New Delhi: A Great Power is defined as one able to transform geopolitics to its advantage. Currently, there are no Great Powers, only Major Powers, with a limited ability to transform geopolitics and derive advantages from them. Of these three Major Powers, the most notable is China, which is learning from the blunders of the other two, namely the United States and Russia, and is going about transforming geopolitics to its advantage quietly and with a minimum of show or fuss. Having become an economic colossus second only to the United States, it is developing its own version of the Marshall Plan that revived post-World War II Europe, and the Belt and Road Initiative promises to be even more ambitious than the Marshall Plan and one which will confirm China as an almost-Great Power. Going forward, if China establishes hegemony in the South China Sea and brings vast parcels of the Indian Ocean under its sway, it cannot be stopped from becoming a Great Power, and at some point, it will outpace the declining powers, the United States and Russia. It is against this background that the Maldives crisis must be examined.

The constitutional crisis that the Abdulla Yameen government has called upon itself has received extensive press coverage and requires no recapitulation. The Chinese interest in Maldives goes back years whose islands are ideal for naval facilities. The primary Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean relates to securing sea lanes for growth-related commerce and trade with the Middle East. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor terminating in Gwadar port serves as a backup for China if ever faced with sea denial in the future. Strategic planning on this scale transcending decades is common with Great Powers. The secondary and tertiary aims of China in the Indian Ocean are to bottle up India from which it perceives threats and to exploit the natural resources of the ocean.

Great Powers have always suffered from the debilitating effects of imperial overstretch. The Soviet Union and Great Britain collapsed for that reason and the United States rapidly has to retrench from large parts of the world to avoid the same fate. China is careful not to overstretch working with foreign assets and manipulating its economic clout to secure and advance its interests. Being a totalitarian state, China has only so much use for elected governments. This disorder is not peculiar to authoritarian regimes. America has gone to bed with the worst dictators of the last century. But whereas America believes in foreign intervention with maximum publicity, China hesitates to overtly project power. It has, however, proved shrewder in a limited timeframe and comparatively more successful.

For example, it has managed the Rohingya crisis quite well for both Burma and Bangladesh. The crisis no longer makes international headlines. China has balanced the faultlines in Burma among Aung San Suu Kyi, the military and the Buddhist Right and between Bangladesh and Burma and insinuated itself as a friend to all sides. It is quite a feat of diplomacy. Parties to the Rohingya crisis are relieved so far with the outcome. In China’s place, the United States would have flown in a bevy of officials with threatening briefs; there would have been growls of sanctions from Washington; and human rights organizations would have been instigated to produce the maximum embarrassment for Aung San Suu Kyi. US geopolitical methods do not suit the ethos of Asia. China knows this only too well. And not just Asia. Without firing a single shot, China has helped change the regime in Zimbabwe. Thus far at least, the new regime is popular.

In line with this pattern, China will try to control the damage in Maldives. If it perceives that Abdulla Yameen has become too controversial and outlived his utility, he would be replaced like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If India can carry out that change and sustain it with mountains of political and economic investments, there is an outside chance that India may replace China in Maldives. But after the IPKF debacle, India is hesitant to project power. It does not have the strategic risk-taking appetite and endurance of China which can engage on multiple fronts. India hopes the United States will intervene or at least pressure the United Nations to do so. Neither course will work. Maldives is not central to the United States’ geopolitics. Running to the United States for help will not solve India’s problems in the Indian Ocean or those with China. Countries have to take responsibility for their own geopolitics. Perhaps a post-Narendra Modi government would understand the values of strategy, long-term planning and diplomacy.

Editor’s Note: What does the Narendra Modi government have to hide in the Rafale deal? Are there kickbacks? The Rafale deal is a commercial deal and the nation has a right to have the full facts.