Sahibzada M Saeed
THE recent development in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which has discomforted India is the Maldivian decision to ask India to take back its troops and military hardware from Maldives in given time period. For decades India enjoyed its sphere of influence in Maldives, an archipelago which sits near the world’s busiest Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC) in the Indian Ocean. The policy making circles in New Delhi are considering this move of an island nation on the consent of Beijing. Here it is important to mention that most recently Maldives and China have signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen’s visit to Beijing. Different experts on IOR are considering this FTA a stunning blow for Indian Influence. Under the FTA, China and Maldives “would reduce the tariffs of over 95 percent of the goods to zero. They are also committed to opening the service market such as finance, healthcare and tourism and agreed to cooperate practically in key areas,” China said in a statement. According to Maldives’ Ministry for Economic Development, although the country will lose $4 million in import duty revenue in 2018 because of a tariff waiver on Chinese goods, it will earn higher revenue from the goods and services tax due to “trade creation” and “trade expansion” once the FTA comes into force. The FTA is also expected to boost Maldives’ fishing industry. Indeed it was to open up new markets to Maldivian fish traders that Maldives decided to pursue an FTA with China, its government said.
Maldives an archipelago of around 1200 islands in Indian Ocean has much strategic significances by dent of its geographical proximity to Indo-Pacific SLOC through which two-thirds of the world’s oil passes. Maldives is also located just 700 km from India’s Lakshadweep island chain and around 1,200 km from the Indian mainland. Indo-Maldives relations have centuries’ long history. In modern age the bilateral relations grew when Maldives got independence from British colonial rule in 1965 and strengthened in the 1980s and 1990s. For building Maldives’ economy and establishing political structure India played a quite vibrant role. India supported the authoritarian rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and make him to remain in power. In current geopolitical scenario, Indian Ocean is the top agenda of Modi government. In international affairs, IOR has pivotal importance with great potential to become the most important source of new global growth. 21st century maritime Silk Road has created rivalry between China and America and its regional allies especially India, for maintaining their hegemonic power in IOR. When cold war ended in 1990, there was unipolar structure in the world. America was the sole and strong power in terms of economic and military strength and remained hegemonic state of world. But on the basis of speedy economic growth and higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Chinese economy has exceeded the American economy in the first decade of 21st century. Chinese energy demands are highest compared to all major countries of the world and as its local energy resources are very limited so it became No 1 energy importer of the world.
On the other hand, India considers itself the pre-eminent power in IOR. The situation in the region and especially in Maldives is clearly an important phase in the evolution of Indian thinking on the region. India is looking Chinese ventures in IOR in purely strategic terms. Nehru Doctrine also assert that India will not tolerate any power in IOR. In other words from Cap of Good hope (South Africa) to Strait of Lombok (Indonesia) the whole Indian Ocean is India’s ocean and any extra region power will respect Indian consent. Perhaps India is maximizing its geo-strategic and geo-economic influence on different small states in Indian Ocean. Along with it, India’s Act East Policy has certain compatibility with American Indo-Pacific Policy. In maritime domain, US Indo-Pacific Command and Indian Navy have signed many MoUs for cooperation and coordination to counter Chinese military and economic hegemony in the region. In June this year, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, announced that the US Pacific Command will now be called the US Indo-Pacific Command. The name change, seen by observers as an important tactical move for strengthening Indo-US naval ties. In the context of resent diplomatic unrest between India and Maldives it is evident that Indian rule of IOR is passing from a rough and bumpy track. Basically, India is not fearful of the Maldives. India is fearful of the China’s increasing influence in the region through its investments in the Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. If China succeeded to materialize its plans in the region then China would be the power that will challenge India economically and militarily.
– The writer is IR analyst based in Islamabad.