Maldives crisis: India must consider military option in Male, can't afford Chinese vassal state in backyard

India must take stock, understand the game China is playing in Maldives, and not rule out military intervention from its basket of tools to mitigate a tricky situation in our neighbourhood. In Maldives, India’s security interests and policy prerogatives find a rare alignment.

Not only has President Abdulla Yameen crushed civil liberties, undermined democracy and weakened institutions in a desperate bid to stay in power, his actions pose a direct threat to India’s strategic interests and stability in Indian Ocean region.

 Maldives crisis: India must consider military option in Male, cant afford Chinese vassal state in backyard

File image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

On Monday, this writer argued in favour of a coercive strategy from New Delhi over abstention in Maldives. Developments over the past 24 hours have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, and it is no longer is a question of whether India should intervene, but when.

Any hesitation at this point will result in India permanently ceding crucial strategic space to China. We cannot afford to have a Chinese vassal state in our backyard.

Political turbulence isn’t new in Maldives. What’s new is the defiance and audacity of President Yameen who has now taken on a combined Opposition, the judiciary and (until now) is staving off considerable international pressure led by the United States and India. The authoritarian president’s boldness is incompatible with his moral turpitude and the tiny military force at his command. It is obvious that Yameen, who pivoted rapidly towards China and Saudi Arabia during his reign, is drawing strength from actors who wouldn’t want to topple his regime.

Half-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen rose to power in 2013 by defeating president Nasheed in polls that were widely alleged to be rigged. The latest crisis was precipitated when the Supreme Court read him the riot act and ordered him to release former president Nasheed and other political prisoners.

The order would have reduced Yameen’s Progressive Party to a minority in parliament. In response, the beleaguered president ignored the Supreme Court and shot off three letters to Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and fired police chiefs who refused to comply with his diktats.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Yameen sent the paradisiacal archipelago into a tailspin by declaring a 15-day state of emergency citing ‘threat to national security’.

Yameen, using the sweeping powers which protect him from being impeached by parliament and which limit the judiciary’s influence, took a series of unconstitutional actions. At the dead of Monday night/early Tuesday former president Gayoom and his son-in-law were arrested after police broke into their residence. Security forces simultaneously stormed the Supreme Court complex and took Chief Justice Saeed and Ali Hameed into custody for an “ongoing probe”. No details were forthcoming.

Reuters reported that Gayoom was taken to the prison island of Dhoonidhoo: “I have not committed any crime. This arrest is unlawful. I will remain strong, and I ask the beloved people to remain strong,” said the former president, who ruled Maldives for 30 years and now is a key member of the Opposition.

Yameen also clamped down on press freedom. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) asked President Yameen to “stop threatening and harassing news outlets and allow them to operate freely.” In a report, CPJ listed instances of government bullying of TV stations and news websites. Online news portal Maldives Independent, which live tweeted some developments, reported that it was under a cyber-attack "designed to coincide with the state of emergency."

Rajje TV, another critic of the government, was facing a shutdown after threats of arson and journalists reportedly faced stone-pelting. Journalists of news portal Avas and Mihaaru were also questioned by government agencies.

Apart from press clampdown, Yameen also showed scant regard for advisories from India, western powers and the United Nations. The United States released a series of reactions calling for a restoration of democracy, safeguard of institutions and “rule of law” in Maldives.

In a media statement, India asked the Yameen regime to “respect and abide by the order of the apex court”

“We have seen last night’s order of the Supreme Court of Maldives releasing all political prisoners. In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court. We also hope that the safety and security of the Indian expatriates in Maldives will be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances. As a close and friendly neighbour, India wishes to see a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives. We are closely monitoring the evolving situation.”

According to the United Kingdom's official response “the damage being done to democratic institutions in Maldives and the sustained misuse of process in parliament is deeply worrying.” All the reactions have a common thread: Restoration of democracy and rule of law in Maldives.

Beijing, however, has not criticised the Yameen government or called for restoration of rule of law in Male. It instead issued a travel advisory for Chinese nationals and asked the Yameen regime to ensure the well-being of Chinese citizens, institutions and entities, and called for “resolution of differences through dialogue”.

It is obvious that China is unconcerned with democracy or safeguarding of civil liberties in Maldives. If Yameen has lurched towards authoritarianism, he couldn’t have done it without tacit backing from Beijing. For China, Yameen serves a dual role. The tin-pot dictator has opened up Maldivian economy to Chinese mercantilism in a big way and is well on his way to turn the archipelago into a Chinese naval base.

Chinese companies are bagging Maldivian islands on lease and as the country goes deeper and deeper into Chinese debt, it will have no option but to sell its way out of trouble. China’s coercive playbook, which relies on a debt-trap mechanism to increase its real estate and influence in the Indian Ocean region, is on full display.

For India, the Chinese challenge is both ideological and strategic. China is crippling Maldivian economy, a move that was put on steroids since the signing of Free-Trade Agreement which the Yameen government passed in a hurry. A Male journalist told Nikkei Asian Review, “Soon we will have to obey everything China wants for the next century. We will lose our sovereignty.”

As a liberal democracy, India will soon be ring-fenced by nations that have replicated China’s authoritarian model. This has been China’s biggest export since the post-Cold War paradigm gave way to its dominance.

As Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner write in Democracy Journal, the “real threat posed by China isn’t economic or military, it’s ideological.” They argue: “The ‘China model’ powerfully combines two components: illiberal capitalism... and illiberal sovereignty, an approach to international relations that emphasises the inviolability of national borders in the face of international intervention. China’s rise, in turn, presents a successful and, in many nations’ eyes, increasingly legitimate model for national development, one that poses a distinct alternative to Western-style democratic liberalism.”

India stands on the cusp of an inflection point in its foreign policy. It has, in the past, carried out military operations inside Maldives, though that was at the invitation of the Maldivian president when Gayoom sought Rajiv Gandhi’s help in 1988 to stave off a mercenary threat.

Now, its actions may be tantamount to interventionism in domestic affairs but if it fails to act, its non-action would be tantamount to endorsing an authoritarian president bent on crushing democracy and cosying up to China at India’s expense.

Former Maldivian president Nasheed, now in exile, urged India to act swiftly on Twitter:

Any military intervention from India will also have a tacit backing from western powers and the ‘quad’ nations who wouldn’t want to see another country become a torchbearer for Chinese illiberalism. Above all else, India must secure its strategic interests. There are a range of coercive, tactical and military actions to choose from.

Manu Pubby reported in The Print that Indian troops have been put on standby. Maldives presents a case where procrastination will skew cost-benefit estimates. The time to act is now.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 07:13:35 IST

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