Maldives: Act swiftly to keep China contained

Columnist  | Neena Gopal

Opinion, Columnists

India’s foot-dragging on signing an FTA, which Male believed had been all but agreed on during President Yameen’s 2016 visit, is one such example.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi

There are no dates as yet, no formal announcement. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have made one small concession to Maldives President Abdulla Yameen’s special representative, foreign minister Mohammed Asim, on his recent New Delhi visit.

The Maldives foreign ministry believes the opening foray of its newly-dusted “India First” pitch to reverse the deteriorating relationship will see Mr Modi agree to make his first trip to the Maldives, the only South Asian country he hasn’t visited since he took office in 2014. In 2015, a scheduled visit was swiftly cancelled when the archipelago erupted in political ferment.

So far, Indian officials have said little or nothing on a forthcoming Modi visit — if there’s to be even one at all — or for that matter, the discussions during Mr Asim’s visit, the resounding silence signalling continuing Indian ambivalence. Given the long-running mutual distrust that now mars relations between New Delhi and a country that was once one of its closest allies in the neighbourhood, that isn’t at all surprising.

What can India realistically expect? Has the Maldivian horse already bolted?

The Maldivian overture, its timing and intent seem mystifying, especially as it’s all too clear that one visit by the Indian Prime Minister  to the archipelago is unlikely to alter the dynamics of the Indo-Maldives relationship, soured by suspicion ever since India chose to back former President Mohammed Nasheed, even after he was ousted in 2012; a support that the Abdulla Yameen government has neither forgotten nor forgiven New Delhi for.

Male’s subsequent embrace of Beijing, after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit, is primarily driven by the Male leadership’s bid to play the two great powers in the region off against each other, and use China as a hedge against India. Mr Yameen’s convening of the Maldivian Parliament at midnight in December — which didn’t include members of the Opposition — to hurriedly push through a Free Trade Agreement with China, only reinforced New Delhi’s alarm at being outfoxed by China in its own backyard. The Maldives thus joins the ranks of Nepal and Pakistan, and to an extent even Sri Lanka, as the South Asian countries with whom India’s shambolic foreign policy has only worked to China’s advantage.

India’s foot-dragging on signing an FTA, which Male believed had been all but agreed on during President Yameen’s 2016 visit, is one such example. Maldivian officials, quick to allay Indian fears, say the Chinese aren’t a new entrant to the archipelago, and that Beijing was one of the first countries to set up its embassy in Male in the 1960s. But this is the new China, which, in leasing out islands like Feydhoo Finolhu and others on the cards, only reinforces India’s security concerns.

It’s unclear at this point whether the FTA with China will see India rushing in where the Chinese don’t fear to tread. Although, major Indian hotel chains have been part of the booming tourist industry, the Indian government’s unwillingness to invest in the Maldives after it had its fingers burnt with the GMR investment in the Ibrahim Nasr airport project, from which GMR was swiftly and embarrassingly ejected after a protracted legal battle and a payoff of $270 million, put Indian investment in the Maldives into a deep freeze.

On the surface, this India outreach may seem like a much needed course correction. In reality, it’s a pre-emptive move by the Yameen government to ensure there’s no repeat of Indian backing of Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party in the critical September 2018 presidential poll.

Male believes Delhi repeatedly crosses the red line, doing it again most recently when three local government officials — all from the MDP — were suspended for holding a secret meeting with Indian high commissioner Akhilesh Mishra, and restricting the envoy’s movements thereafter. A similar ban on meeting the Indian diplomat was issued to members of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives. No such curbs were placed on a visiting British diplomat or the resident Chinese envoy on holding similar meetings.

Second, despite greater immigration scrutiny forcing Maldivians to school their children in Sri Lanka rather than the earlier first choice of India, the people-to-people connect still remains strong. It’s this underlying support for India in a presidential election year that is an influencer in President Yameen’s India overture. A Modi visit that subtly backs the not-so-popular Mr Yameen could be an election game-changer.

Maldivians unfailingly hark back to the old Gayoom-Gandhi paradigm, when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rushed Indian troops, supported by the Navy, to the islands and swiftly restored President Abdul Gayoom to power in a matter of a few hours in November 1988. It’s easy to see that the military reality of an India now tied into the US-Japan-Australia “Quadrilateral” could be the other driver behind the New Delhi visit.

For India, the Maldives that looked to Delhi for guidance is long gone amid deepening concerns over radical Islam taking root in the more remote islands. The challenge before the Indian leadership in retaking control in this ocean of churn, therefore, are many. President Yameen has already pushed the island economy into a potential debt trap where it will remain beholden to Beijing, which has cleverly invested in the $100 million bridge project connecting Male with the reclaimed island of Hulhumale, a project that Male has long wanted. That this presages a forceful Chinese military-naval presence in the Maldives goes without saying. This also raises the spectre of the Maldives getting caught in any future India-China crossfire.

The Modi government may not be able to turn back the clock. But it must work for a quid pro quo that ups India’s presence on these strategic islands. From here on, it must shift the goalposts, allay the fears of the distrustful Maldives leadership. (Mr Yameen may share the Gayoom family name, but he doesn’t share his uncle’s political leanings.) Simultaneously, of course, it must move to contain the Maldives President’s China hand in India’s vulnerable underbelly. And bring Male in from the cold.