The actions of President Abdulla Yameen’s administration in the Maldives are emerging as a major new sticking point between India and China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Even as the India-led international community wants the situation in the island nation to normalize at the earliest, the Yameen government has reportedly sought support from China to maintain security for Chinese investments. This has prompted India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which has sought UN intervention in the Maldives, to make an uncharacteristically sharp statement. “We note that China has said the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in the Maldives. “We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in the Maldives, instead of doing the opposite,” said a MEA spokesperson while reading out from a statement. Quite clearly, India and China are not on the same page as far as the resolution of the Maldivian crisis is concerned.
Perhaps, the same cannot be said about how India and the United States (US) view the crisis. Not too long after the MEA statement referred to above, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have a detailed telephonic conversation with US President Donald Trump on the Maldivian crisis, during the course of which the two leaders would apparently agree to work together on maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific. Referring to the telecon, a White House Statement from February 8, 2018, said:
“The US President and the Indian Prime Minister expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives and [talked about] the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law.”
This turn of events has given some former Indian diplomats reason to believe that international action against the Yameen Government is imminent. “Maldives, you know, sustains on tourism. If India, the US, the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) manage to bring economic pressure on Maldives by imposing sanctions on it, Male will not be able to afford to defy the world anymore,” according to Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian Foreign Secretary.
As such, India, which is very closely monitoring the situation in the Maldives, is also in regular touch with the UK and the EU, and it seems that all of these actors are planning to impose economic sanctions on the Maldives if there is any further worsening of the political situation there. Even as the ‘sanctions option’ is under consideration by South Block mandarins, MEA also seems to be sounding out other players invested in the Maldives to craft a broader approach to resolving the crisis. India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, who just completed a visit to Saudi Arabia is learnt to have broached the Maldivian question with the Saudi leadership. It should be noted that Riyadh wields considerable religious as well as economic influence over the island country.
India, as per diplomatic sources, wants Riyadh to use its influence in the Maldives and persuade Yameen to step down from office, so that normalcy can return to the island country where a presidential election is due sometime in September this year. It is worth remembering, that the Maldivian Supreme Court had annulled the first round of presidential polls in September 2013, after opposition parties had leveled allegations of serious irregularities during that election leading to fresh elections in November, later that year. Now in 2018, fears of the possibility of another unfair election have resurfaced among the current set of opposition leaders in the country, what with the Yameen government’s handling of the Supreme Court’s ruling, its apparent disregard for democratic values and the muzzling of press freedom. Television channels have been forced to go off air and newspaper houses have been shutdown, while journalists, including an Indian national working for a foreign media house, have been arrested. It is in this atmosphere of fear and chaos in the Maldives, that a rumour is circulating that India may support a military coup against Yameen. MEA officials have however rubbished such rumours, terming them as “baseless” and a “figment of the imagination.”
Earlier, India turned down Male’s request to allow Yameen’s special envoy and Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim to visit New Delhi to put forward the perspective of the incumbent Maldivian government. This fact was disclosed by the Maldivian government itself, while refuting Indian media reports which suggested that Yameen had decided to send envoys to “friendly countries” like China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but not to India. Interestingly, the announcement for sending special envoys to friendly nations came from the Maldivian President’s office hours after China, in an obvious reference to India, warned against military intervention in the Maldives.
Beijing has said that such an intervention would “complicate matters” in the tiny Indian Ocean nation. Incidentally, China’s statement came after former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, who is in self-exile in Sri Lanka, called India to use its military to end political turmoil in his country. Though India may have no immediate plan to undertake an ‘Operation Cactus’ like step, when it sent troops to Male in 1988 to nullify an attempted overthrow of the then Maldivian government by a small mercenary army, New Delhi has made it clear that it is “disturbed” by the imposition of emergency in the country by Yameen.
In light of the prevailing situation in the Maldives, sources say, the possibility of a military coup against President Yameen cannot be ruled out altogether, despite what MEA is saying officially at the moment. India, after all, has deep links with the military over there. It was back in the 1970s, when New Delhi helped the island country set up its military school in Male. Many Maldivian defence officials, including the current Chief of its Armed Forces have attended military training programmes in India. Military ties remain robust, with the eighth edition of a joint exercise between the Indian army and the Maldivian National Defence Force being held recently.
Significantly, China which signed a free trade agreement with Maldives during Yameen’s recent visit to Beijing, has scrupulously avoided making any adverse references to the imposition of emergency rule by Male. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gesn Shuang in a regular press conference on February 6, 2018 said: “China has been closely following the situation in Maldives. We hope various parties of Maldives will properly resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation, resume the normal order as soon as possible and maintain national and social stability. We believe the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and capabilities to cope with the current situation independently.”
China is of course involved in several infrastructure projects in the island nation, including the ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ that connects capital Male with Hulhumale where the island country’s lone airport is located. Incidentally, this airport was initially contracted to be built by Indian construction firm GMR. But once Yameen assumed power in 2013, his government abruptly cancelled the agreement with GMR, following which the company took the case to the international tribunal which gave a verdict in its favour in 2016 and asked the Maldivian government to pay $270 million in compensation, a not unsubstantial sum for a small country like the Maldives. Surprisingly, Male paid this amount rather promptly, leading to an enduring suspicion that it is actually China which made this sum available to the Maldives at the time.
In August 2017, Male also permitted three Chinese warships to dock at its port, despite statements in the past that it would support the militarization of the IOR. In the Indian Ocean, the strategic significance of the Maldives can be gauged from the fact that it is very close to international sea lanes through which two-thirds of the world’s annual energy supplies pass. As such, a spurt in political turmoil in the Maldives has triggered concern among the strategic community in India. Yet, New Delhi presently wants to keep itself engaged in sending messages to Male even as other options may be on the table. The Maldives is, after all, the only SAARC country that Prime Minister Modi has not yet visited, speaking volumes of the current levels of mutual trust enjoyed by the two sides.
Shankar Kumar is a veteran journalist with decades of experience in covering political events of transnational importance. He lives in New Delhi.
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