The political crisis in Maldives and the ensuing struggle for influence between China and India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is perhaps the most important development this fortnight. This struggle is emblematic of a larger clash between the two Asian powers which is being manifested in domestic political divisions in small nations like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Earlier this month, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and imprisoned the Chief Justice and other judges of the Supreme Court (who had ordered the release of the latter) and imposed a state of emergency. Mr Yameen is quite obviously close to China and has invited Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in the small island nation as part of the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative. This crisis has led to a furore in India as defence analysts are calling for the Indian government to intervene (former Maldivian President Mohammad Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, has pleaded for the same). India fears that the Chinese intend to entangle the Maldives in a ‘debt trap’ with the intention of extracting political and strategic benefits similar to what they did in Sri Lanka where they managed to secure ownership of the Hambantota port because the government was unable to repay the Chinese debt.

In response to Nasheed’s call for help to the Indian government, President Yameen sent envoys to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for their support in the political crisis. Meanwhile, China issued a warning to India not to interfere in the affairs of the island-state. India, on the other hand, has been grappling with the inherent dilemmas of its foreign policy orientation in terms of balancing between its need to assert regional power in the IOR and its reluctance to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries (especially to protect or promote democracy). While India has sought UN mediation in helping to defuse the crisis, defence analysts in India rue the government’s inability to take a strong stand for preserving a core interest of Indian foreign policy. Some have questioned India’s political intent and capability in matching its claims of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.

At the time of writing, there were reports of a sighting of PLA-N warships in the Eastern Indian Ocean region, which Indian analysts interpreted as a show of intent from China to India vis-à-vis the Maldives situation. In response, India is reported to have deployed eight of its own warships to keep an eye on the entry points to the IOR. Significantly, the India has embarked on a tri-service maritime exercise in the Arabian Sea, which includes ships, submarines and aircrafts. On the other hand, refuting India’s subtle warning not to extend the emergency, the Maldivian government has extended the same by 30 days, over which India has expressed its deep ‘dismay’. It goes without saying that the situation is very volatile.

Sri Lanka is buzzing with the possibility of the return of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to power as the state assembly was dissolved last week and snap elections announced. This has added to India’s worries of another pro-China ruler in its neighbourhood. (Rajapaksa was responsible for trapping Sri Lanka in China’s debt in the form of massive investment in building the Hambantota port.) Furthermore, the election of the pro-China K P Oli government in Nepal last month has dealt another blow to the Indian government, which is beginning to dread a realistic prospect of Chinese encroachment and encirclement.

There are speculations that Australia, Japan, India and the United States could enter into an agreement to collaborate on a joint regional infrastructure project as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. If seen through fruition, this could further strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad that these ‘like-minded democracies’ have been trying to build for a decade, to serve as a hedging strategy against growing Chinese ambition in the Indo-Pacific region.

A significant development closer home, in this context especially, is the appointment of the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, as the US ambassador to Australia. The move is rightly being seen as President Trump’s foremost endorsement to the idea of the Indo-Pacific and an indication of the strategic intent outlined in the US National Security Strategy last month.

On the economic front, Sri Lanka’s free trade agreements with Singapore earlier this month and prospects of another such agreement with Bangladesh and Thailand are leading to optimism for a more integrated Asia-Pacific region.

The Winter Olympics taking place in South Korea has turned out to be historic in geopolitical terms with North Korea’s successful attempts at diplomacy. Kim Jong Un’s decision to participate in the event and his sister’s presence at the opening ceremony are being seen as North Korea’s outreach to their arch-enemy neighbour. Experts believe that this is part of a Kim’s strategy to ‘drive a wedge’ between South Korea and the US in order to ease sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom and already, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has delayed military exercises and had been reported to have conditionally agreed to a bilateral summit in North Korea (he rescinded on this later, saying that the time was not yet ripe for an Inter-Korean summit).

On another note, the death of famed human rights lawyer and activist, Asma Jahangir has dealt a major blow to the human rights movement in Pakistan. An ardent liberal and political critic, she had worked tirelessly for the cause of a secular and democratic Pakistan; her efforts at building bridges between Pakistan and India had won her friends across the border too.

Significance for Australia

Clearly, Australia has major stakes in the developments taking place in the IOR and the tussle for power and influence between China and India. With the Foreign Policy White Paper reinforcing Australia’s commitment to a free and secure Indo-Pacific, prospects of a possible military showdown in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, not to mention the wariness vis-à-vis China’s growing assertiveness in the region, concern Australia. Australian strategists are bound to be keeping a close watch on Chinese and Indian activity in the IOR.

Meanwhile, the arrival of Ambassador Harris could help bridge the gaps that Australia might perceive in the US commitment to maintaining a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific; the prospects for the materialisation of the Quad of ‘like-minded democracies’ have never seemed brighter.

Aakriti Bhutoria is a Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute and the Book Review Editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs.