Having small neighbours can be bothersome. Just ask India. It is frequently challenged by them, and it almost always flunks the test. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and now the Maldives. India’s strategic self-goals in the region have passed into legend. And they have been happening long before China entered the picture to queer the pitch further.

The ongoing tension with the Maldives is a manifestation of this. The problems have been around for nearly five years but peaked in February when the Maldives declared a state of emergency. Fresh tension emerged on June 4, when New Delhi barred a Maldivian MP, Ahmed Nihan, a close aide of President Abdulla Yameen, from entering India. Technically, as an MP, he has a visa enabling him to travel freely across SAARC countries. India has not yet explained its action.

The situation came to a head in April when the Maldives demanded that India take back two Dhruva helicopters gifted to Male in 2013. Though reports claimed that the Maldives wanted a Dornier surveillance aircraft instead, the fact is that Male had actually been sitting on a Letter of Exchange that it needed to sign for the Dornier request to be processed.

The Dhruva helicopters were based at Gan airport, once a British communications base on Addu island in South Maldives. The real aim of the Maldivians, it appears, is to get rid of the Indian naval personnel who maintain the helicopters. This appears linked to the job notices that Maldivian papers have been carrying lately. “Indians need not apply,” the advertisements declare. Further, the Maldivian government is sitting on the renewal of more than 2,000 work permits of Indian workers. There are over 25,000 Indians – workers, doctors, teachers and managers – in the country, but Male appears to be spooked by fears that India may send in commandos disguised as workers. It upped the ante on June 14 by imprisoning for 19 months Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on obstruction of justice charges. The move is aimed at consolidating Yameen’s power ahead of the election in September. India and the United States promptly criticised the move in near identical statements and demanded the immediate release of political prisoners, including the judges and Gayoom.

India is likely to wait until September before making any move. Indian policy is largely aligned with that of Europe and the US, and should there be an indication that Yameen does not plan to go ahead with the election, there could be consequences.

The Maldives is strategically located in the Indian Ocean Region. It lies just south of the sea lanes connecting eastern and western India, and sits at the head of the international sea lane that takes traffic from the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz to East India, Southeast Asia and East Asia. India is on the other side of this lane.

China’s economic rise has compounded India’s problems in the region. New Delhi was for long the largest aid-giver and trading partner to many of its smaller neighbours. This underscored its political hegemony over them. Now Beijing has emerged as a competitor and provided the smaller countries a means of offsetting India’s overwhelming presence. Because it has virtually no arms to export, New Delhi cannot match Beijing in this area in countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Drifting apart

The Maldives has been steadily moving away from India in the last few years. In 2012, it cancelled a contract to an Indian company to upgrade and operate the country’s international airport. The contract was later given to a Chinese company. The Maldives came out in support of China’s Belt and Road Initiative during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Male in September 2014. China has since taken up several projects in the Maldives. Besides upgrading the airport, Chinese firms are constructing a road bridge between Male and the Hulhule airport, and reclaiming land from the sea to create a free trade zone. In December 2017, Yameen signed a free trade agreement with China during his visit to Beijing, despite the Maldivian opposition’s criticism of the urgency with which the deal was concluded. Under the agreement, China and the Maldives will not impose tariffs on imports from each other.

In 2015, the Maldives passed a new law allowing foreigners to own land if they reclaim over 70% of it from the sea and invest over $1 billion in the country. As part of this initiative, Male leased Feydhoo Finolhu island to a Chinese company for 50 years. There are reports about Chinese interests on Gadhoo island near the Gan base as well. The Chinese are also helping build a Joint Ocean Observation Station on the Maldives’ northern-most atoll of Makunudhoo, which is not far from India’s Lakshadweep islands and quite close to the sea lane connecting to the Suez Canal.

As of now, India has no reason to believe that the Chinese activities have military implications. Beijing has been encouraging its citizens to visit the Maldives, but the overwhelmingly majority of tourists is still from Western Europe. The construction of ports and a large merchant marine force are a natural outgrowth of China’s expanding commercial reach, and it will no doubt also feature a naval expansion. But however you look at it, it will be some time before the Chinese navy is able to match India in the region, leave alone the biggest Indian Ocean power, the US.

In this context, reports that a Chinese naval combat force had entered the Indian Ocean Region to deter possible Indian intervention in the Maldives following the declaration of emergency on February 5 were clearly overblown. India denied it had any plan to intervene and an assurance to the effect was given by Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale later in February.

But the recent developments have put the close Indian-Maldivian security ties under strain. The Trilateral Security Cooperation involving India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives that was initiated in 2012 seems to be a dead letter, along with the ambitious goal of uniting the three countries in promoting maritime domain awareness of the seas around them.

We have to acknowledge that it is not easy to deal with small states in this era of instant communication. There are often big egos involved and genuine fears that they will be smothered by their bigger neighbours. But if the big state has bigger interests, then its responsibility for resolving the situation is also greater.

India has maintained its primacy in the region, often through the use of soft power, by funding hospitals and educational institutions, and offering scholarships and training programmes. But it has not hesitated to militarily intervene when its interests were at stake. However, New Delhi has learnt over the years that direct intervention often comes at a price. Sometimes, it is worth playing the longer game rather than acting in haste. A self-confident policy anchored in a clear understanding of national interest goes far in comparison to knee-jerk reactions occasioned by ego issues.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.