After Nepal in the north, has India lost its littoral neighbour to the south, Maldives, to China as well?
Even as New Delhi was coming to terms with the emergence of the Communist alliance in Nepal as the winner in the recent elections – an event that could further contribute to the growing Chinese influence in the country, another neighbour, down south, appears to be slipping away from India’s fold.
The Maldives, under its President Abdulla Yameen, is rushing to embrace China, junking its self-professed ‘India First’ policy. The bend towards Beijing saw Yameen push through the Majalis a controversial free-trade agreement (FTA) with China, in an emergency sitting, in which the opposition was kept out. This is the first ever FTA signed by the Maldives and makes it only the second South Asian nation after Pakistan to establish one with China.The FTA was ratified just days ahead of Yameen’s visit to China early December.
Yameen signed 12 agreements during his visit - third since taking power in 2013 - to Beijing, among them a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperation on China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative – part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that India has opposed for the lacking transparency and respect for sovereignty, and creating unsustainable debt burden. Maldives’ external debt, according to International Monetary Fund projections, currently stands at 34.7 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, and is expected to rise to around 51 per cent by 2021. Two-thirds of this debt is owed to China.
These developments, which will have a direct bearing on India’s economic and security interests in the region, suggest that the chill in relations is getting deeper. Much of it is the making of Maldives’ internal politics.
This, however, is not a new trend. Internal politics in neighbouring countries and New Delhi’s response to it has always affected their relations with India, Nepal being the latest case in point.
Political Turmoil In Maldives
The Maldives has been mired in political unrest since its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in 2012. Yameen, who came to power in 2013, has been accused of authoritarianism and imprisoning political opponents, including former President Nasheed, under trumped-up charges.
The opposition, rallied by Nasheed, has been trying to stage a democratic coup against Yameen. In July 2017, Maldives United Opposition, a coalition of four parties which were once rivals, brought a no-confidence motion against Yameen’s key ally and the speaker of the parliament, Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed, to deal a political blow to the President. In the 85-member house where 42 signatures are required to move the motion, the trust-vote gained the support of at least 45 members. The move failed as four members who supported the motion were stripped of their seats in the parliament under the ‘anti-defection law’. It did, however, erode Yameen’s majority as ten members from the his party joined the motion.
Yameen has since intensified his crackdown on the opposition, using the Army at one point to prevent opposition members from entering the parliament.
In the local-body elections held in May 2017, Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party and its allies had won 319 seats while Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives won just 91. Nasheed, who is barred from contesting elections, has called on the opposition to come up with a ‘transitional presidential candidate’ to take on Yameen in the polls due this year. Yameen, knowing that that political winds are not blowing in his favour, has been trying to divide the opposition. As the country heads to polls, instability is expected to increase.
India is treading a thin line in the Maldives. It’s approach so far has been to not take sides in the political battle, but it has remained in touch with the opposition and has expressed support for democracy and stability. Yameen’s failure to deliver on this front and his unwillingness to reconcile with the opposition has been the cause of growing frustration in New Delhi, which often finds itself caught in the middle. While India continues to engage Yameen to prevent him from cosying up to China, it has also been nudging him to reach an accommodation with the opposition. It was under pressure from India that Yameen allowed Nasheed to leave the country.
India has, however, not shied away from expressing its discontent with Yameen from time to time. Cancellation of Prime Minister Modi’s planned trip to the Maldives in 2015 was one such instance. The Maldives is the only neighbour that Modi has not visited since he took office. Although India has not publicly commented on the political situation in the country and the arrest of opposition leaders, it has conveyed its displeasure behind closed doors. A rebuke is also believed to have been delivered for not keeping India in the loop on the free trade deal with China.
When India rolled out the red carpet for Yameen in 2016, it was said that New Delhi was finally pandering to one side. This assertion proved to be incorrect as Yameen’s welcome in New Delhi was followed by Nasheed’s first visit to India after he went into exile. Other opposition members have also visited New Delhi for support.
Yameen and his supporters, however, view India with suspicion. In run-up to Maldive’s 2013 elections, Yameen’s camp had publicly accused India of working against him. Other events, such as Nasheed’s decision to take ‘refuge’ in the Indian High Commission in Male - much to India’s irritation, New Delhi’s expression of concern over the “arrest and manhandling” of Nasheed in the court, and support for democracy and stability, have further fueled distrust.
What’s At Stake?
Located just 500km away of the southern coast of India, Maldives is made up of over 1,000 islands. These islands, straddling vital sea lines of communication (SLOC), stretch around 800km into the Indian Ocean.
The One and a Half Degree Channel, a major international shipping passage - mostly for vessels looking to avoid the Malacca Strait chock point that connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and pass through other access points such as Sunda and Lombok Straits - lies between the atolls of Maldives. In April 2016, Maldives reportedly offered its Gaadhoo Island - located at the entrance to the One and a Half Degree Channel - to China for development of a port.
China’s Maritime Silk Road is said to pass through Ihavandhippolhu, Maldives' northernmost atoll located close to India’s Lakshadweep Islands. Ihavandhippolhu sits in the middle of the Seven and Eight Degree Channels, which connect Middle East, Europe and Africa to Southeast Asia and China through the east-west shipping route. Over $18 trillion worth of goods are transported using this route annually.
Ihavandhippolhu atoll is also the site of the strategic iHavan project, Maldives’ ambitious plan to build a transhipment port and an export processing zone to tap into trade between China, India and other Indian Ocean littoral states.
The MoU on Maritime Silk Road, signed during Yameen’s visit to Beijing, could soon translate into actual cooperation, resulting in China getting contracts to build the infrastructure. The project reportedly rides on high-interest Chinese loans, which are certain to push the Maldives into a debt trap. As seen in case of Sri Lanka, Beijing would offer relaxation in exchange of control over projects it financed once Male falls into the trap.
The argument that Yameen would not move in this direction for the fear of upsetting India does not hold ground. Much to India’s displeasure, Yameen gave a Chinese firm the contract to upgrade the international airport that serves Male during President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014. The contract was first awarded to India’s GMR Group in 2010 and cancelled abruptly in 2012. In July last year, his government passed the land ownership reform bill, which will allow foreign ownership of land in the Maldives, provided that 70 per cent of it is reclaimed and the owner invests more than $1bn in the country. The bill is seen as helping China, that leads the world in land reclamation. In August, at the peak of the Doklam crisis, when China was reminding India of the humiliation in 1962, Yameen disregarded New Delhi’s request to not allow three Chinese warships to dock in Male.
Chinese Naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region has been on the rise since the late 2000s. In recent years, India has spotted Chinese submarines - both conventional and nuclear - in the Indian Ocean. Until now, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has been deploying warships and submarines in the region under the pretext of anti-piracy operations. It recently operationalised its first overseas military base in Djibouti and acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Pakistan’s Gwadar ports on a 99-year and 40-year lease respectively. With its increasing investment in the region, China will soon have another excuse to legitimise its permanent presence in waters close to the Indian coast. While these developments have already disturbed India’s maritime security calculus, a Chinese naval presence in the Maldives would further complicate the situation for India on the security fronts. Chinese naval presence would also be undesirable for the United States, which has its only Indian Ocean base in Diego Garcia - located south of the Maldives.
What Lies Ahead?
If the results of the recent local body polls in the Maldives are a reflection of the electorate’s mood, Yameen could be voted out of power in elections due in the second half of 2018. However, trumped-up charges against a number of opposition leaders have left them ineligible to participate in the elections. Although Nasheed has called for a joint candidate, the united opposition is nowhere near finalising one. Opposition’s inability to field a joint candidate will prove beneficial for Yameen, who has been trying to exploit the fissures in the united opposition.
By some accounts, Yameen has been trying to make sure that the “elections will not matter”. Any attempt on Yameen’s part to sabotage the elections will reduce India’s options, force New Delhi to change its tactics, and may end badly for him.
But, even if the opposition comes to power, all of Indian’s problems may not end. It was under former President Nasheed, who has criticised Yameen for moving closer to China and has in various interviews said he would review the deals signed with Beijing by the current regime, that China’s embassy in the Maldives was inaugurated on the day former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in the country for the 2011 summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Maldive’s former Home Minister Umar Naseer, who recently joined the opposition and announced his intention to contest the upcoming election, has said that “India has to be the key player (in the Indian Ocean), but not the only player. India will be our number one partner, while keeping China as an economic partner”. It is a view shared by many in the united opposition.
Despite this, a change of guard in Male is expected to arrest Maldive’s further descent into China’s fold, if not make things better for India instantly.
New Delhi will be watching the upcoming elections in the country closely, expecting results on the lines of Sri Lanka’s 2015 elections in which Mahinda Rajapaksa - who chose to play the China card with India more often than not - lost power to Ranil Wickremesinghe-Maithripala Sirisena combine that it quietly encouraged. India had played a prominent role in bringing Wickremesinghe and Sirisena together, even as it maintained a low profile ahead of the election.
For now, India is not expected to push Yameen too far. It, however, will find it increasingly difficult to remain a mute spectator as things boil over.