The visit of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa to the Maldives could not have been particularly comfortable for India. Bajwa became the first foreign dignitary to visit Maldives following the imposition of the 45-day Emergency which was lifted 22 March. The statements attributed to General Bajwa and President Abdulla Yameen were not out of the ordinary, what is significant, however, is the visit itself. It is a sign of closer coordination between Chinese and Pakistani policy in South-west Asia and the western Indian Ocean region.
It may be recalled that in December 2017, President Yameen visited China shortly after the Parliament approved an FTA with Beijing. Maldives became the second South Asian nation after Pakistan to have one with China. He committed his country to take an active part in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Even so, India has broadly signalled that it will not intervene in the Maldives for the present. A report by Jyoti Malhotra in The Indian Express says that New Delhi has told Beijing that it will not intervene in Maldives and that it expected the latter to reciprocate this gesture of “strategic trust” and not do anything which would negatively impact on the country’s security. The unnamed official told Malhotra that “The days when India believed that South Asia was its primary sphere of influence… are long gone.”
Taken together with a recent observation by the Indian ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale that China needed to be sensitive to Indian concerns in Doklam, this move signals an effort by New Delhi to work out a modus vivendi with China in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region.
It would be tempting to see it as a sign of weakness, however it is actually a measure of Indian self-confidence. In the past few years, Indian policy may have had its hits and misses in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan (Doklam) but it has shown that it will not hesitate to react to any move that impinges on Indian security. At the same time, however, it will not get neurotic about every move by external powers to interact with India’s neighbours..
There can be little doubt that Maldives occupies a hugely important location with regard to India. It lies a little south of the sea lanes that connect eastern and western India, and it also sits at the head of international sea lanes that take traffic from the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz to eastern India, South-east Asia and East Asia.
Over the years, and after many interventions, New Delhi has learnt that it is easy to intervene in a neighbouring country, but that managing the consequences of an intervention can be complicated. Smaller countries in the neighbourhood are naturally inclined to play off bigger powers to expand their own leverage, but a self confident policy rooted in a mature understanding of national interest can prevent needless heartburn and cost.
In the past couple of years, Maldives has steadily sought to move away from India. It began with the cancellation of a contract to an Indian company for an airport project in 2012. Subsequently a Chinese company was given the contract. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives in September 2014. He got the support of the strategic maritime nation for his BRI. China has taken up several projects in the island, including a road bridge between Male and Hulhule airport.
In 2015, Maldives passed a new law allowing foreigners to own land on the Maldives if they invested more than $ 1 billion and more than 70 per cent of the land was reclaimed from the sea. Given China’s expertise in reclamation, this looked like a measure tailor made for Beijing. As part of this the Maldivian government has leased the Feydhoo Finolhu island to a Chinese company for a period of 50 years.
The big Indian concern is of Chinese maritime activities in the Maldives. There have been periodic reports about the sale of the Gadhoo island in the southern part of the country. The report that China and Maldives are planning to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in its western most atoll of Makunudhoo could not be too comforting. The Maldivians claim that this is a meteorological station, but it could well be the thin edge of the wedge of a facility for monitoring maritime traffic since it is perhaps the closest to India. As such till now Maldives has had close relations with India on the security front. Given its proximity, Indian security can be affected by developments in the island-nation.
As of now, India is likely to wait till September when the Maldivian general elections are due. Indian policy is largely aligned with that of Europe and the US and should there be indicators that Yameen does not plan to go ahead with the elections, there could be consequences.
Though China has directed a huge volume of tourist traffic to the island helping it to keep its key earning sector going. The biggest source of tourists to Maldives is still Western Europe. Whether Male likes it or not, India’s proximity is a fact. It may be seen as a disadvantage by Yameen, but in the past, it has been useful such as in 1987 when India prevented a coup on the island, or in December 2014 when it rushed water supplies to the island when Male’s water treatment plant broke down.
Greater Kashmir April 2, 2018