It was hailed as an Indian foreign policy triumph when Sri Lanka announced Chinese research ships won’t be allowed to dock in the country’s ports for the next 12 months. But that victory is looking a bit hollow now because it looks like the Xiang Yang Hong 3 may get the green signal to anchor in the Maldives in the near future.

Ever since the bloody 2020 Galwan clashes, India and China have co-existed uneasily and 28 rounds of boundary talks haven’t settled key territory issues in Ladakh. The Indian Army has had to reinforce its forces in Arunachal and the Chinese are strengthening their position on the Bhutan border — very possibly in Bhutan.

But the real India-China standoff is expected to be in the Indian Ocean. And that means the Indian Navy will have to be expanded big-time. Traditionally, the Army has always cornered the biggest chunk of military spending. But now spending will have to be split between all three services and naval vessels and related equipment don’t come cheap. The conflict in the Red Sea also underlines how important policing the seas has become.

The world, and especially China, has designs on the giant stretch of water the world has called the Indian Ocean for as long as anyone can recall. But at a recent conference the Chinese talked about what they called the China-Indian Ocean Region. The Americans have also been talking about what they called the Indo-Pacific region.

Mohamed Muizzu, the Maldives’ new president, has just spent five days in China and signed up for 20 agreements. Soon after returning, he reiterated his March 15 deadline for 87 Indian support troops to leave the country. While he appears keen for India to complete the Male-Thilafushi bridge linking the capital Male with three other islands, there are fears he may have second thoughts about the Uthuru Thila Falhu port being built for the Maldives coast guard. India, in 2019, handed over a network of 10 radar stations to the Maldives. But these also help India to keep watch on its nearby coastal region. India and the Maldives coastguard have also been holding annual exercises.

As the contest for the Indian Ocean heats up, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are caught between two protagonists: India and China. The Chinese are working hard to win friends and influence people in both countries and have poured big money into them. India definitely scored a win when it persuaded Sri Lanka not to allow research vessels to moor through 2024 after two Chinese research vessels got permission to berth in the last two years.

China’s Xiang Yang Hong 3 had been slated to carry out “deep water research” for four months but it won’t now be allowed to enter Sri Lankan waters. The question is whether it will amend its plans and conduct its research on stretches of the ocean around the Maldives. Muizzu has also angered India by refusing to extend a pact allowing us to conduct hydrographic studies in its waters, ocean-bed research that’s vital for submarines entering the region.

String of pearls

China would like Hambantota port on which it holds a 99-year lease to become one of its “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean. Its other pearls include Gwadar in Pakistan and also Djibouti in the Red Sea. Incidentally, Sri Lanka has given the thumbs-up to China’s Sinopec’s proposal to build a $4.5-billion petrochemical plant at Hambantota. Could China add to its String of Pearls in the Maldives?

The small islands make it difficult to have a naval base of any size. Also, this might anger India too much though Muizzu doesn’t appear to be too concerned about this prospect right now. It should be remembered almost all Maldivian food and even water come from India. Muizzu has signed a deal with the Chinese to expand agriculture production but given the archipelago’s cultivable land those prospects look limited. He’s also vowed to end dependence on “one country” (read India) for staples rice, sugar and flour. But there aren’t any other nearby countries to import from and such a proposition would be hugely expensive.

Whether the India-Maldives row turns out to be a tempest in a teacup and Indian tourists start flocking back to the archipelago’s golden beaches after the #BoycottMaldives flap, what’s clear is China has plenty of cash to throw around. It also carries a big stick with which to overawe India’s neighbours. India will have to up its diplomatic game enormously to win what will be its constant tussles in its own neighbourhood.