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Politics

Unrest in the Maldives is becoming a proxy fight for China and India

Two giants take sides as island nation's government and opposition clash

NEW DELHI Political turmoil in the Maldives is threatening to become a major flashpoint between India and China as the regional giants support opposite sides in a fraught and rapidly evolving situation.

Known for its beach resorts, the Maldives is a small island nation located in the Indian Ocean. Trouble began there on Feb. 1, when the Supreme Court quashed the conviction of former President Mohamed Nasheed, who fled to the U.K. after being detained on terrorism charges. The court also ordered the reinstatement of 12 lawmakers who had been stripped of their seats.

But current President Abdulla Yameen rejected the decision. He declared a state of emergency on Feb. 5 and proceeded to arrest two Supreme Court judges as well as former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Yameen was likely concerned he could lose his grip on power should Nasheed run in the general election scheduled for this fall.

Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, speaks during an interview in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 29, 2017.   © Reuters

Three days later, the Maldivian president's office announced it had sent Economic Development Minister Mohamed Saeed to China, in a move likely aimed at proving Yameen has international support.

"The international community shall play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives, instead of further complicating the situation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters on Feb. 7. His words can be read both as a show of Beijing's support for the Maldives' leadership and as a warning to other countries against getting involved.

Speaking in Sri Lanka last month, Nasheed had told reporters that China was "busy buying up the Maldives" and that Yameen had opened the doors to Chinese investment without regard for procedure or transparency.

At a Feb. 8 news conference, Geng called those remarks "totally groundless," according to the Associated Press. "China's aid to the Maldives has no political strings attached and does not harm the Maldives' sovereignty and independence at all, still less jeopardize security in the Indian Ocean," he said.

"China supports the Maldives government to resolve disputes with all sides through dialogue," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly told Saeed during a meeting in Beijing the same day.

The Maldivian opposition, meanwhile, is counting on help from New Delhi. "We would like the Indian government to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and the political detainees," Nasheed, who heads the Maldivian Democratic Party, said in a statement on Feb. 6.

India sent its military to the Maldives during an attempted coup in 1988, in response to a request from the country's then-president. This time, it is the opposition calling for help from its neighbor. "The arrest of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and political figures are ... reasons for concern," India's Ministry of External Affairs said in a Feb. 6 statement.

Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2017.   © Reuters

The Indian navy has bolstered its regular patrols of the Indian Ocean, according to a government source. It has also deployed several smaller vessels from its southern military port of Kochi, which are now anchored about two and half hours away from the Maldivian capital of Male. "The vessels are waiting for radio communication so they can enter Male should anything happen that harms India's national interests," the government source said.

The ongoing turmoil could help China extend its influence over India's neighbors. The Yameen administration is bolstering economic ties with Beijing, signing a bilateral free trade agreement in December. At the same time, Chinese cash is driving infrastructure development in the Maldives. Over 70% of the country's external debt is owed to China, according to the Maldivian Democratic Party.

If the Maldives receives further assistance from Beijing to prop up the current government, "we won't be able to defy China at all for the next century," a local reporter said.

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