Don’t view Maldives from lens of sphere of influence
Published: Aug 12, 2018 09:10 PM

The Maldives' Ambassador in India, Ahmed Mohamed, told Reuters Friday that his country wants India to withdraw military helicopters and personnel following the expiry of an agreement in June. According to the ambassador, the two military helicopters provided by India were mainly used for medical evacuations, but "with the development of adequate infrastructure, facilities and resources," the island republic is now in a position to handle medical evacuations on its own. However, Maldives'  decision was interpreted as a move to "woo China."

Some Indian diplomats and security officials reportedly even claimed the Maldives government was scaling back all security and other collaborative agreements with India at the behest of China.

Maldives, an island chain with a population of roughly 400,000, lies off the Indian sub-continent. New Delhi has long regarded the South Asian island nation as its backyard and sphere of influence, with a strong desire to tighten its grip on the capital city of Malé and exclude other countries' influence. Maldives' participation in the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative, an approval of a free trade agreement with China, and cooperation with China on island development, have all been labeled by some Indian strategists as "anti-India but pro-China" gestures.

As an independent sovereign country, the island republic increasingly desires to rid itself of excessive Indian influence and maximize its interests by developing diplomatic ties with all major powers.

The request for the withdrawal of the helicopters and personnel is an embodiment of such a desire and sends an important message to all major powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Maldives doesn't want to become a certain country's sphere of influence or take sides between major powers, nor other South Asian and Southeast Asian smaller nations. China opposes a spheres-of-influence order of the kind that dominated the Cold War. The Belt and Road initiative was put forward on this basis. This is one of the reasons why the initiative has gained popularity among many neighboring countries. China has not attempted to interfere in others' domestic affairs in the process of implementing the initiative, nor does it intend to seek a sphere of influence. Those countries who participated in the initiative independently decided to join based on their own development demands.

Any attempt to seek or sustain a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region, such as India's desire to strengthen its control over the Maldives or the US Indo-Pacific strategy, is doomed to fail, as it runs counter to the development demands of countries in the region.

How India and China can work together to help the development of the Maldives is more worth pondering. What the Maldives seeks from China is not in the political or security arenas, but in the field of economic development. The Belt and Road initiative is an open platform. Indian companies can also benefit from the infrastructure projects under the initiative. The Maldives can be an opportunity for cooperation between China and India, as long as India can drop its unnecessary wariness.

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