Attempts by the president of Maldives to crush the country’s democratic institutions is a tragedy for the tiny island state, but its implications go far beyond its shores.
We have seen Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, backed by his security forces, take complete power over the country. He has closed parliament, defied rulings from his country’s highest court and imprisoned his chief justice and any leaders that have dared to oppose him. In his “self-coup”, he has overridden the constitution and tried to destroy the rule of law. For years, Yameen has repeatedly tried to strike down lawful opposition against his rule. Whether he succeeds this time remains to be seen.
But these local political developments also have a broader impact. There is growing strategic rivalry among major powers across the Indian Ocean, and the Maldives is located squarely in the middle of it.
Could foreign powers have been behind the coup? How might it affect the regional balance of power? What are the options of other countries to respond?
There is no indication as yet that any of the big powers with interests in the region – India, the United States and China – played an active role in these events. But the outcome of the coup could have a major impact on them, and they are watching events closely.
India, the largest power in the region, essentially serves as the region’s peacekeeper. In the past, India has intervened in its neighbours’ affairs when its security or regional stability was under threat. In 1988, when the Maldives capital came under attack from a band of mercenaries, Indian paratroopers came to the rescue of the government and quickly restored order.
Maldives opposition leaders, such as former president Mohamed Nasheed, are pushing for India to again intervene to restore democracy. However, Delhi’s biggest worry about the Maldives is not the current threat to democracy, but its tilt towards China, especially the possibility that Beijing may establish a naval and airbase there. There has even been talk of China building artificial islands near the Maldives, just as it has in the South China Sea. A Chinese base in the Maldives might upset the naval balance of the whole Indian Ocean, potentially threatening mainland India, as well as the nearby US base at Diego Garcia.
There can be no doubt that Delhi would like to get rid of Yameen, but its options are actually pretty limited. Any overt military move by India to unseat Yameen would be unprecedented. India generally adheres to the trappings of international law and it traditionally opposes regime change.
Delhi also can’t afford to impose sanctions or take other actions while allowing Yameen to remain in power, and risk further alienation. Delhi’s pro-democracy sanctions against Myanmar after the 1988 military coup were seen as a major mistake, pushing the regime into the arms of China for decades. And India’s blockade of Nepal in 2015 over a constitutional dispute similarly pushed that country closer to China.
In short, it will be difficult for Delhi to unseat Yameen or to decisively turn him away from China. As long as Yameen does not overstep the mark by overplaying his relationship with China, he has considerable leverage with Delhi. However, the entry of Chinese security forces into the equation would likely change this calculus.
The events in the Maldives should also have Beijing worried. Yameen has been a close friend to China, awarding several big projects to Chinese companies including the controversial Male airport project. But the turmoil, which could ultimately end in Yameen’s overthrow, also points to the fragility of many of China’s relationships in the region.
Myanmar’s move towards democracy in 2015 led it to cancel several high-profile Chinese projects and take a more balanced approach to its relationships with Western countries and India. In that same year, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s authoritarian leader was thrown out of office in surprise election. Rajapaksa was closely identified with many highly controversial Chinese projects including Hambantota Port and the Colombo Port City, and his departure put these projects in doubt.
Yameen’s close relations with Beijing means that many Chinese projects in the Maldives could be reconsidered in the event of his overthrow. The lesson for Beijing is that dealing with autocrats may be more efficient than dealing with the democratic process, but it brings its own risks.
The political turmoil in the Maldives presents significant risks for both India and China, and both countries may have only limited ability to steer events. Although Yameen will no doubt try to play the two countries against each other, he needs to be careful not to overstep the mark. India will not countenance a Chinese security presence in the Maldives.
David Brewster is a senior analyst with the National Security College, Australian National University, and author of ‘India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean’