Chinese military base near the Maldives in the Indian ocean could soon turn into a reality if the latest developments are to be believed. A military base by arch-foe China in the Indian Ocean region near the Maldives could further fuel Indian concerns over ‘string of pearls”, explains Nitin J Ticku while talking to the EurAsian Times.
For India, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the countries located in the region including the Maldives are of strategic importance and New Delhi considers them as a part of its sphere of influence. However, the latest reports show that India has a major threat developing right at its Achilles.
Can China Construct A Military Bases In The Indian Ocean?
According to the latest satellite images, and earlier reports by the EurAsian Times, the Chinese leased Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu Island has undergone a massive facelift. The island, leased until 2066 by China from the Maldivian government for $4 million, has seen a dramatic increase in size from 38,000 sq. metres to 100,000 sq meters and is undergoing rapid construction as well.
The construction on this island as well as the face-lift mirrors Chinese actions on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. After denying any militarization ambitions, Beijing did acknowledge creating a military base on the island and justified its actions by saying that it ‘’has a natural right as a sovereign nation. ‘’
Chinese Military Base A Threat To India?
According to Nitin J Ticku, an analyst with the EurAsian Times, the rapid construction on the island indicates a strong possibility of Chinese establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean region.
This threatens India on a two-fold basis. First, India considers the countries in the Indian Ocean including the Maldives to fall under its sphere of influence. It has always maintained friendly relations with all countries in the region and a possible Chinese military base threatens this status quo.
Secondly, the geographical proximity of a base at Feydhoo Islands poses a direct threat to Indian security and freedom of movement in the Indian Ocean. If established, the Chinese military base would be only 900 km away from Minicoy Island in the Union Territory and close to 1000kms from the Indian mainland.
Nitin J Ticku fears that the Chinese military outpost could be used to dock nuclear submarines in the region or collect hydrological data to track sub-surface operations of India like deployment submarines.
Shipping vessels using the strategic route could also face threats of bullying and at the time of conflict, Beijing would be able to control and limit activities.
A military base in the Maldives would tilt the geopolitical balance towards China. Currently, India does not have any military bases in the area and has only established radar outposts or surveillance systems in Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius.
To top it all, India is already facing increased Chinese hostilities in the Indian Ocean region. Beijing regularly sends research and survey ships and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) to map different parts of the water body. The presence of the 35th Fleet of the Chinese Navy has added to the Indian woes.
Chinese Military Base In Maldives & String of Pearls ::
Chinese ambitions to acquire a military base in the Maldives can be explained via the String of Pearl’s theory. The theory refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities developed by Beijing in countries in the Indian Ocean region stretching from the Chinese mainland to the Middle East.
The Chinese government has vehemently denied that such a strategy exists but its actions say otherwise. Beijing has access to outposts in strategic locations in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti.
In Myanmar, China has control over Kyaukpyu port, a commercial maritime facility that can be doubled as a military facility should conflict ever arise. China also maintains a naval intelligence unit at a base in Coco Islands, near the UT of Andaman and Nicobar Island.
In Sri Lanka, a Chinese company has leased the Hambantota Port for 99 years as part of a deal with the government. New Delhi fears that the port could eventually be used by Beijing to dock submarines. Similar fears are shared for the port in Gwadar in Pakistan which was also developed by the Chinese under CPEC.
With ports in all three countries, China is now left without access to an outpost in the Indian Ocean and the speculated military base near the Maldives could change this. If and when the base is established, China would have surrounded India on all three sides in the Indian Ocean.
Chinese Reviving Ties With Indian Ocean Nations ::
China’s efforts to woo the Maldives is evident even in the times of COVID-19 crisis. Male received its first shipment of aid to tackle coronavirus from Beijing. It included protective masks, surgical masks, gloves, stethoscopes, goggles and protective suits.
Nitin J Tikcu says that the Chinese are trying to revive its relationship with the Maldives which changed in 2018. Longtime China supporter Abdulla Yameen was ousted in the general election and China-sceptic Ibrahim Mohammed Solih was voted into power.
Outstanding debt of around $1.5 billion (2018) gives China leverage to have its way in the Maldives. So far, Beijing has seized 17 islands through an “opaque leasing process”, which means that projects started as real estate projects before turning into something else. Even if China was to turn the Feydhoo Islands into a military base, Maldives does not have the firepower to stop it.
While the situation in the Maldives may not outrightly favour India, New Delhi recently announced that regardless of the COVID-19 crisis, the Indian Navy remains battle-ready. Subtler messages were sent to Beijing as Indian Navy flexed its maritime might with naval destroyers guided navy ships carrying Indian citizens home on repatriation voyages.
India is not leaving any stone unturned to turn the tide in its direction in the Indian Ocean region. Under the repatriation mission, India is also assisting Maldives, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius by offering medical aid, supplies and health professionals to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and keep its influence intact.
The Indian Ocean has the potential to become the new theatre of conflict between India and China. Already engaged in the higher-ups of the Himalayas near Ladakh and Sikkim, Maldives could be the next location for a standoff between the two Asian giants.