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International Relations

Maldives lifts state of emergency, defusing China-India tensions

Politically turbulent island nation became a regional sea power flashpoint

The Maldives became a front in a power struggle between China and India in the Indian Ocean.

NEW DELHI -- The Maldives' president has lifted a 45-day-long state of emergency that had raised the threat of maritime clash between China and India over the tiny island nation.

President Abdulla Yameen ended the state of emergency Thursday "in an effort to promote normalcy," according to a statement from the president's office, "though there still exists a diminished threat to national security."

Yameen imposed the state of emergency Feb. 5 after the country's Supreme Court ordered the release of jailed opposition lawmakers. The Yameen government nullified the court's decision and had two justices arrested, saying they had conspired to overthrow the government.

Yameen said the situation posed an imminent threat to national security. On Feb. 20, the original 15-day order declared by presidential decree was extended another 30 days by the Maldives parliament.

Pressure from India and the U.S. seems partly responsible for bringing the state of emergency to an end. Calling the situation unconstitutional, ex-President Mohamed Nasheed, in exile and facing terrorism-related charges, called on India to send its military and a special envoy to free the political detainees. In response, India beefed up patrols in the Indian Ocean around the island nation.

According to Indian government sources, China sent several vessels, including missile destroyers, near the Maldives, apparently in response to a Maldivian envoy's visit to Beijing on Feb. 7. Yameen has counted on China for support, including investment, which has proven controversial.

But around Feb. 22, when these ships were around 30 nautical miles from India's vessels, the Indian Navy threatened action -- a warning shot and "war drill" -- if they were to come within 20 nautical miles. The Chinese fleet retreated to the southeast, stopping in waters 276 nautical miles from the Maldivian capital of Male.

India worked with the U.S. to bring the state of emergency to a swift end. In the event of a clash between China and India, the U.S. Navy is positioned to collaborate with their Indian counterparts by sending ships from Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island south of the Maldives. Australian naval vessels were also stationed around 380 nautical miles from Male in the Indian Ocean, according to the sources.

Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. agreed last November to team up on security under their so-called Indo-Pacific strategy. When February's standoff began, the partners had not even begun discussing the specifics of that framework.

Diminished prospects for Chinese military support may have led Yameen to scrap the state of emergency. Tensions between China and India over the island nation of 400,000 people look likely to abate for now, though both navies were maintaining the positions of their warships in the Indian Ocean as of March 22.

Around 400 people, including opposition politicians, activists and journalists, were arrested during the state of emergency, according to the leading opposition Maldivian Democratic Party. Independent news broadcaster Raajje TV went off the air on Feb. 8,  citing "the curtailing of the right to free media," after which three of its journalists were arrested.

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