The Dragon’s Indian Ocean Grasp


Photo: Google Map

Jennifer Loy writes on Maldives: it is essential Washington DC maintains its democratic influence, economic assistance, and naval presence in the Indian Ocean. 

The Maldivian government is a fragile democracy, with its first elected president, Mohamad Nasheed, in 2008. After a controversial ruling where he jailed a judge in 2012, Nasheed resigned and the people eventually elected Abdulla Yameen as their next leader.  Although not necessarily a defining factor of his personality, Yameen is the half-brother of the former 30-year despot, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (The Associated Press, 2018, para. 4).  In 2015, Nasheed was later charged and convicted of terrorism and jailed for 13 years, despite concerns by the United States, India, and Amnesty International (The Associated Press, 2018, para. 2).  After four years of dictatorial rule, President Yameen poisoned the newly created Maldivian democracy.  He jailed or exiled his opponents; he controlled the government, the police, and his ruling Progressive Party dominated Parliament.  In the next elections, held in 2018, he would run unopposed.

In early February, in a matter of several days, the Maldivian government collapsed.  On February 2, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Nasheed and eight other former political prisoners.  Twelve previous members of parliament will be reinstated, and the Progressive Party will lose its majority.  President Yameen declared a state of emergency three days later.  He arrested Supreme Court Justice Abdulla Saeed and his half-brother, Gayoom.  In response, the Supreme Court overturned the February 2 order, but still allowed the reinstatement of the former parliament members (Stratfor, 2018, para. 2-3).

With the government in chaos, this is a great opportunity for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to further is ambitions in the Indian Ocean.  The Chinese influential grasp is far reaching.  President Xi Jinping is doing all he can to further his New Silk Road on both land and sea.  His One Belt, One Road Initiative and Two Oceans strategy are uniting Asia with Europe through trade (Carafano, 2017, para. 3). They previously established Special Economic Zones in multiple locations in East Africa, both governmental and privately owned.  Beijing also funded railway projects and industrial parks; updated infrastructure; and invested in real estate, mining, factories, and tourism (Yun, 2017, para 1, 5).  Just last year, Beijing constructed its first international naval base in Djibouti, approximately 2200 miles from the Maldives.  It is expected more will be built in the port cities of Jiwani and Gwadar in Pakistan, more than 1600 miles from the Maldives (Brewster, 2018, para. 2, 5-6).  Another concern of the encroaching Chinese is much closer to home.  In December, Sri Lanka gave Beijing official control over its southern port at Hambantota, less than 600 miles away.

Maldivian ties with the PRC grows rapidly especially since Xi’s visit in 2014.  The PRC clearly understands the importance of geostrategy in its New Silk Road plans.  President Yameen agreed to a free trade deal with the Beijing in November.  After Pakistan, they were the second nation to ratify this agreement, proving the president’s desire for Chinese influence, not India’s (The Economist, 2017, para. 3).  The PRC has lofty goals, but it seems they are achieving them.

The Maldivian democracy is less than ten years old.  It is essential Washington DC maintains its democratic influence, economic assistance, and naval presence in the Indian Ocean.  In December, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Li, made it clear to New Delhi, that Beijing did not like Indian spheres of influence interfering with its plans (The Economist, 2017, para. 1).  This is not a threat India and its allies should take lightly.  The US Pacific Command stretches its control into the Indian Ocean. It is imperative that they assist India in a multitude of ways.  More specifically, there needs to be joint naval exercises proving to the PRC that they are not the only influence in the waters.  The Indo-Pacific strength of the US, India, Japan, and Australia could work to our advantage when it comes to the military, finances, and economics.  Finally, Diego Garcia is American naval base a little more than 700 miles from the Maldives.   Its usage could prove fruitful.

This cannot be done without Indian assistance as well.  India should increase its navy, both in manpower and vessels, especially at their international bases in Mauritius and the Seychelles.  In addition, New Delhi should extend a free trade agreement to the Maldives to further compete with Beijing.

An estimated 60,000 shipping vessels traverse the Indian Ocean annually.  Much of the world’s oil and natural gas also use these lanes.  The US should be wary of the spread of PRC influence and do what it must to protect the democracy of the Maldives.  If not, the Chinese dragon may just acquire another stronghold in their desire to become the New Ming Dynasty.

Jennifer is Associate at Nepal Matters for America. She holds MS in International Relations with a concentration on East Asian Regional Affairs, and is based in Boston, US.

This piece was later published by Real Clear Defense.