On the pristine equatorial shores of the Maldives, an archipelago best known for luxurious resort hideaways swathed in coral reefs and cerulean seas, India and China’s regional cold war is warming up, writes Bryson Hull for Reuters.
“Stretched across 90,000 sq km (35,000 sq m) of the Indian Ocean southwest of India, the Sunni Muslim nation of 1,192 islands finds itself sandwiched between the two Asian rivals, and both flexed their muscles at a meeting of South Asian nations hosted by the Maldives last week.
China preceded the heads-of-state meeting of the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) by opening its first embassy in the Maldives, a ceremony attended by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun.
Two Maldivian officials said China had hurriedly rented a space to open the embassy in time for the summit, while the actual embassy is being built. Officials with the Chinese delegation declined repeated requests by Reuters for comment.
“The bureaucrat in me says the timing is right. You want to open something like that when there is a big official around. But opening it right before SAARC is a way to tweak India,” an Asian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
India’s response to China’s diplomatic display included a show of military force and political largesse.
Navy frigates patrolled off the Gan atoll, where the summit was held, to protect VIP visitors including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held a one-day state visit to the capital island, Male.
“This is our extended neighborhood. We wish to work with the Maldives and other like-minded countries to ensure peace and prosperity in the Indian Ocean region,” Singh told the Maldivian parliament.
India extended a $100 million credit line, inked pacts on maritime and counterterrorism cooperation, and both nations agreed “their respective territories would not be allowed for any activity inimical to the other and by any quarter.”
New Delhi has long been concerned by any moves China makes to boost its presence in neighboring countries, and is worried about the so-called “string of pearls” ambition to expand Chinese maritime influence in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
China made its present felt throughout the SAARC summit. The post-summit giveaway bag included porcelain pens and diaries from the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry detailing “Five Years of China-SAARC Cooperation.” A box for a new 40-inch TV in the media center bore a sticker: “China Aid.”