Following political change in the Maldives, Sudha Ramachandran charts improvements in the island nation’s rapport with India
Indo-Maldivian relations, which until recently were roiled in choppy waters, seem to have entered calmer seas.
Two recent developments have boosted bilateral relations.One is that, in September last year, the Maldivian Democratic Party’s Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated the authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen to become the archipelago’s new leader. Yameen had built strong economic and strategic relations with China, ignoring the Maldives’ traditional ‘India First’ foreign policy. His defeat was seen in New Delhi as having cleared the way for the Maldives to correct its excessive tilt towards China over the past five years.
Then, in early April, the pro-India MDP won a landslide victory in general elections, securing a three-quarters majority in the 68-member People’s Majlis.With the MDP firmly in the saddle, the Maldives can expect long-elusive political stabilityas well as improved relations with India.
An Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,992 coral islands strewn across the Equator, the Maldives lies southwest of India, which considers it to fall within its sphere of influence. The Maldives also lies near important sea lanes of communication. Tankers carrying oil from West Asia to markets in India, China, Japan and South Korea pass through waters near the Maldives, conferring the archipelago with high strategic importance.
India’s relations with the Maldives go back several centuries and since Maldivian independence from British colonial rule in 1965, New Delhi has built close diplomatic, political, military and economic ties with Male. Indeed, India’s support for President Maumoon Abdul Gayoomplayed an important role in the survival of his three-decade-long authoritarian rule, with Delhi even sending para-commandos to avert a coup against him in 1988. Since the mid-2000s, India has supported the Maldives’ democratisation.
Bilateral relations warmed significantly during MDP leader Mohamed Nasheed’s presidency (2008-2012) but went into a tailspin with his ouster, especially when his successor Mohamed Waheed cancelled a contract with India’s GMR Infrastructure for the development of Male Airport.However, it was during Yameen’s presidency (November 2013-November 2018) that Indo-Maldivian relations touched rock-bottom.As Yameen’s ties with India frayed, he moved closer to China.
Underlying Yameen’s tilt towards China was his bid to consolidate his grip on power. In addition to weakening the Maldives’ democratic institutions, jailing his political opponents and using the country’s anti-terrorism laws to eliminate his rivals, Yameen subverted the rule of law. He silenced the media and packed the judiciary with pliant judges. His undemocratic moves drew sharp criticism from India as well as western countries.
Meanwhile, Yameen developed strong ties with China, seeing in the latter a useful shield against outside intervention. In September 2014, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Male, Yameen gave China the contract to expand Male’s airport.
Subsequently, the Maldives signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese loans and financial assistance were used for infrastructure projects in the country, including the Sinamale Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island, and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb that Beijing built on reclaimed land. In December 2017, the Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, the second country in the world (after Pakistan) to have such a deal with Beijing.
The expansion of China’s footprint in the Maldives sent alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. India’s security establishment, which has been drawing attention to the implications for India’s security of its neighbours’ mounting debts to China, warned that unpaid debts would leave countries vulnerable to Chinese pressure to offer security concessions as repayment for loans. Sri Lanka, for instance, took huge loans from China for building ports and other infrastructure. Unable to pay back the loans, Sri Lanka subsequently handed over its strategically located Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease.
With the Maldives lying just 700 kilometres from India’s Lakshadweep Islands, India fears that China’s mounting presence there would undermine its national security. Such fears intensified when three Chinese warships docked at Male in September 2017. Reports in the media hinted that Yameen was considering offering the Chinese a Maldivian island to build a naval base.
So deep were Indian apprehensions of Yameen that when he declared an Emergency in February 2018, some Indian analysts called for a regime change in the archipelago that India could engineer through a military intervention there. Understandably, Yameen’s defeat in the presidential election a few months later evoked a sigh of relief in India.
Solih’s victory has improved ties between India and the Maldives. The new President announced that the Maldives’ foreign policy would reflect the ‘India First’ principle. High-level visits between India and the archipelago increased. In November, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended Solih’s swearing-in. When Solih visited New Delhi the following month, the two sides ‘reiterated their assurance of being mindful of each other’s concerns… and not allowing their respective territories to be used for any activity inimical to the other’. China wasn’t named but it was obvious who they were referring to. Importantly, India announced a $1.4-billion financial assistance package to the Maldives, aimed at reducing its dependence on China.The two sides also discussed maritime security cooperation through coordinated patrols and aerial surveillance in the Indian Ocean.
During Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Male in March, the two sides signed agreements, including Indian grant-in-aid for ‘high-impact community development projects’. Indian officials say that more substantial deals are likely to be sealed after the completion of the Indian general elections.
Although Solih promised during his election campaign to probe politicians and officials alleged to have accepted bribes from Chinese companies, he has not done so. This was largely because Solih’s attempt to set up a Presidential Commission to probe corruption was blocked by Parliament. The MDP’s sweeping victory in general elections paves the way for it to set up that commission now. The commission is expected to weaken the pro-China lobby in the Maldives.
Some in India expect the Maldivian government to roll-back some of the China-backed infrastructure projects. This is an unrealistic expectation as the Maldives will have to bear the price of cancelling Chinese projects. While itcan be expected to correct the excessive tilt towards China,to expect it to then lean fully on India is unfair and unrealistic.
Maldivian foreign policy experts say that while the Maldivian government will not allow its territory to be used for anti-India activities, it will avoid getting entangled in big power rivalries. It will seek good relations not just with India but also with China, the US, Japan, UK and other powers.
India’s tendency to blame China and Maldivian political leaders like Yameen for the archipelago’s pro-China tilt does not take into account its own role in leaving the space open for China to take on a massive role in the Maldives. Some of the infrastructure projects that went to China were reportedly offered to India first. India did not show interest. Its shallow pockets, relatively limited capacity for extending loans to other countries, slow pace of decision making and implementation of projects are to blame for China’s growing role in South Asia.
India cannot expect the Maldives alone to do the heavy lifting to improve India-Maldives relations. It needs to step up its performance as well. Friendship with Maldives will be sustained only if Maldives truly benefits from being friends with India.