When Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen imposed a state of emergency in his country in February, India and China were both quick to react. But while India demanded that the Maldives restore democracy, China asked other countries to practice “noninterference.” This was a veiled warning to New Delhi and the latest round in a growing battle for influence between the two Asian giants in a new theater: the Indian Ocean islands.
For decades, the Himalayas — where India and China fought a war in 1962 — and other land neighbors have been the focus of that competition. The Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros fell in a part of the Indian Ocean that India viewed effectively as its extended backyard, and where China had no historic influence. The countries that did have influence — France, Britain and the U.S. — were more friends than threats to India.
But spurred by its rapid economic growth and expanding geopolitical interests, China is reaching out to the Indian Ocean islands like never before. A worried India is rushing to counter that influence, and small countries best known for their beaches and turquoise water are finding themselves at the center of what some analysts are comparing to the Cold War.
When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
Last May, China convinced Mauritius to sign on to its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast connectivity project. Weeks later, New Delhi inked a maritime security pact with Mauritius. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi launched the BRI in Africa from Madagascar, and in February, India decided to do one better: It sent its president for a first-ever visit to Madagascar to woo the nation. India, meanwhile, has struck a deal with Seychelles to build a military base there. In tiny Comoros, China has built a new Parliament building, while India is offering soft loans. And in the Maldives, the two are openly squaring off — China backs the current regime, while India is more comfortable with former president Mohamed Nasheed.
“I believe it will get worse — probably reminiscent of Cold War–type jostling for influence,” says David Brewster, an Indian Ocean strategic affairs analyst and professor at the Australian National University in Canberra. “There will be pressure to line up on one side or another.”
For the Indian Ocean islands, there are opportunities and concerns in this competition. “They can play India and China off each other for benefits,” says Mohan Guruswamy, founder and chairman of the New Delhi–based Centre for Policy Alternatives. “If they do it carefully, they can gain.” But “if they lean too heavily one way,” he cautions, “then the other will try to topple the regime.”
The risks are real, says Anit Mukherjee, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. The island states welcome the attention they’re getting, he says, “but there is also a fear that they will get caught up in great power rivalry with possibly disastrous consequences.”
Jonathan Ward, an India-China relations specialist who runs the Atlas Organization, a Washington, D.C.–based consultancy, says he’s heard the same saying repeated to him in country after country in the Indian Ocean: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” No one wants the risk of war over their territory, he says.
Some analysts, like Guruswamy, warn that India risks worrying too much about “every Chinese move” in the Indian Ocean. China, he argues, needs to “dump” its excess capital somewhere, and smaller nations are easy bets. Sure, Beijing is building bases in the Indian Ocean — Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan as well as in Djibouti — but India’s naval strength in the Indian Ocean significantly outweighs China’s, says Guruswamy.
In many ways, the increasing competition between India and China is also natural for two aspiring powers rising simultaneously. To view India’s recent efforts only as a response to China would be a mistake, suggests Mukherjee. It has its own neighborhood ambitions. And India has an advantage over China in its friendships with other major democracies — from Japan in the East to the U.S., France and the U.K. in the West — points out Ward. In Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros, the French with their historic presence there and the U.S. with its base on the island of Diego Garcia stand a better chance at stopping Chinese military expansion than India, argues Guruswamy.
But tensions are also playing out much closer than those relatively distant Indian Ocean islands off the coast of Africa. In the Maldives, Nasheed, the former president, has accused Beijing of buying off small islands. China is backing the current Yameen regime, while “the Maldivian opposition is counting on help from New Delhi,” says Vidhan Pathak, professor of African studies at University of Delhi.
Echoes of Nasheed’s allegations are playing out in Seychelles too, with roles reversed. In 2015, Seychelles allowed New Delhi to build a strategic facility on one of its islands. That pact was revised this year amid local concerns and placed before the country’s Parliament for ratification. But details of the pact were leaked online, sparking charges that India was purchasing the island. India has denied the allegation, and the Seychelles government has withdrawn the agreement from its legislature.
To ignore China’s growing influence would be a mistake for India and other democratic powers in the region, argue many experts. As is, says Brewster, “too often, Delhi only takes notice when there is a problem.” India can’t compete alone with China’s economic clout in smaller nations, says Ward. But a carefully built economic partnership between major global democracies could offer Indian Ocean islands an alternative, he says. That’s important, cautions Ward, because China, like every power before it, will look to increasingly deploy its military abroad to protect its overseas investments.
“It’s a real competition, make no mistake,” Ward says. The elephants are sizing each other up, the Indian Ocean islands in their shadow.
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