The name Maldives derives from the Sanskrit Maladvipa (meaning “garland of islands”). In Tamil, the “garland of islands” can be translated as Malai Theevu. The first settlers in the Maldives were people of Dravidian origin. A strong underlying layer of this Dravidian population and culture survives in Maldivian society, with a clear Tamil-Malayalam substratum in the language.
The Maldives is one of the world’s most geographically dispersed countries, as well as the smallest Asian country by both land area and population, with around 428,000 inhabitants. But it is the geography of the Maldives that makes it important in the increasingly contested Arabian Sea part of the Indian Ocean. The low-lying Maldivian islands with an average elevation of about 1.5 meters spreads over 1,192 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls is spread over 90,000 sq km, making it a nation of 99 per cent water.
The atoll chain is the visible part of a 960-km-long submarine ridge running north to south that makes it almost a wall to navigation from the eastern side of the Indian Ocean into the western side. At the southern and northern part of this island chain are the only two passages through which ships can pass safely. These are the designated sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through which the major parts of Middle Eastern oil transits to countries like Japan and China. The busier northern SLOC passes between India’s Minicoy Island and the northern most Maldivian atoll. This geography gives the Maldives a strategic importance far beyond its size and heft.
The Maldives was the last South Asian country to be decolonised, which was in 1965. The British maintained military bases on Gan and Hittadu islands till 1978, when Britain’s dwindling finances obliged it to shut them down. The United States still maintains a powerful presence in the region, in Diego Garcia, further south of the Maldives, about 1,800 km from the southern tip of India. Diego Garcia is just 35 sq km in size but enough facilities have been built on it to adequately project US power across the region. It has two parallel 12,000-foot-long (3,700-metre) runways, expansive parking aprons for heavy bombers such as the supersonic B-1 Lancer and the Cold War workhorse, B-52 Stratofortress, 20 new anchorages in the lagoon, a deep-water pier, port facilities for the largest naval vessels in the American or British fleets, aircraft hangars, maintenance buildings and an air terminal, a huge 1.34-million barrel fuel storage area, and billeting and messing facilities for almost 30,000 combatants and support personnel. The US will most certainly not view kindly any permanent positioning of China in the region.
The Maldives went through a period of political uncertainty from 1965 to 1978, when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom began his 30-year rule as President. Mr Gayoom was a staunch friend of India and in 1988 an Indian military intervention saved his presidency from a small army of Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries employed by Mr Gayoom’s predecessor. Mr Gayoom ruled with a heavy hand and opposition to him kept growing. In 2008 Mohammed Nasheed, a British-educated opponent, succeeded Mr Gayoom. Mr Nasheed was Amnesty International’s 1991 Prisoner of Conscience. Mr Gayoom arrested him about 20 times in all. But his struggles won him many friends not only in Britain but also more importantly in India.
But the Gayoom faction never really accepted Mr Nasheed and its machinations that kept things on a boil till they finally forced Mr Nasheed out of office in 2012. Much as India helped Mr Nasheed along when he was out of office, Mr Nasheed himself was not averse to playing the China card, something which got him on the wrong side of the then Indian ambassador in Male. Therefore, when the need arose, India did not exactly rush to the rescue of Mr Nasheed. But something else happened during the Nasheed presidency that opened a door to China’s entry into the Maldives.
In 2012, Mr Nasheed’s successor President Mohammed Waheed cancelled the previous government’s decision to award the $500 million contract to manage Male international airport to an Indian company, GMR.
It seemed as if it was a punishment to the Indian establishment, which seemed to be supporting Mr Nasheed. Many in India even suspected China’s hand in it.
From the early 2000s, there have been reports in the Indian press, some of it very obviously motivated by Western agencies, about China’s attempts to seek a naval base in the southern Maldivian chain. The Marao atoll has often been named as one of the pearls in the somewhat dubious “string of pearls” that China was allegedly building around India. Most serious Indian analysts do not take such formulations seriously, but suspicions persist.
As the competition between India and China intensifies, and as China slowly but surely builds its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with a port under construction at Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and at Djibouti, a PLA Navy presence near the strategic passages across the Maldivian wall of atolls seems ever more plausible. In India, the demonstrated Chinese capability of building islands on even semi-submerged formations in the Spratly chain gives rise to more serious apprehensions about China’s ultimate intentions.
India’s influence in its neighborhood was dealt a stunning blow recently with the Maldives entering into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China signed by President Abdulla Yameen (former President Gayoom’s half-brother) on December 8, 2017. This undoubtedly took the Narendra Modi government by surprise even as it was patting itself on the back for having stood up to the Chinese at Doklam on the Bhutan-Tibet border. China has opened its pocketbook and has also made the Maldives a component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In addition, Mr Yameen’s government has signed more benign agreements to cooperate in promoting tourism, improving healthcare and assisting in coping up with climate change. Climate change is a very important issue in the Maldives, with the island nation seriously running the risk of becoming a subterranean state in a few decades. Chinese expertise in raising islands out of water might serve it in good stead.
The question for India is whether to deal with this issue now, when it has the means to enforce its will on the Maldives, and as former President Nasheed has entreated it to do, or continue with its traditional policy of not overtly intervening in the internal affairs of other countries? Whether it should persist with this policy, specially when the Chinese presence is expanding at the frenetic pace we have seen in the past decade, is India’s dilemma.
As India ponders its options, there were reports of a Chinese flotilla of 11 ships, including at least one frigate, a 30,000-tonne amphibious transport dock and three support tankers, entering the Indian Ocean region from the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. These fears proved premature as the PLAN flotilla turned eastward towards the Lumbok Strait between Bali and Lumbok, taking it back into the South China Sea, which is where India would like Chinese power to be contained in at all times.
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.