Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast emphasized the likely increase in animosity between China and India that would occur as India seeks to challenge Chinese influence. As the political crisis in the Maldives unfolds, China and India will likely respond with efforts to pull the country closer into their respective spheres of influence.
The Maldives are facing a political crisis that has implications not only for the tropical nation, but also for the regional rivalry between India and China. On Feb. 5, President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency and ordered the arrests of high-ranking government figures such as Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years and is, incidentally, Yameen's half-brother.
Yameen's sweeping directive is a response to the Supreme Court's Feb. 2 ruling that overturned the conviction of — and ordered a retrial for — nine political convicts, including Yameen's exiled predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed. In addition, the court ordered Yameen's government to reinstate 12 members of parliament who were dismissed for defecting to the opposition. The Supreme Court reversed its decision on Feb. 6 after two of its judges were arrested, but the ruling to reinstate members to parliament still stands. If implemented, the reinstatement will end Yameen's parliamentary majority.
The smallest and least populous country in South Asia, the Maldives are strategically located in the Indian Ocean astride key shipping and energy routes. The country's strategic location has made it another battleground for China and India as the two nuclear powers compete for influence in the Indian Ocean. In December, Yameen met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to sign a free trade agreement aimed at boosting Maldives fishery exports to the world's second-largest economy. And Yameen is overseeing Chinese infrastructure projects aimed at diversifying the Maldivian economy such as a 7,000-home housing project, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, and an $800 million expansion to the Male international airport.
India's biggest concern, however, is the possibility that Chana will build a naval base in the Maldives, which has already hosted three Chinese warships. Such a move would feed India's fear of becoming surrounded by Chinese influence, particularly as Beijing continues to push forward with vast infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan under the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Nasheed, the exiled former president of the Maldives, has called for India to intervene — backed by the force of its military — to resolve the crisis and, presumably, provide him with an avenue toward regaining political power. Such a move would have precedent; India intervened militarily in the Maldives in 1988 to stop an attempted coup. India is unlikely to start sending troops, but the request and precedent highlight India's potential role as a major player in the tropical nation's politics.
For now, both the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries have advised their citizens to avoid traveling to the Maldives. As the crisis unfolds, New Delhi and Beijing will be watching carefully for opportunities to increase their influence across the region.