Ripples in the Indian Ocean

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2018
Page No.: 
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The political turmoil in Maldives shows increasing Chinese influence over the island nation and India’s sway decreasing
Ajay Singh
Thursday, April 5, 2018

Political Turmoil in the Maldives

The picturesque archipelago of the 1200 islands that make up the Maldives seem to have an idyllic existence. Blessed with an abundance of sea and sunshine, its only fear is that of global warming which threatens to submerge its islands around 2050 or so. But that is sometime in the future. Its present concerns are with the political turmoil caused by the declaration of an Emergency by President Abdullah Yameen. This turmoil has drawn the attention of the world and brought out Indo-Chinese rivalries in the region to the fore.

At the heart of the present crisis lies the Supreme Court order which directed the Government to release all political prisoners and reinstate 12 Members of Parliament of the opposition party. It also squashed all charges levied against members of the opposition party (Maldives Democratic Party) including against the ex-President Mohammed Nasheed. (presently in exile in Sri Lanka) This ruling was a blow to President Yameen’s fragile government. It would clear the way for his rival Nasheed to return to Maldives and pose a threat to him. Worse, if the 12 MPs are reinstated, the opposition would get a clear majority in the 85 member Parliament, which could enable it to overthrow the Government and even bring about impeachment proceedings against Yameen. 

Rather than abide by the Supreme Court decision, the President declared a 15 day state of Emergency on 06 Feb, which was extended by another 30 days and finally revoked on 21 March. To compound it he even arrested the Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed and two other Supreme Court judges, accusing them of receiving ‘millions of dollars” to pass the judgment against him. The turmoil has attracted world attention, not so much for the political malaise, but for the long term implications for this tiny, but strategically vital nation, which sits astride some of the most important sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean.

India and the Maldives

India and Maldives share historical ties. India was the first to recognize it on its independence in 1965 and since then has been virtually a net security provider. Indians form the largest expatriate community and contribute to over 6% of the tourist footfall. A steady flow of Maldivians visit India for education, medical facilities and commerce and India contributes over 20% of all Maldivian trade. It is important to India, not just because of its strategic location astride the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, but also because this tiny pre-dominantly Muslim nation of 600000 inhabitants could well fall into Islamic sway or come under foreign influence. Under Yameen, Islamic radicalization has increased greatly and per capita it provides the highest number of fighters for Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Stability in the Maldives is thus a direct Indian concern.

It was anticipated that India would react to the drama being played out in the Maldives as it did in 1988. Then, Indian paratroopers landed in Male in the early hours of 18 November to rescue President Muamoon Abdul Gayoom, from a rag-tag band of PLOTE mercenaries who had taken over the capital and held the President hostage. ‘Operation Cactus’ helped evict the mercenaries and reinstated Gayoom. It also projected India as a regional power, with TIME magazine carrying a cover story hailing Indian as an emerging super power after this. Perhaps there would have been temptations for India to intervene this time as well. The exiled ex-President Mohammed Nasheed, appealed to India to intervene militarily and restore the situation. Fortunately India refused, and wisely so. The situation is very different from the one in 1988, and instead of plunging headlong in to the fray, this one calls for strategic restraint.

In 1988, India had acted against external forces that threatened the Maldives, restored the situation and then left gracefully immediately after. Now it is at best, a political crisis with an autocratic, but democratically elected President, imposing his writ. Unfair and unreasonable as his actions may seem, intervening in this situation, would be taking political sides, which will turn a large segment of the population against us.

The China Factor

Since its Independence in 1965, Maldives has traditionally followed a pro-India policy. Yet, over the past few years, Maldives has gradually adopted a pro-China tilt. In fact, one of India’s major grouses against President Yameen is that he replaced the Maldivian ‘India First’ policy with ‘China First.’ China was allowed to open its embassy in Male in 2011 and since then has expanded its footprint in the islands. The tipping point came in December 17, when he signed the Free Trade Agreement with China. So far trade between India and the Maldives was governed by the Preferential Trade Pact of 1981. Through this, India provided Maldives with all its essential commodities, while Maldives could sell all its products in India without restrictions. The FTA with China will be at the expense of India and will enable Chinese goods to supplant Indian products. Worse, it will also provide an avenue for Chinese products to surreptitiously enter India through the Maldives.  

With its strategic location, Maldives forms an important cog in China’s plans to exert influence across the Indian Ocean right up to East Africa. It persuaded Maldives to join the Belt and Road Initiative and then unleashed a slew of Chinese investments in the islands. The most important being the Friendship Bridge between Male and Hultule Islands, real estate projects in Hultumale and the establishment of a base in Laamu Atoll. Nasheed also permitted Chinese warships to visit Male as part of a ‘Friendship visit’, disregarding India’s protests. Perhaps the most significant Chinese venture is the plan to develop a Joint Ocean Observation Station in northern Mukunudhoo atoll which will provide China with a vantage point to monitor one of the most crucial shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean. The establishment of an Observatory is scarily similar to the ploy which China adopted to stake its claims in the South China Sea. There too, they established an Observatory on one of the islands, and then gradually converted it to a full-fledged naval base allowing it to slowly control the neighborhood. The observatory in the Maldives, when coupled with Gwadar port, Humbantota and Dijoubti military base in Africa will give it another pearl in the string they have woven across the Indian Ocean.

As the Indian Ocean becomes the arena for Indo-Chinese rivalry, the significance of the Maldives increases for both nations. China considers Yameen to be ‘their man’ and would not want to see him removed from power, no matter what his actions. It is significant that one of its first actions after the crisis erupted was to warn against military intervention – a statement directly aimed at India. It also sent eleven warships into the Eastern Indian Ocean, ostensibly on a ‘Far Sea Training Exercise,’ but more subtly to make a point.

So far India has resisted the temptation to jump precipitously into troubled Maldivian waters. It has instead resorted to a subtle economic actions and has joined hands with the USA, UK, France and the UN urging for a political settlement. While President Yameen has acted in an unconstitutional and completely arbitrary manner, the issue should be seen at best, as a constitutional crisis in a friendly neighboring country, and resolved as such. Although it would be tempting to have the pro-India opposition leader Mohammed Nasheed in power, elevating him to that chair by external force will bring about accusations of meddling in internal affairs and create resentment. Any intervention may get short term gains, but will definitely rebound in the long run.

Even as we go into print, the state of Emergency has just been revoked, but the political consternation continues. Maldives has also turned down an Indian invitation to participate in the joint naval exercise, MILAN II, incorporating 16 nations - the first time it has done so. President Yameen is firming in, most probably with covert Chinese support, and with the opposition leaders in jail, there can be little organized protest against his actions. The Maldivian tilt is worrying and affects our own strategic and economic interests. Growing Chinese influence so close to our waters is dangerous and it is in our interest to wean the Maldives back into India’s influence through cultural, economic and soft power initiatives and ensure that there are no more ripples in the waters of the Indian Ocean around us.