It is not entirely unusual that Beijing has taken a position on other countries’ domestic political crises. Its post-Cold War foreign policy points to China’s bold standing on many foreign crises that are not even remotely linked to its national interests. From the Syrian crisis to many conflicting matters in Africa, Beijing has taken positions trusting that they will internationally augment its positioning and prestige in the world as a great power. China has even used the UNSC P-5 (permanent five) membership card to veto on many pressing global affairs. Its stance on the Maldivian crisis therefore should not really be surprising. It however becomes unusual, rather intimidating, when such positions are taken on domestic political affairs, keeping in view the strategic advantages that a particular country generally offers. China’s stance on the current Maldivian crisis points to this admonitory, particularly to neighbouring India.
Beijing’s position on the ongoing Maldives crisis combines a fine blend of invisible ambitions and strategic confidence that China holds with the archipelagic country. Expressing outright support to Abdulla Yameen’s regime, Beijing has called for “non-interference” from outside powers and has stated that Maldives will “independently” resolve its problem through dialogues. By articulating an indirect caution to India and, importantly, by showcasing its rising international might, China has called on the international community to not interfere in Maldives’ internal affairs. This indeed points to China’s standard official position. It has mastered the art of passing indirect cautioning to its adversaries. What however is really disturbing is how attentively Beijing is shielding Yameen’s regime in Maldives and also asserting its positioning in the Indian Ocean, unveiling a grand global strategy.
The crisis is emerging more as a geopolitical crisis between China and India to influence Maldives’ political affairs and mark a stamp on the archipelagic nation’s political future in Indian Ocean. Given India and Maldives’ strong security, economic and political linkages, the archipelago has been diplomatically close to India over the years. A reversal in this trend was, however, witnessed in 2013 with Abdulla Yameen coming to power and cosying up to China with his authoritarian approach of governance. He has employed a “China first” approach by welcoming Chinese investment, assistantship and presence in the country, sidelining the traditional “India first” approach that Maldives had adopted under Mohamed Nasheed, inviting serious disapproval from the opposition parties. Nonetheless, Yameen had gone ahead in identifying Maldives’ strategic interests more with China than India, owing much to an effective Chinese diplomacy and outreach to the archipelago in general. Beijing under a “new era” foreign policy strategy has adopted a “pro-active” plus “going-out” economic diplomacy in the Indian Ocean with Maldives as a strategic hub.
One of the highpoints of China’s “new era” strategy is to carry out a multi-textured foreign policy combining hard and soft power cogently. With Maldives, a closer cultural linkage has been unfolding where tourism, education, infrastructure and economic cooperation are important sectors. Visiting Chinese tourists to Maldives in great numbers are the greatest strength of these budding economic and cultural linkages. A direct reflection of Beijing’s “going-out economic diplomacy” is visible currently in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where Maldives is a priority. Signing economic deals, having frequent political exchanges, promoting cultural linkages, and backing a country’s political regime are part of this “going-out” diplomacy. China’s clout in Maldives became an established fact after the free trade agreement (FTA) was signed in December 2017. Yameen was the first Asian leader to be invited to China in the post-19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) where the leadership in Beijing expounded how Maldives figures as a key country in China’s “new era” foreign policy strategy. Despite heavy domestic political opposition, Yameen signed the FTA deal by endorsing Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Signing an FTA was a first of its bilateral kind with a major country for this archipelagic nation and for China too as it is strategically located in the IOR, marking its own authority as a strong economic power. Bagging Maldives’ open support, especially as an “important partner” for Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR), was another major achievement for China.
Maldives’ contacts with China reached a new height with Xi Jinping’s visiting it in September 2014, after a gap of 42 years. The Chinese President was received by Yameen at the Male international airport to display their strengthening political bonding. Public support from Maldives is critical to China because it creates a favourable condition for Beijing’s economic and maritime strategy in the IOR. The search for smaller island countries, establishing stronger maritime and military networks with IOR countries, access to foreign markets and finding new sources of energy are integral for China’s MSR strategy. In fact, Beijing’s “pro-active” diplomacy is positioning China as a top-ranking country in most of the countries’ foreign policy drawing, allowing it to successfully secure the goodwill of Maldives to expand its South Asian outreach. While, the US’s primary interest in South Asia was always security-centric, be it the India-Pakistan balancing game or maritime developments in the Indian Ocean, it also seeks to obstruct the Chinese progress there. Nevertheless, with Donald Trump’s retreat from Asia, Beijing is witnessing quite a favourable environment. It is, nonetheless, seeing the growing India-US bilateral ties and Japan’s rising investment presence as a threat to its regional interests. To rank Maldives as a priority partner therefore becomes a natural choice for China.
Beijing’s stance on Maldives has a greater strategic objective to position itself as an effective Indian Ocean power. It was even pronounced during Xi Jinping’s speech in the 19th National Congress of the CPC. China is relying on marine trading to supplement its economy and countries like Maldives and Sri Lanka are placed highly in this connection. China also aims to protect its sea lines of communication through Maldives and for future military build-ups. Therefore, it is extremely keen on checking and possibly preventing the prevailing Indian domination there. China’s Maldives stance thus puts India’s credential as a power to test, and more importantly, points to a larger fact: a growing hegemonic approach cloaked by protective measures.