A tropical nation is putting India's foreign policy ambitions to the test

Key Points
  • India must decide whether it wants to send troops to the Maldives, which is currently under a state of emergency.
  • How New Delhi responds to the crisis will test Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy resolve in Asia.
  • Modi's decision must also factor in rising Chinese investment and radicalism on the island-nation.
The Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa in the Maldives.
Soo Hon Keong | Getty Images

A simmering political crisis in the Maldives, a luxury travel hotspot, has evolved into a litmus test for India's foreign policy intentions in Asia.

The former leader of the Muslim-majority nation, famed for idyllic beaches but currently under a state of emergency, has requested New Delhi send troops. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision on the matter could ultimately represent how his country intends to lead in a region with rising Chinese influence and extremism.

"If India cannot even safeguard its primary interests so close to its mainland, then it can hardly be trusted to become a net security provider for the wider region," Rumel Dahiya, a retired Indian army brigadier, said in a recent note published by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Since authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013, rule of law in the Maldives has steadily deteriorated, but the situation hit a boiling point last week. Tightening his grip on power, Yameen jailed high-ranking members of the judiciary, including Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed, as well as former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

That prompted former leader Mohamed Nasheed, widely credited for bringing democracy to the archipelago, to ask India for help. In a Twitter post on Feb. 6, Nasheed requested that New Delhi send an envoy, backed by the Indian military, and called on Washington to halt any transactions through American banks tied to Yameen's regime.

It looks like the India-China rivalry is spreading to another front

Like most South Asian countries, the Maldives depends on India — the region's dominant power — for security and trade. In 1988, New Delhi sent troops to the island-nation to foil a coup and many Indian defense hawks believe it remains India's responsibility to safeguard Maldivian politics — "the stakes are the highest for India," Dahiya described.

Modi's decision however, may ultimately rest on external factors such as Beijing and the Islamic State.

The China element

Yameen, whose poor human rights record has been criticized by the United Nations and the White House, has been cozying up to Beijing in recent years, marking a defined detour from the country's historic reliance on India.

Under the continent-spanning Belt and Road program, the world's second-largest economy has been heavily investing in South Asia, including in the construction of a bridge and an airport runway in the Maldives.

Fears are now rampant that projects funded by Beijing along the Belt and Road will translate into increased Chinese political influence. Last year, the Asian giant formally launched its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. And there are concerns that the communist state may do the same in Pakistan, Sri Lanka as well as the Maldives, located near major shipping and energy routes.

"From Beijing's point of view, the Maldives could offer a critical naval port and air base to help safeguard these important sea lines of communication," political intelligence firm Stratfor said in a recent note.

The under-construction China Maldives Friendship Bridge is pictured near the city of Male on February 8, 2018.
AFP/Getty Images

That's not a desirable scenario for Modi, who aims to tighten relations with Asian neighbors under his "Act East" foreign policy. India fears Chinese investments in the Maldives may presage an eventual military presence, so it essentially wants a sympathetic leader, such as Nasheed, in power to advance Indian interests, Statfor explained.

Sending in troops, however, could work against that goal.

"[It] would undoubtedly reinforce New Delhi's image as a domineering hegemon unafraid to use force against its smaller neighbors," Statfor said.

"Such a reaction could tilt the regional political scales in China's favor, which already has benefited from anti-Indian sentiment at play during December elections in Nepal," it added.

Islamic State is a factor, too

An Indian military presence could also fuel religious extremism on the archipelago.

For decades, the Maldives was a moderate Islamic nation, but in recent years, it's shifted toward the ultra-conservative ideology of Salafism, an Islamic movement. The nation now reportedly supplies South Asia's highest per capita contribution of foreign fighters to terror networks in Syria and Iraq.

"Any intervention by India can be spun into an anti-Islamic rhetoric in the island, by interests inimical to Indian influence in the Indian Ocean," New Delhi-based research group Observer Research Foundation said in a recent note.

"Yameen [knows] this far too well, and might just be waiting for India to take the misstep — it would help his cause in cementing his role as a defender and protector of the faith."