Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast said that the competition for international influence between India and China would intensify in 2018. The Maldives crisis offers a signpost of this dynamic, testing India's ability to shape regional politics as China deepens its economic and political links in South Asia.
Recent reports from Chinese media highlight that China has bolstered its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. In addition to the anti-piracy task force already operating in the western Indian Ocean, a group of Chinese military vessels have recently been deployed to the eastern part of the ocean. The increased Chinese presence could be due to previously scheduled naval exercises, but the timing suggests it's linked to the crisis in the Maldives.
Since Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen imposed a state of emergency on Feb. 5, India and China have been navigating their options for how to address the island nation's ongoing crisis. So far, India has refrained from sending troops to preserve its dwindling political influence in the Maldives, instead chosing a diplomatic path by asking the United Nations to pressure Yameen's government to restore democracy. China's foreign ministry, for its part, has reiterated its position of non-interference in Maldivian domestic politics, but that has not stopped Beijing from taking measures to improve its naval position.
An increased naval presence in the Indian Ocean gives China additional flexibility in responding to the crisis. Even if China is unlikely to use force against an Indian military intervention, the presence of its naval forces does serve to deter such action on India's part. Furthermore, China could leverage its vessels to extract its citizens from the Maldives if it becomes necessary.
China's forces in the Indian Ocean probably won't see any action, but they remind India of the increasing Chinese presence in the region. And that reminder will drive India to respond by bolstering its own naval forces. As it attempts to counter China, India will continue increasing its cooperation with the United States and other willing countries to push back against China's economic and diplomatic influence in the region.