Maldives Is it exit China, Enter India?

Maldives Is it exit China, Enter India?

China’s spending and influence were a hot topic in the recent election in the Maldives; in the region, where China has loaned billions of dollars on easy terms, and gained strategic footholds on the default of these loans, its influence seems to be waning. In Sri Lanka in 2015, the opposition won on an anti-Chinese platform; in Malaysia, a few months ago, the former government lost the race, in part because of corruption concerns revolving around Chinese government-funded projects. Malaysia’s new government has put on hold some of those projects, maintaining that the costs were inflated or they made little economic sense. All such results are an indication of a backlash over being too economically dependent on China.

 

Maldives, the group of 1192 atolls and coral islands beyond the South-Western tip of India, sustains its economy on tourism, fishing industry being the next sustaining factor. The country is worried about the effects of global warming and the resultant rising sea levels, as its very existence is at stake, with more than three-quarters of the land being about a metre above sea level.

The country has no internal or external threat to it, though in 1988-89 it had faced a rebellion, which was quelled with the assistance of India. Considering the location of the islands, so crucial to the Indian peninsula, India has always maintained friendly relations with Maldives, to ensure that other countries do not take advantage of its absence. Any assistance, whenever asked for, has been provided to maintain a pro-Indian stance of the country. Despite the help, be it to quell an uprising, or during disasters, or to help the tiny nation for drinking water, its internal politics have, in the recent past, drifted the country away from India, in to the arms of China.

Political History

Maldives has been in the international focus due to its internal politics, which have a strategic impact on India. There is a need, therefore, to have a glimpse of the recent events in politics of Maldives.

2008: President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the island nation with an iron fist, lost the first-ever multi-party elections that he called, to the rights activist, Mohammed Nasheed.

2012: After a turbulent 2011, with continuing street protests and demonstrations against his policies, culminating in a police mutiny, President Nasheed finally resigned in February 2012. Vice President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan, took over the reins of the government.

2013:  In the elections that followed his ouster, Mohammed Nasheed lost to Abdul Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, who on taking over as President, imprisoned or forced into exile all rivals; he also curtailed press freedom and social networks.

2015:  Mohammed Nasheed was indicted on various counts and jailed on charges of terrorism for 13 years.

2016:  Mohammed Nasheed was granted leave from prison on medical grounds and departed for treatment in London, and thereafter, went into a self-exile in Sri Lanka.

2018: In February, the Supreme Court ordered the release of all political prisoners, including Mohammed Nasheed. In response, the government declared a state of emergency. The emergency was lifted after 45 days in March, with the arrest of Gayoom and two judges of the Supreme Court. In July, a law-maker, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, the current president-elect, was named as the candidate by the joint opposition, after Mohammed Nasheed declined to fight the elections.

President Abdulla Yameen transformed from an elected president into a full-scale dictator; much to India’s annoyance, he also introduced major changes in the foreign policy of Maldives, having befriended China and Saudi Arabia. In the current political turmoil, the out-going President had portrayed himself as a victim of an attempted coup by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and other nefarious forces; the Supreme Court order of 01 February had called for the release of nine political prisoners, including the self-exiled former-President Mohamed Nasheed, and the reinstatement of 12 members of Majlis (the Maldivian parliament), who had defected to the opposition from the President’s coalition.

Even in the run up to the election, he made all possible attempts to disrupt the voting, but to no avail; a few hours before the voting was to commence, police officers, without a search warrant, ‘invaded’ the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party office and the residence of the president-elect, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, for evidence of bribery. Although some international monitors, including from the EU and UN, did not send any teams to supervise the election, fearing that their presence could appear to condone Abdulla Yameen’s re-election, in the event of his winning, the elections with a high turn-out of voters and the subsequent acceptance of the results, are an indication of free and fair voting, thus allaying any fears of an attempt to cling on to power.

There is an apprehension that Abdulla Yameen, notwithstanding his publicly conceding defeat, may still make an attempt to get the judiciary to annul the elections, or use the security forces to declare military rule; he has time till end November for any such attempt! However, any attempt to sway the military may be difficult, considering that the jailed former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is said to still command respect within the security forces.

The road ahead, however, is not so trouble-free; many of the challenges that the country faced in last decade plus, including widespread corruption, a weakened judiciary, and a suppressed media, continue to remain with a number of judges and members of parliament still imprisoned; in addition, new challenges, such as Islamist extremism, will not be easy to meet. The current alliance is a mixed group, headed by two ex-Presidents, brought together only by their mutual desire to bring down the Yameen regime. Not all have the same democratic tendencies. The president elect, now, faces the unenviable task of trying to unite the various forces and bring the country firmly back to the democratic path.

 

China in the Maldives

As a part of China’s drive to gain strategic influence and carve out new trading routes in the Indian Ocean and beyond, it has loaned billions for huge infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and now operates key ports in those countries, much to the chagrin of India. Under Abdulla Yameen’s rule, the Maldives, too, welcomed Chinese investments for major infrastructure projects and also signed a free trade agreement (FTA). Maldives, thus, became a showpiece of mega-projects-driven foreign policy, as well as an important player in President Xi Jinping’s OBOR project. Projects such as the recently inaugurated ‘Friendship Bridge’ and the Laamu Atoll link road have been built by China, the latter as a ‘gift’ to the people of Maldives. Before the elections, analysts, hence, opined that China would fear any change in government that could affect its interests. India, on the other hand, was seen as preferring the opposition , because of its security concerns.

China’s spending and influence were a hot topic in the recent election in the Maldives; in the region, where China has loaned billions of dollars on easy terms, and gained strategic footholds on the default of these loans, its influence seems to be waning. In Sri Lanka in 2015, the opposition won on an anti-Chinese platform; in Malaysia, a few months ago, the former government lost the race, in part because of corruption concerns revolving around Chinese government-funded projects. Malaysia’s new government has put on hold some of those projects, maintaining that the costs were inflated or they made little economic sense. All such results are an indication of a backlash over being too economically dependent on China.

India’s Role

All that could go wrong between India and Maldives had gone wrong during Abdulla Yameen’s presidency; the foreign policy mandarins in South Block in New Delhi must have had a peaceful sleep after the declaration of the election results! The internal emergency had created an unbridgeable chasm in the relations between the two nations, but it was much before February 2018, that Yameen’s close relations with China had made India uncomfortable and cautious.

Since 1988, when the Indian armed forces quelled an uprising, the relations between India and Maldives had expanded significantly, especially the considerable influence over foreign policy. Over the years, India provided extensive economic aid and participated in bilateral programmes for the development of infrastructure, health, civil aviation, telecommunications and labour resources. This was to protect India’s own security interests, considering the strategic location of Maldives, 1200 kms from the Indian mainland and 700 kms from Lakshadweep island chain.

China realised the strategic importance of Maldives and beat India by wooing Abdulla Yameen to allow it to establish a submarine base in one of its largest coral islands, Marao, located approximately 40 km South of Male. The deal was finalized in 2001 and is a high point in China’s “String of Pearls” policy of encircling India and containing the Indian Navy within its waters; a prospect that daunts India, scares SE Asia, and alarms USA. Over time, however, India learnt to live with the Chinese footprint in South Asia and Indian Ocean region, albeit with an understandable unease.

India was highly perturbed when Maldives did not follow what it said – its “India First” policy, although the former foreign minister of Maldives, Ms Dunya Maumoon, is reported to have stated that “Maldives was looking to balance India and China”. India has played a waiting game since February 2018, when the internal emergency was declared and a few Supreme Court judges were imprisoned. At times, Abdulla Yameen thumbed his nose at India, getting too close to China and all that India could do was to watch helplessly, as the island nation drifted away from it.

Now that Mr Solih has the mandate of the people, and the support of Mohammed Nasheed, an old friend of India, India has to make some quick, deft diplomatic moves to make the best of this opportunity. The new government, starting November, would have a packed domestic agenda: release of political prisoners, calling back exiled leaders, granting the courts the autonomy that they were stripped of, maybe even reversing the incipient growth of radical Islam, and lastly, handling the $ 1.3 billion loans from China.

 

Conclusion

The post–election Maldives may be more attuned to India’s security concerns, but the presence of China in the island nation cannot be wished away. While being sensitive to India’s concerns, Maldives will not accept a ‘big brother’ attitude. Whether it can manage to repay the loans to China, or it slips into a debt-bondage depends upon external monetary aid; it is also looking for expertise for development of infrastructure, in which currently China has the advantage.

While the Indian Prime Minister was the first to compliment Ibrahim Solhi on his victory, India has to do much more to ensure that the new administration in Maldives remains aligned to India. The latest political developments have provided India a window to normalize bilateral relations with Maldives and counter China’s growing influence in the region.

India just cannot shy away from providing the necessary boost to Maldives’ “India First” policy, by helping Ibrahim Solih in the task of rebuilding the fragile democracy in his country, without any fear of Indian hegemony.

(IDR)

By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.