Why India should worry about Chinese presence in Maldives

China is spreading its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and has chosen the tiny nation of islands-Maldives to do so. This is a great cause of worry for India, simply for the reason that Maldives lies in the important shipping route that includes the East-West shipping route that transports oil from Middle East to East Asia.

Though Maldives and India have had a long friendly relationship for hundreds of years due to its proximity (Just an hour’s flight from Trivandrum) the increasing Chinese presence in the archipelago is making New Delhi uneasy and for the right reasons.

India already has to deal with the US base in Diego Garcia and now China is increasing its investments in the Maldives. The ultimate aim would be to set up a military base at the tip of India. Military experts have all along cautioned the Chinese moves. Though the Chinese government says that investments are primarily in maritime infrastructure and are done for commercial gains but if one goes by their track record, the Chinese end up expanding to their naval strength. For instance, Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

The Chinese inroads into Maldives have been rapid in the last five years. From the establishment of the Chinese Embassy in the 1.5 sq.km capital Male’ to the contract of developing the Male airport to Chinese Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUGG). It may be noted that initially the contract was given to GMR Group an Indian company but as governments changed, the contract fell apart. China is also building Gadhoo port in the Southern Atolls.

The Maldivian economy is based on fishing and tourism but with globalisation and greater dependence on oil and other goods to be transported from the East to the West, the strategically located Maldives band in the middle of the Indian Ocean has gained currency and all countries including the US, China, UK and Russia are interested in the Maldives.

With just 200 of the 1,300 islands inhabited, the Maldivian government sees a chance to make the most of the uninhabited islands. As a result it ratified a legislation to allow foreigners with investment of more than a billion to own land within a specified site with a condition that at least 70 per cent of the area they develop is reclaimed from the sea. (There have been reports that due to global warming several low lying islands in the Maldives would go underwater by 2050.)

Whenever India raises questions on the growing Chinese presence, the Chinese government is quick to respond saying that it assures to keep the Indian Ocean demilitarised zone. However, it has been seen in Sri Lanka as well as Pakistan that China initially expands by investing in infrastructure in a foreign country and later strengthens its military might.

Maldives has always known as a country that raises its voice of the ill effects of climate change now wants to transform itself into becoming a major force in the Indian Ocean and transform into a trade hub and an important trade and transit port.

Maldives being a small country with just a population of 4 to 5 lakhs with the majority of the population living in Male the capital, the clout it would have to stop big powers from marching ahead with their hidden agenda is a question that is on everyone’s mind. More so India’s.