22 March 2018

Water Wars: Conflict in the Maldives Between Major Powers

By Timothy Saviola, Nathan Swire

India and China have become entangled in a constitutional crisis in the Maldives, with both countries brandishing their navies while attempting to come to a diplomatic solution. The crisis began on Feb. 1 when the Maldives Supreme Court ordered the release of all political prisoners, citing violations of due process in their trials. The released prisoners included multiple members of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), and the order also covered former president Mohamad Nasheed, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2015 but is now living in exile in London. In response to this ruling, President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency, arresting members of the Supreme Court, dispatching police to keep order, and suspending parts of the constitution. However, the Maldives government has stated it does not intend to extent the state of emergency past March 22. The Maldives are scheduled to hold presidential elections this summer.

The crisis has international implications because both India and China have interests in the islands. Though the Maldives had traditionally had a close relationship with India, in recent years the island-state has pushed aside Indian projects in favor of Chinese investment, including cancelling a $500 million contract for an Indian consortium to build an international airport. Chinese tourists now make up the largest portion of visitors to the islands, and in December 2017—two months prior to the State of Emergency—the Maldives signed a free trade agreement with China as part of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” project under the Belt and Road Initiative. Notably, the Maldive Parliament’s approval of the free trade agreement occurred in an emergency session with no members of the opposition party present, drawing condemnation from the absent members.

So far, India has chosen not to intervene directly in the crisis, instead expressing its displeasure at the president’s actions and attempting to come to a diplomatic resolution, despite a request from former president Nasheed to intervene militarily against the current government. The Maldives government has told India to stay out of their “internal matter,” citing its own lack of interference in the Kashmir question. Meanwhile, China requested that the international community “play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives,” and stay out of what it termed the Maldives “internal affairs.”

India’s policies are not without a show of force. Immediately following the state of emergency declaration, the government deployed transport planes to a position of readiness and ordered paratroopers to remain on standby. It also launched a large-scale tri-service military exercise, “Paschim Lehar” on Feb. 12, which included warships, submarines and an aircraft carrier.

In turn, on Feb. 20 a fleet of Chinese warships, including multiple destroyers and a frigate, entered the Indian Ocean for the first time in four years. China claimed its entrance into the Ocean was unrelated to the crisis, telling Reuters the warships were engaged in “normal exercises for this year ... not aimed at any third party.” Though China’s intervention was over 2,500 nautical miles from the Maldives and the Chinese warships quickly returned to the South China Sea, the naval deployment led to some consternation in the Indian media.

Some outside experts have argued that China’s incursion into the Indian Ocean is the reason India has chosen not to intervene militarily. However, diplomacy continues between the parties, with Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visiting China at the end of February to conduct bilateral talks on multiple issues, including the Maldives, though the precise details of what they discussed remain unclear.

With the state of emergency set to expire on March 22 after 45 days, none of the parties involved seem ready to take decisive action, but by no means has the crisis been resolved.

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