The recent developments in Maldives – first the removal of the head of state in what was apparently a coup, then the cancellation of GMR’s contract for managing the Abuja airport by the Maldivian government – are part of a larger geopolitical game between Asia’s two great powers – China and India.
Strategically, India’s greatest advantage over its powerful neighbor to the north, is the plateau of Tibet and the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas that separates Chinese-controlled Tibet from northern India. Until now India’s coastlines, which are far south of these borders, were considered generally secure against Chinese attack because of their large distance from the Chinese mainland to the north and the barrier of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal protecting the coasts on the south-western and south-eastern flanks of the Indian subcontinent.
China has made several moves in an attempt to negate the strategic value of the oceanic buffer guarding the lower subcontinent. They have acquired the use of a deep-water port along Pakistan’s southern coast straddling the Indian Ocean and are taking steps to acquire similar capability in Bangladesh which would give them a gateway into the Bay of Bengal and also bring the Chinese navy perilously close to India’s eastern metropolis of Kolkotta and the mineral heartlands of Jharkand and Chattisgarh.
Chinese military assistance played a significant part in the Sri Lankan army’s efforts to defeat the Tamil rebel army of the LTTE and to bring an end to the decades long civil war in that country. It would be safe to say that under the civilian dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka is essentially a vassal state of China.
With the potential acquisition of a military foothold in the Maldives, the Chinese encirclement of the Indian coast will be complete. If India allows this to happen, either due to naivete regarding China’s long-term plans or due to willful negligence on the parts of our security establishment, then India will have lost a major strategic battle against China before the battle even began.
Empires rise and empires fall. But what happens in-between depends to a a large-extent on the wisdom and foresight of an empire’s rulers. India, at present, is a vast nation state stretching from Punjab to Nagaland and from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir – occupying the major portion of the fertile plains of the subcontinent. Continuing economic and social development will lead to greater integration between India’s various regions and this, still young, nation state will move towards becoming an empire in its own right capable of projecting power not only along its own borders but also at great distances from its own territories.
In such a future, the geopolitics of the Asian part of the globe will be determined by Chinese and Indian interests. Chinese military planners believe that India’s role in such a future can be severely curtailed and that India’s military and economic influence outside its own borders can be contained by a strategic encirclement of the Indian subcontinent. India must not and cannot allow that to happen.
In addition, in order to prevent the spread of fascist and dictatorial governments around the globe under the watchful eyes of nations such as China and Russia, democracies such as India and the U.S. must work together to help nurture fragile republics which are trying to walk the path of democracy. An India, strategically surrounded by China’s forces, would be unable to play a strong role in such a project. India’s own democratic project, let alone its potential to nurture other democracies, would come under great internal attack from domestic faux-nationalistic politicians and parties and leave us vulnerable to a slide towards fascism, in the event that the Indian public begins to realize the depth of China’s encirclement of India’s boundaries.
At present only a military intervention by India in the Maldives will salvage the situation. Of course, such a move smacks of hypocrisy from those who preach democracy and will be loudly protested by the Chinese. But if India does nothing, soon enough Chinese forces will have established an official presence in Maldives thus ending the possibility of even a military intervention for attacking a territory under Chinese protection would then be construed as attacking China itself.