Should India militarily intervene in Maldives?
“In my view, two issues make it India’s problem: radical Islam and land grab
We know they (China) have 17 islands now where they are talking about investing $40 million but we don’t really know what is the purpose for that
…They (jihadists from Maldives) have been coming back since IS got flushed out of Iraq and Syria, they haveembedded themselves in strategic places within our military, police, customs and immigration
‘IT’S INDIA’S PROBLEM AS WELL’
— Mohamed Nasheed (Times of India, Dt.: 10 February 2018)
The current situation in Maldives, for India’s strategic imperative, could be a make or break one.
The China’s strategic designs with regard to Maldives is very much reflected in this latest editorial in the Global Times:- “India has a strong desire to control South Asian countries. It regards the region as its backyard. New Delhi is particularly sensitive to any endeavor by small South Asian states toward independence and autonomy, especially ties with other major powers… All small South Asian nations want to extricate themselves from India’s excessive leverage. India has adopted a Western political system, and its active social organizations permeate their way into neighboring countries. When Yameen’s government signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with China and joined the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), Indian public opinion reacted harshly. To maximize the country’s best interests, Yameen was perhaps considering developing diplomatic ties with all major powers. This infuriated New Delhi.” Exactly six years ago on 07 Feb 2012 President of Maldives, Nasheed resigned. He then said he had to resign at ‘ gun point by police and army officers.’’ That was the time when the Chinese had just begun to make diplomatic and strategic in-roads into China. The latest constitutional crisis in Maldives therefore can hardly be attributed to politics. It is owing to brazen use of political leverages by China in pursuit of its strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean. President Abdulla Yameen, has declared emergency in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to release 12 dissident legislators including former president Mohd Nasheed, who was the country’s first democratically president. He was jailed on terror charges in 2015 and was granted political refugee status by Britain in 2016.
These dissident legislators have the numbers to ensure the fall of President Yameen, who had defeated Liberal candidate Nasheed in 2013. The supreme court however on 06 Feb 2018 has been compelled to reverse the decision at ‘gun point’. Thus, just as is the case with Nepal, Chinese machinations have resulted into subversion and break-down of all institutions, specially judiciary As elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, there is fierce contest between India and China in Sri Lanka as well as Maldives. This is part of the larger geo-strategic contest in which other powers have high stakes as well. It is also part of the contest between the concept of Indo-Pacific and China’s maritime strategy predicated on Belt Road Initiative.
President Srisena of Sri Lanka is feeling the weight of the China’s loan diplomacy after being compelled to handover Hambantota Port on 99 years lease. The President of Maldives, Abdullah Yameen, however, does not seem to be perturbed with China’s loan diplomacy thrust. He is rather seen to be facilitating Chinese inroads into Maldives with abandon. He has sought to utilize China’s expertise in land reclamation on the lines of South China Sea. The Maldivian parliament recently passed a law that permits foreigners to buy land in the country provided the investment is minimum worth $1billion and 70 percent of land is reclaimed from sea. These stipulations mainly suit China.
Maldives has been trying to engage China to construct a port in Northern Atoll, which straddles West Asia, South East Asia and is located close to India’s Lakshadweep island i.e. 700 km. The Indian mainland is 1200 km from Maldives.In August 2017, overruling India’s protest, Maldives permitted three Chinese warships to visit the country. In retaliation India invited Yameen’s political enemy Nasheed.
It is understood that it was China, which compelled Maldives to terminate its contract for construction of Male Airport by the Indian firm GMR. It was again China, which financed the payment of dues that Maldives had owed to the GMR, thus out muscling India from the strategic project. The contract for modernization and operation of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport was signed in 2010 by the GMR, which was unilaterally terminated by the Maldivian government in November 2012 even as it was midway. Finally, as machinated the airport project went to a Chinese company. Also, a Chinese firm is constructing a ‘friendship bridge’ that links Hulhule island with Male. This project was announced with great fanfare during the visit of Xi Jinping in 2014. There is a plan to transfer 70 percent of population from 188 islands to the new city. China is also engaged in construction on reclaimed land on Hulhumale suburb on reclaimed land.
India was shocked when Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2017. It was clearly outmaneuvered by China. The decision was taken in the Maldivian Parliament with undue haste, when the entire opposition was absent. President Yameen signed the deal, which had been passed with only 30 votes in the 85 member legislature. The Economic Development Minister Mohd Saeed said that since the country was no longer eligible for import concessions by European Union, as it has graduated from the category of ‘least developed country’. The agreement he said opened the largest consumer market for Maldivian fish products. India is rightly apprehensive that the FTA will put Maldives in ‘debt trap’, as in the case of Sri Lanka. As per IMF, the external debt of Maldives is 34.7%, which will reach 51% of the GDP by 2021. Two-thirdsof the debt is Chinese. The FTA is sweeping and can be gauged from the fact that Maldives agreed to reduce tariff of 95 percent goods to zero.
Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese President to visit Maldives in 2014. On the contrary, the Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi has not visited Maldives as yet. Till 2011 Maldives was not on the strategic horizon of China. There did not exist a Chinese embassy in Male.
With brutal maritime thrust in the Indian Ocean as component of the Belt Road Initiative, the Chinese tempo in Maldives has surely unsettled India, and if it continues the apprehension of permanent military presence is not unfounded.
The threat from the present dispensation is not only in terms of pro-China posturing but also due to the Islamic radicalization of the country. There has been an explosion of extremist preachers in Maldives. This small country with a population of merely 3,50,000 people had the dubious distinction of contributing 400 jihadis to the Islamic State in Syria. Ironically, in a Republic Address in 2014, Yameen clearly stated his preference for China vis-à-vis the West. He said that he is looking east as China like the western world does not pose challenge to a Islamic state as by western colonial powers.
Why Maldives is so important to India?
Strategically significant and geopolitically sensitive, Maldives, a chain of 1192 islands 199 of which are inhabited and home to 3,50,000 people, has recently been brutalized by violence and coup, shattering the very nascent and fragile edifice of parliamentary democracy, which had just begun to take roots since 2008 after 30 years (1978-2008) rule of Abdul Gayoom. Located 300 miles of the southern coast of India and 450 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, this idyllic country, a tourist paradise in the Indian Ocean is yet another victim of Islamic fundamentalism. Internal sleaze by Islamic fundamentalist groups with support of external players, particularly Pakistan and China, has engendered the present unrest and instability in Maldives. Coup attempts in Maldives is not new. Even Gayoom was also not unchallenged, there were at least three (1980, 1983, 1988) attempted coups to oust him. What was unusual in the ouster of Nasheed in 2012 that it had strong unpinning of Islamic fundamentalism and the China factor. Nasheed is on record to say that a week before his ouster he was under pressure from Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) to sign a defence agreement with China. It is to the credit to the rulers in the country including Gayoom that he did not allow Maldives to be drawn into big power games not even during the Cold War period. The geopolitical scenario however has drastically altered in the recent times. The huge impetus to religious radicalization of Maldives by Gayoom has spawned rising Islamic fundamentalism. An ascendant China is making forays in the Indian Ocean and would like to wean away Maldives from India’s strategic embrace. An out of power Gayoom is not averse to external leveraging. With the ouster of President Nasheed, in 2012, the country lapsed into uncertainty. It is the same Nasheed who suffered 27 arrests and six years in jail in his unrelenting campaign for ushering parliamentary democracy and against the autocratic rule of Abdul Gayoom, who in 2008 was Asia’s longest serving leader. There was great jubilation when Mohammad Nasheed was elected as the President in 2008. He was hailed as “Obama”. In 1988 ironically, it was India who responded to the SOS by Gayoom when he was beleaguered by People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) terrorists. The Indian Armed Forces reacted instantly by launching Operation Cactus and foiled the attempted coup. India acted in its strategic interests both in the geopolitical context of the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.
New Strategic Imperatives
Maldives acquired greater strategic significance post 9/11 particularly after Mumbai 26/11 as seaborne terrorism was the new reality. There was also move by extra regional powers like China to seek naval presence in the country, as part of its strategic stretch in the Indian Ocean. The new strategic imperative was the impetus for India and Maldives to sign a new bilateral pact on security in August 2009. Probably for some detractors of Nasheed, this was one of his major undoing. The coup was allegedly masterminded by the Islamic fundamentalists, Gayoom, rogue elements in the Maldivian security establishment, and anti-India elements and forces. Indications of Chinese and Pakistani involvement are getting increasingly pronounced.
Imperatives of a Micro-state
The islands in Maldives are grouped under 26 atolls, each atoll being an administrative unit. This 820 Km long (north to south) and 120 Km wide (east to west) country with a population little over quarter million, and can be described as a Micro-State. The generally acceptable definition of a micro-state is applied to countries having population of less than one million. There are about 38 such states of which 27 belong to the Commonwealth. The international system can be divided into Super-Powers, Great-Powers, Regional-Powers, Small-Powers and Micro/Mini-Powers. The cluster of micro-states are in Caribbean, around Africa (Indian Ocean), Persian Gulf and Pacific Ocean. Micro-states are a post-World War-II phenomenon. In the pre-World War-II period, five European micro-entities had sought to be recognised as independent states. They were – Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Iceland and Luxemburg. Only the latter was admitted. Post World War-II, Iceland became the first micro-state to be admitted in the UN in 1948. Like all micro-states, Maldives has small size, narrow resource base, difficult geographical configuration and relative proximity to big neighbours. Also like other micro-states, it has to interact with the outside world in three concentric circles i.e. Super-Powers, Big-Powers and immediate neighbours in the region. Micro-states are vulnerable both from within and without. Their security dependence has been implicitly accepted by powerful regional neighbours e.g. US in Caribbean, France in Pacific and India till recently in the case of Maldives, which Yameen is desperate to overturn at China’s bidding. Nevertheless in the evolution of Indo-Maldives relations, the drastic changes in religious orientation of Maldives, Islamic terrorism and the new power play in the Indian Ocean, specially the China factor have begun to impinge on the geopolitics. During the 2012 violence and coup in Maldives, about three dozen exhibits, mostly images of Buddha and Hindu Gods were destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists in the national museum. The then president Waheed said: “We are very sad. This is the physical and archeological evidence of this country. We have nothing to show of the pre-Islamic history.” This repudiation and hatred of non-Islamic past is reminiscent of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Taliban.
Suggested Indian Response
While the foreign policy and defence establishment have displayed great sensitivity about the strategic imperatives of India in respect to Maldives and have acted timely and appropriately, the same cannot be said about the Indian intelligence establishment. Only recently when Maldives was in dire need of drinking water, it was India, which responded. Such is the geographical symbiosis between India and Maldives. The charter of India’s external agency not only involves providing information and intelligence but more importantly to safeguard friendly regimes from inimical powers of India. The declaration of emergency by President Yameen is a desperate bid by agencies of inimical powers like China and Pakistan. Just as in Nepal, all organs of the state have been subverted by the Chinese in Maldives. In Nepal, India backed those forces which imposed themselves on democracy rather than evolving through democracy, the consequence being a Pro-Chinese government, which will take-over Nepal within a month. Similarly, President Yameen has been using Chinese money and Saudi backed Islamization to throttle democracy.
Nevertheless, with the advent of Prince Salman in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi backed religious narrative is in the churning process. Yameen happens to fall on the wrong side of the monarchy divide, as he is seen to be close to the royal detractors of Prince Salman. The US obviously contests the maritime dimension of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) by China in the Indian Ocean. Geopolitically, India could not be better placed to reclaim its lost status in Maldives.
By RSN Singh