Flashpoint Maldives: India losing another neighbour to China

For the most part of its independent history since 1965, the Maldives has enjoyed excellent relations with India.


Dhairya Maheshwari

Till now, why has Prime Minister Narendra Modi not been able to visit the Maldives?

The answer is out for the world to see, as President Abdulla Yameen tightens his grip on power after declaring a 15-day emergency in the Indian Ocean country this week.

Backed by the country’s military, President Yameen ordered the arrest of two Supreme Court judges after the top court overturned conviction of exiled former President Mohammad Nasheed and eight other opposition MPs in a February 1 verdict. It was only after the arrested judges agreed to revoke this week their Feb 1 order that things started looking up for the island’s political situation.

On the other hand, the country’s security army and police clamped down on protestors who came out in support of Nasheed, the first democratically-elected president since country’s Independece in 1965.

“We will not wait and watch as the Maldives descends into crisis,” Ahmed Shiyam, the army chief, declared, showing where his loyalties lie. Further, the security forces stormed the country’s Parliament building in Male and arrested at least two MPs critical of President Yameen.

India has termed the developments ‘disturbing’. For most part of its independent history since 1965, the Maldives has enjoyed excellent relations with India. A SAARC member, the Rajiv Gandhi Government sent in troops on the island in 1988 as part of Operation Cactus at the request of then President to suppress a coup attempt by a militant group from Sri Lanka.

That all looks a distant past now, as the Maldives becomes another country in the neighbourhood where the current government’s flamboyant foreign policy is put to test.

How did it begin?

Nasheed was elected to power in a democratic vote in 2008. He favoured ‘India-first” policy and was seen as being in favour of closer ties with other democracies of the region, mainly India and Sri Lanka. The alarm bells started ringing in New Delhi in 2013 itself, when then President Nasheed was ousted in highly controversial circumstances in 2012, being forced to resign at “gunpoint” by backers of Yameen. In the subsequent presidential vote in 2013, Nasheed was defeated in a second-round presidential vote by Yameen.

In 2015, Nasheed was convicted on terrorism charges by the Supreme Court, following which he managed to flee the country and sought asylum in the United Kingdom.

Human rights group Amnesty International said at the time that the conviction was politically motivated.

Lost to China

One of Yameen’s first major decisions after becoming President was to start negotiations on a Free Trade Deal with China in 2015, much to New Delhi’s anguish. In December last year, the Maldives signed its first ever free trade deal with China.

“China has been very successful in making political inroads into the Maldives, more so after President Yameen replaced Muhamed Nasheed in the disputed presidential vote in 2013,” says Kanwal Sibal, India’s former foreign secretary.

“And, China has done two things in recent years. One, the Maldives’ Parliament passed a law permitting the lease of land for a long period of time to foreigners. Secondly, the Maldives signed a free trade agreement with China without any discussion whatsoever in Parliament,” points out Sibal.

The new administration delivered a major snub to India during the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to Male in September 2014, when it awarded a $511 million airport expansion contract to a Chinese government firm, two years after Male cancelled the same contract it had given to India’s GMR Infrastructure. Militarily, the Chinese had their first ever joint drills with the Maldivian defense forces when three Chinese warships, Chang Chun, Jing Zhou and Chao Hu, docked at Male in August 2016.

“The way the Maldives has behaved over the last year, especially with regards to the FTA with China and allowing the Chinese warships to dock in the Maldivian harbour, is a matter of concern for India,” recalls Sibal.

What are the implications for India?

An unstable or a hostile neighbour is not in India’s interest, says Sibal.

“We don’t want instability in our neighbourhood. In the best interest of India’s maritime security, we don’t want a foreign power like China to be entrenched there,” the former diplomat explains. He further points out that Maldives is a crucial part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“China needs staging points in the Indian Ocean and Maldives is important in that regard.”

“Any significant change in the Maldives is very critical for India, since it straddles the shipping lines of the Indian Ocean where most of our energy resources pass through. Most of our imports and exports pass through the waters around the Maldives,” says Anand Kumar, a fellow at New Delhi-based think tank IDSA and author of book Multi-party Democracy in the Maldives and the Emerging Security Environment in the Indian Ocean Region.

Around 36 million barrels of crude a day, or 40 per cent of the world’s supply, passes across the Indian Ocean, which constitutes 64 per cent of oil trade.

The same logic explains China’s increasing interest in having a favourable government in the Maldives.

“The geo-strategic position of the Maldives is such that China has made a very considerable effort to politically position itself in these islands, in a manner that their Maritime Silk Route can be advanced.

“So, this poses a challenge to India’s security interests in the Indian Ocean,” Kumar adds.

How has India reacted so far?

India’s initial public response to the political crisis has been more guarded than angry. It, however, emerged later that troops movement was seen at a key air base in southern India, a precursor to a ground operation on the island.

The development came after ex-President Nasheed appealed to the Indian government to send back its envoy backed by Indian troops. “We request a physical presence,” Nasheed urged India. A hawkish approach is however what Congress Party spokesperson and former minister Manish Tewari is cautioning against.

“Well, at this point of time, we need to watch the situation. We must not forget that the Maldives is a sovereign country. We need to watch the situation carefully, rather than becoming hawkish. We shouldn’t be creating a situation that wouldn’t be to our advantage,” says Tewari, also a fellow at the DC-based Atlantic Council.

(The story was first carried in National Herald on Sunday).

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