A Chinese naval combat force that entered the Indian Ocean for the first time in four years may have helped deter an Indian intervention in the Maldives after its pro-China president imposed a state of emergency, according to military and diplomatic sources and analysts.
India has traditionally been the biggest player in the tiny island chain 400 km to its south, and faced calls from Maldives' opposition leaders last month to use force against President Abdulla Yameen to restore democracy.
India was infuriated as Male and Beijing signed a free trade deal last December.
After the state of emergency was declared India - which sent troops to foil a coup in the Maldives three decades ago - moved aircraft and ships to its southern bases and put special forces on standby, two military sources in New Delhi said.
But in the end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held off from hard action, the sources said.
Beijing's signals it would not look kindly on any foreign involvement in the Maldives - where it is investing millions of dollars as part of its Belt and Road Initiative - backed up by its naval presence in the eastern Indian Ocean, may also have weighed against an intervention, security analysts said.
Details of the deployments by India and China as well as diplomatic messages from Beijing that have not previously been reported, show how the Asian giants flexed muscles as the crisis in the strategically located archipelago unfolded.
Both militaries have since backed off and last week Vijay Gokhale, India's top diplomat, made an unscheduled visit to Beijing where the two sides discussed ways to address their "differences on the basis of mutual respect," the Indian foreign ministry said.
At the end of January, a Chinese navy "surface action group", which included an amphibious Type 071 vessel for troops to make a marine landing, quietly crossed into the Indian Ocean through Indonesia's Sunda Straits.
On February 1, Yameen rejected a Supreme Court decision to free political dissidents. He threw the judges into prison and imposed a state of emergency, saying he was acting to thwart a coup.
Soon after the emergency was declared in the Maldives, India's military moved C-130 Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster transport planes from near Delhi to its Yelahanka air force base near Bengaluru, and ordered paratroops to be on stand-by, the two Indian military source said. Warships were also put on readiness at the southern naval command in Kochi, they added.
Yameen was unfazed, and on Feb 20 he extended the emergency by another 30 days despite calls not to do so.
A source close to Chinese diplomats in Colombo said that Beijing had told its missions in the region that China stood ready to help Yameen if India tried to unseat him. The source was not clear whether that included military help.
Throughout the crisis, the Maldivian government was in continuous contact with the Chinese embassy in Male and China was informed about Yameen's every move, including the state of emergency well, in advance, a diplomat at the Maldives' embassy in Colombo said.
"The political unrest in the Maldives in actual fact is a power struggle with international factors," said Liu Zongyi, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.