External Affairs

Did India Read Maldives Right?

Maldives artificial beach. Credit: Hani Amir, CC 2.0

Maldives artificial beach. Credit: Hani Amir, CC 2.0

Notwithstanding promises made by the Maldives that the new land ownership law in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation isn’t aimed at helping China build a military base close to the Indian coast, New Delhi seems unsure, if not totally unconvinced on this score. That is probably one of the reasons why Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar is in Male today. But these doubts also raise a more fundamental question: Has India been reading the Maldives correctly? Indeed, this question applies not just to the recent developments but to India’s policies since the inception of multi-party democracy in the country, where the facilitating role was played by its one-time British ‘Protector’ and the West – and not New Delhi, as one would want to believe.

Tempered by the post-independence history of regional equations in South Asia, India has traditionally been shy to state its position clearly on issues impacting domestic politics in individual nations. Though it has often conveyed its reservations and even displeasure whenever India’s security has been affected, New Delhi has seldom gone public about this.

This reluctance to speak has thrown up situations in which domestic players in its ‘traditional sphere of influence’ have tended to claim different things for and on behalf of India. In the post-Cold War era, for instance, self-styled ‘liberal’ parties in neighbourhood nations such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have presented themselves as Indian allies in what is essentially an effort to get India to further their own political prospects on their respective home fronts.

As a corollary, political ‘conservatives’ in the region like Khaleda Zia’s BNP and its Jamaat ally are reflexively seen as ‘anti-India’. While such a characterisation may not be wrong, it is important to recognise that the guiding factor is not ‘India’, nor ‘democracy’, but the tools available to political players in individual nations to settle local scores. If at all ‘democracy’ has a say in the matter, it is perfunctory and incidental.

Land ownership

The present Indian concern flows from the fast-tracked Maldivian law conferring ownership of islands with 70 per cent reclaimed land, and upwards of $1 billion in investments, on foreign entities. As if to address the anticipated concerns of India, and maybe the US, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has said the new measure was designed only to bring in specific mega-investment projects and did not pose any risk to the stability or security of the Indian Ocean.

More specifically, Yameen, after ratifying the fast-tracked Bill, stated that bilateral relations with nations do not have to be impacted by such changes to policies. The Miadhu said that President Yameen had also assured regional nations that the Indian Ocean will always remain a demilitarised zone. As long as the foreign policy of the nation did not change, there would be no cause for concern, locally or internationally, he said.

What President Yameen did not say was that the foreign policy of his nation has indeed changed since he took over in November 2013.

Reportedly in the works even before he took over and released on 20 January 2014 – only a fortnight or so after his return from a maiden overseas visit to India – the new policy promised “to strive to make Maldivians proud by making the country a resilient nation – to increase opportunities for the economic advancement of Maldivians and to promote the national interests of the Maldives through innovative approaches.” The new policy also promised to “protect the Islamic identity of the Maldives and help to promote the values of Islam internationally” and “promote greater regional cooperation in South Asia”.

Going by the policy outline, the Yameen leadership’s tilt towards China seems to have been written into it – or, is it the other way round? Under Yameen’s rule, the Maldives has also been tilting back again towards Saudi Arabia for the endless funds only these two nations seem willing to provide.

Yet, on the aspect of the Maldives working to “promote greater regional co-operation”, the Yameen leadership seems to be  falling short in the eyes of India. During his New Year’s Day India visit in 2014, Yameen said his country “is looking to India’s leadership to resolve pressing regional issues”. If India had misread him, it was in his possibly implying that the shoe was on the other foot, that India needed to keep its house in order on bilateral issues in the neighbourhood.

‘No military base’

Chinese President Xi Jinping andMaldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives, September 2014

Chinese President Xi Jinping andMaldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives, September 2014

The Hindu has quoted the new Maldivian Vice-President Ahmed Adeeb as saying, “We don’t want to give any of our neighbours, including India, any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours.” Vice-President Adeeb rejected the Maldivian Opposition’s concerns about the militarisation of the islands. “We are looking at projects like Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands or Dubai’s Palm Islands. We are not looking at strategic projects.”

An interesting reaction to perceived Indian concerns has come from China. Though New Delhi has not officially reacted thus far to the Maldivian law and/or its intentions, the state-run People’s Daily said India’s apprehensions that Beijing could establish a military base in the Maldives were without ground. Taking off from where China’s Military White Paper had left matters in May, the newspaper quoted a senior military official as saying that China did not own any military base abroad, nor did it seek military expansion. The People’s Daily also referred to President Yameen’s statement in this regard.

A commentary in China Daily quoted Fu Xiaoqiang of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations that Chinese investors and construction companies might benefit from the amendment, given China’s advanced technology in land reclamation. He stressed that the Indian media had long questioned China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. “They have to get used to it, as it will become normal with more and more Chinese enterprises going abroad,” he said.

Indian dilemma

Has India read Maldives and other Indian Ocean neighbours wrong? Is its current policy – of maintaining a stoic silence in public but fretting, if not fuming, inside – the right one? The Indian dilemma flows from New Delhi’s inability to adapt its foreign policy to changing times.

India has continued to retain the post-Independence foreign policy of ‘friendship with all’, but with the rider that ‘some friends are more equal than others’. After the Cold War, for example, India moved away from the erstwhile Moscow-centric orbit to a Washington-focussed foreign and security policy – justifiably, if not rightly, so. In keeping with the new dynamic, China has emerged as the ‘security threat’ to India in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

In this  context, the American ‘String of Pearls’ theory –  which captured India’s imagination just as it was trying to adjust to the post-Cold War situation – keeps reappearing in the national strategic discourse. Even as India opened itself up to foreign investment and finance capital and is today busy wooing even Chinese FDI, the Indian strategic community  is not ready to give political and developmental space to smaller neighbours that are eternally in need of external financing and investment.

This is not to say India does not have strategic concerns vis-a-vis China in the Indian Ocean. For instance, neither the Rajapaksa leadership in Sri Lanka then, nor the Yameen presidency in Maldives now, nor Beijing, on its part, has explained to India the reasons behind Chinese submarines treading the waters of the Indian Ocean, closer to India than ever before. Otherwise, independent of the perception of the Indian strategic community, policymakers in New Delhi, starting with the political leadership, ought not to have any problem with smaller neighbours seeking Chinese development aid – even if this comes at high rates of interest.

Inherent inadequacies

It may be true, as the People’s Daily claimed, that China has the latest technology for land-reclamation and also the financial and human resources to invest on projects of the kind that President Yameen envisions. The fact also remains that his much-publicised SEZ project, for which again Parliament rushed through the relevant legislation, is yet to take off in the promised way, possibly owing to the inherent inadequacies of the Maldivian economy – like land, labour and market – all of which were obvious all along.

Adeeb, who remains in charge of the SEZ project, had once said Indian investors too were interested. However, the entire scheme is believed to have been conceived mainly with Chinese funds in mind. If land-reclamation were an inevitable part of the project, it was never ever mentioned.

In between, Yameen’s Maldives also signed off an island in the Laamu Atoll, for an exclusive Chinese tourism resort. During the regime of MDP President Mohammed Nasheed, the Chinese were known to have submitted a proposal to develop an entire atoll, to take China’s budget tourists’ figures to a million a year. The chances of the original project being revived in its entirety and in stages cannot be ruled out, but the Indian concern, if any, should be based not on the numbers but on the exclusivity of the arrangement.

In the immediate context of the fast-tracked Maldivian law and the Chinese claims to expertise in land-reclamation, it would seem that the script had possibly been written long ago, and both sides are playing their respective roles to the hilt. Rather than denying the Indian strategic community’s concerns, both the Maldives and China could assuage official Indian sentiments, if any, by clarifying the details of the projects that are now being considered.

However, the Chinese interest in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere along the ‘String of Pearls’, should not be considered in isolation – or as something aimed only at India’s immediate concerns and claims to big power status. It should also be considered in the context of the American military base of Diego Garcia, not far away, coming up for renewal when the 50-year-old British contract expires in 2016. If India has concerns on that score, again, it has said nothing in public. But then, the Indian strategic community too has been silent for reasons best known to it.

Yameen in control?

The haste with which the land-ownership Bill has been passed by Parliament within days of it being tabled has caused concerns even inside Maldives. None other than Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) founder-chairman, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had expressed reservations about the Bill, which, he said, had raised common concerns over Maldivian sovereignty and security. Gayoom sought a public referendum on the issue.

However, the government has dismissed the concerns expressed by Gayoom, half-brother of President Yameen and Maldives’ longest-serving former President with 30 years in office. The question thus arises whether the PPM is heading for a split, and if the ageing Gayoom would lead it from the front, when his daughter, Dunya Maumoon, continues as Foreign Minister.

The PPM parliamentary voting pattern – none from the party voted against or abstained – even after Gayoom’s tweet on the land ownership bill, would show that Yameen is in control, at least for now. As far as the political Opposition is concerned, the Yameen leadership seems to have had a hand in Jumhooree Party (JP) founder-leader and business tycoon Gasim Ibrahim declaring his near-retirement from active politics after the government froze his bank accounts for non-payment of $90-million in revenue-dues.

MDP’s former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed had his court-ordered 13-year jail-term in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, converted into one of house-arrest, but the party has claimed that the government has not kept its word on freedom for their leader and 1400 other ‘political prisoners’ arrested for anti-Yameen street-protests/violence over the past months. Nasheed remains possibly the most popular Maldivian leader, but his chances of contesting the 2018 presidential polls hinge on the appeal court(s) clearing him of all charges in the ‘Abdulla case’ and/or President Yameen granting him clemency after amending the relevant laws, to reduce the three-year moratorium on prison-free persons contesting elections.

Cancelled Modi visit

From the Indian perspective, it is worth asking whether New Delhi provoked President Yameen, what with Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrubbing Maldives from his four-nation, Indian Ocean tour in March.

Yameen, like his predecessors, had made India his first overseas destination after assuming office, even after his camp had publicly stated that India was working against him in the 2013 presidential polls. The polls occurred when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in power in India, and under the shadow of the GMR row, which had strained bilateral relations when President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik was in power. On a rebound, Maldives paid up the $50 million that State Bank of India had loaned, but no one in Delhi seems to have asked how a cash-strapped nation could whip up such huge funds without effort and on schedule.

Yameen also visited New Delhi at the invitation of Prime Minister Modi for the latter’s inauguration in May 2014. His government was possibly seeking greater Indian acceptance – rather than legitimacy, which was theirs already – with Modi’s scheduled visit in March 2015, but the event got cancelled right after the arrest and fast-tracked trial and imprisonment of Nasheed for 13 years.

The Maldivian trial court pronounced its verdict on the day Modi landed in neighbouring Sri Lanka. It happened to be a Friday, a regular weekly holiday for the Maldivian government, including the courts. Yet, barring a stray statement on Nasheed being dragged into a Male court hall, India did not comment on the ‘internal affairs’ of the Maldives, despite being egged on by many in the international community, both overtly and covertly.

There is no denying the fact India has yet to draw up an all-weather neighbourhood policy applicable to all situations, starting with domestic political developments and changes in individual nations.

In the case of the Maldives,  Indian policymakers unthinkingly yielded to speculative reports about the possible increase in Islamic fundamentalism and consequent anti-India militancy emanating from that country when President Gayoom was in office. There had also been unconfirmed reports, fed possibly by the political opposition in that country at the time, about China getting a naval base in the Maldives – which proved wrong at the time.

During the Maldives democracy era, an impression got created that India favoured President Nasheed against his political opponents and nothing was done to erase that impression, which was again speculative at best. The GMR fiasco, in which the Government of India too did not do ‘due diligence’ at the highest levels, and the consequent use of street-power in Male to have the deal rescinded after President Nasheed’s controversial, none-too-unexpected exit, did not help matters.

Yes-and-No

If India’s concerns about China’s military engagement with Maldives were true, could Prime Minister Modi’s visit in March have helped? The answer is, Yes and No.

Ahead of Nasheed’s arrest and the revival of a long-pending case this year, his MDP had demanded Yameen give up the President’s job, without citing any valid reason or justification. Nasheed himself predicted his imprisonment – where he was proved right later – and asked India to help out in such a case.

Earlier, too, GMR’s identification with the Nasheed presidency (which was inevitable, just as the Chinese investment proposals now are indelibly linked to Yameen), and Nasheed’s unilateral decision to take ‘refuge’ in the Indian High Commission in Male to avoid honouring a local court summons in the ‘Abdulla abduction case’, had made his critics  look at India with a suspicion India didn’t deserve.

Given the recent past, New Delhi could not have done much to erase the suspicions of the  Maldives leadership. However, a visit by Prime Minister Modi might have helped ease them somewhat. Of course, it could have been embarrassing for all concerned if at the time, emotionally-surcharged MDP supporters had filled Male’s narrow streets and there were to be police action to remove them when an Indian leader was in town. India ‘s reaction to Nasheed’s fall on the court premises the day after his arrest may have added Indian insult to unsubstantiated Maldivian injury.

Yet, even a prime ministerial visit might not have been an answer to continuing Indian suspicions about the Maldives-China relationship under President Yameen. He has made two visits to China within a year, while last year saw the first ever Chinese presidential visit to the Maldives when Xi Jinping arrived in Male as part of a South Asian tour that took him to India and Sri Lanka too. The Maldives has also signed up for the Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR). By visiting the Maldives, Modi could have erased some of the political suspicions of the Yameen leadership that relate to Maldivian domestic politics, but he would not have been able to convince Male to cancel developmental projects involving Chinese investment and participation. As India is realising in Sri Lanka, where a change of leadership has not led to the cancellation of the Colombo Port City project, its neighbours are unlikely to reduce China’s role in their economic plans.

N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com