Chinese Warships Deploy in Maldives Crisis

Chinese naval task force (file image)

Published Feb 20, 2018 4:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

China is strengthening its naval presence in the Indian Ocean in what appears to be an effort to fend off Indian interference in the Maldives, a small archepelagic nation best known for its ultra-luxury resort villas. 

The Maldives is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. On February 6, Maldives president Abdulla Yameen arrested two out of five of the supreme court's justices and declared martial law. The supreme court had ordered Yameen's government to release detained political opponents and to reinstate expelled members of the nation's legislature, but after the arrests, the remaining three members of the court reversed their decision. On Tuesday, Yameen extended the period of "national emergency" by another 30 days. 

Foreign analysts described the crisis as another step in a return to the one-party rule once exercised by Yameen's half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for thirty years. The Maldives' biggest neighbor, India, was swift to criticize Yameen's disregard for democratic norms. "It is important that Maldives quickly returns to the path of democracy and the rule of law," the Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

The Maldives are strategically located in the center of the Indian Ocean, about 600 nm southwest of India's southern tip. India has intervened in the Maldives' affairs before - its paratroopers helped put down an attempted coup against Gayoom's government in 1988 - and the recent unrest has raised questions over whether it might get involved militarily a second time. 

Beijing appears to have anticipated this possibility. Last week, the state-aligned paper Global Times warned that “If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi." Sina.com.cn reported Saturday that there are presently 11 PLA(N) surface warships in the Indian Ocean: a training group that has just entered the East Indian Ocean has two Type 052C destroyers, one Type 054A frigates, one Tpe 071 amphib and three supply ships; and a convoy escort detachment recently passed into the Southern Indian ocean with one Type 052C destroyer, one Type 054A frigate and one supply ship. The outlet included a capability analysis comparing the Chinese force to the entire Indian Navy, along with a reminder that "the Chinese Foreign Ministry has made it clear that other countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives."

Chinese relations with the Maldives have strengthened under President Yameen. China is now the archipelago's largest source of tourist traffic; it has funded large infrastructure projects on the islands, including a new 1,000-unit housing development; Chinese warships called at Male, the capital, for the first time last August; and China recently became the Maldives' first-ever free trade agreement partner. Yameen has also signed a memorandum pledging cooperation with China's sweeping "Belt and Road" initiative.

The cost of Chinese assistance may prove to be steep. Like Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the Maldives is deeply indebted to China, and it may eventually come under pressure from Beijing to give up large assets - like land or port facilities - in return for debt forgiveness.