Maldives crisis: Operation Cactus-style military intervention by India would only give China the edge
The ongoing political crisis in the Maldives has expectedly raised concerns in India over the stability of this important island nation. Long considered an important part of India’s security calculus, though admittedly never ever given much attention, Maldives has been undergoing domestic turbulence in recent years which began with overthrowing of the first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed in 2012, followed in quick succession by growing involvement of China in the form of massive foreign aid and then unceremonious but expected dumping of the Indian infrastructure company GMR Group from Maldives’ biggest airport project.
Additionally, as one of the important Muslim nations in the Indian Ocean Region, the growing flirtation of the island’s youth with Saudi sponsored Wahabbi Islam and silencing of the secular bloggers in connivance with the present administration of Abdulla Yameen, was sure to raise hackles in New Delhi.
Now, that the Yameen government has effectively silenced its opposition and imposed martial law, it is imperative that the crisis is stemmed before it takes turn for the worse. In responding to Nasheed seeking an intervention to solve the crisis, India has now said that it is disturbed by the declaration of a state of emergency.
It ain’t surgical strike.
But while New Delhi debates its options at hand to deal with the situation, one option that appears clear not to be followed is that of direct unilateral military intervention, ala Operation Cactus 1988. It may look like the most enticing option but it is not for two reasons listed below:
It’s not a coup d’état: In 1988 when India intervened militarily by dropping paratroopers at Hulhule airport, the operation was aimed at repelling challenge to president Abdul Gayoom’s regime from the Sri Lankan Tamil militants propped up by the Maldivian businessman Abdullah Luthufi. Today that is not the situation. Intervention to overthrow a sitting regime of Yameen may yield short-term advantage, but will create a long-term headache for India. Even if one assumes that Yameen is deposed in direct military action, it does raise some important questions: what sort of options are there post his departure, will India retreat before ensuring a new regime assumes power, how will India ensure a regime friendly to its interests, when will India withdraw etc. All difficult questions which have even more difficult answers. If there is one thing that has become clearer in post-Cold War era, it is that military interventions are messy and complicate the problem further rather than resolving it.
China is an important player: If there was one thing that the Yameen government was firm in its pursuit (apart from of course systematically going after its opponents) was hobnobbing with China. Beijing has long eyed Maldives as an important piece of its Indian Ocean puzzle and Yameen government was more than happy to become its partner. So if India undertakes a direct military intervention, we have to assume that China will make sure that things turn messy. And the Chinese retribution may not come directly in Maldives theatre, but certainly on India-China border or even a debilitating cyber attack on Indian computers. Is India ready to jeopardise its core security interests, for a military intervention in the Maldives? Again a difficult question with an even more difficult answer.
Admittedly situation in the Maldives is grave and direct military intervention appears to be the most attractive option. There may even be a greater support to the possible military undertaking from Western powers, Japan and Australia. But a key to diffuse the crisis would be a shared security responsibility—most notably with the United States or even other Quad powers—to ensure that any unintended consequences can be offset. That should be the way forward, rather than any unilateral military adventure across the seas.