move by the administration of US president Barack Obama in early 2013 to negotiate with Maldives about a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have led to increased military cooperation between the two countries, possibly including US bases there. But someone leaked a draft of the agreement to the press, and the US was forced to concede that such talks were indeed going on.
The negotiations got derailed when Yameen was elected president in November 2013 by narrowly defeating Nasheed. If Nasheed returns to power, the negotiations for the conclusion of the SOFA would be back on the table. Despite China’s firm and repeated denials that it has any intention of setting up a military base in Maldives, the China bogey has been whipped up by India.
The real US-Indian game plan is to create a “second island chain” (similar to the one in the Western Pacific) connecting Maldives with Diego Garcia (and Seychelles, where India has a base on one of the islands and has just concluded an agreement to build an airstrip and a sophisticated “monitoring station” at a cost of US$45 million) to curb the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean and to control the sea lanes through which China conducts the bulk of its foreign trade. By the way, the US and India closely cooperate in monitoring the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean.
As part of the overall US-Indian strategy, New Delhi signed a Bilateral Agreement for Navy Cooperation with Singapore last November that provides Indian Navy ships temporary deployment facilities and logistics support at Singapore’s Changi naval base, which is near the disputed South China Sea, enabling India to engage in more activity in the Strait of Malacca through which China’s oil and natural-gas imports pass.
India also maintains a big naval base in the Bay of Bengal in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the Strait of Malacca. Clearly, institutionalized mechanisms are being put in place to monitor Chinese naval activities in both the Strait of Malacca and the Arabian Sea – and to develop “chokepoints” to strangulate the Chinese economy in the event of a confrontation.
Suffice to say, control of the Maldivian atolls is a crucial template of the overall US-Indian strategy to counter China’s rapidly growing blue-water navy and its capacity to project power in the Indian Ocean.
The big question is whether India will intervene in Maldives and chase the recalcitrant Yameen out of power and put some amiable face like Nasheed in power, who can be trusted to act as “our man in the Arabian Sea.” Of course, any such intervention would constitute a violation of international law and the UN Charter.
Traditionally, India has taken a pragmatic approach toward “democracy deficits” in its neighborhood – in Myanmar and Bangladesh, for instance – or its extended neighborhood of West Asia or Central Asia. But the US has been encouraging India to shed its shyness and become assertive, worthy of a great power in the making.
To be sure, if India intervenes in Maldives, no matter its legality or legitimacy, New Delhi can be 100% certain of Anglo-American backing.
In Washington’s calculus, a unilateral Indian intervention in Maldives would signify a leap of faith on New Delhi’s part in the direction of a strategic alliance with the US. The Donald Trump administration has identified India as a key partner in its Asian strategies, but has found that getting India to shed its “strategic autonomy” and “independent foreign policies” has been an exasperating experience so far. An intervention in Maldives would signify that India is willing to cross the Rubicon, finally, and act shoulder-to-shoulder as America’s ally in Asia. To be sure, Maldives presents a defining moment for Indian foreign policy.
However, this is India’s Haiti moment, too. Simply put, the mulattoes and blacks of the Arabian Sea have locked horns and are seeking foreign intervention. The US Navy sent ships to Haiti 19 times between 1857 and 1913 to “protect American lives and property” and finally occupied Haiti in 1915 – until, ultimately, Haitians united in resistance of the US occupation and American forces had to leave in 1934. A repressive dictatorship took over from that point.