Maldives crisis: India must intervene militarily if Abdulla Yameen rebuffs peaceful mediation; masterly inactivity will embolden China

If New Delhi allows status-quo to be perpetuated in the Maldives, India's image as a potential superpower will receive a severe beating

Vinay Kaura February 22, 2018 10:22:04 IST
Maldives crisis: India must intervene militarily if Abdulla Yameen rebuffs peaceful mediation; masterly inactivity will embolden China

Will history be repeated after three decades of India’s military intervention in the Maldives? It must. India cannot afford to embrace ‘masterly inactivity’ in its strategic backyard. If New Delhi allows status-quo to be perpetuated in the Maldives, India's image as a potential superpower will receive a severe beating. It is, therefore, time to give a shut-up call to the undemocratic elements in India’s immediate neighbourhood who think that defiance of democracy is a ticket to greater political relevance in a world increasingly dominated by China.

Maldives crisis India must intervene militarily if Abdulla Yameen rebuffs peaceful mediation masterly inactivity will embolden China

File image of Abdulla Yameen and Narendra Modi. Twitter@PMOIndia

By extending the state of emergency by 30 days despite India talking tough, the Maldives’ undemocratic regime has clearly antagonised New Delhi and other democratic countries. At a time when India is yet to spell out its strategy towards the ongoing political and constitutional crisis in the Maldives, there are reports of Chinese warships sailing into the Indian Ocean. India’s non-intervention in the Maldives will only enable China to boldly pursue its strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean.

The defiance of the Abdulla Yameen government must be seen as an opportunity by India to put maximum pressure on the Maldives to restore democracy while reasserting New Delhi’s influence in its maritime neighbourhood.

According to the Opposition in the Maldives, Yameen did not have the constitutionally-mandated quorum in the Parliament to vote on the state of emergency decree, rendering its extension illegal. The statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs has also said: “We are deeply dismayed that the government of Maldives has extended the state of emergency for a further 30 days. The manner in which the extension of the state of emergency was approved by the Majlis (Maldivian Parliament) in contravention of the Constitution of the Maldives is also a matter of concern."

It is time for India to give up its reluctant posture and take firm action against those who are brazenly trampling all democratic institutions in the Maldives. India must not hesitate in offering to act as an ‘honest broker’ in a possible dialogue between the Abdulla Yameen and the Opposition parties. But while monitoring the situation closely, New Delhi must be prepared to respond militarily if India’s mediation offer is rebuffed by the Yameen regime. Remaining indecisive and inactive at this crucial moment could prove counterproductive to India’s long-term strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region which has been witnessing increasing maritime assertiveness by China.

The smallest South Asian country in both land area and population, the island state of the Maldives occupies an important place in the Indian Ocean geopolitics. The Maldives’ significance is enhanced particularly due to its crucial geostrategic location as it sits astride important sea lanes of communication.

India regards the Maldives as falling squarely within its south Asian sphere of influence. Now, the Maldives forms a vital component of India’s maritime strategy, considering its increasing presence in the western Indian Ocean with its commercial and strategic route to the African continent extending to the Western Hemisphere. As a result, the Maldives’ deteriorating political conditions are enough to give Indian diplomats sleepless nights.

If India and other democratic countries are calling upon the Yameen government to restore democracy, the Chinese are seeking to advance their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean while defending Yameen. Therefore, if India’s leverage in the Maldives’ internal politics shrinks further, China will get emboldened to fill the vacuum.

India is the closest neighbour, which has always been the first to respond whenever the Maldives faced any crisis or challenge. 1988 is not a distant history when India sent in a small contingent of troops to avert a coup attempt against then-president Mamoon Abdul Gayoom. However, India’s ties with the Maldives have been recently impacted by China’s growing footprint on the island.

The Maldives has been reorienting its foreign policy, allowing China to have a much greater influence than it did in the past. It needs to be recalled that China opened an embassy in capital Male only in 2011. Many countries have non-resident embassies either in New Delhi or Colombo, and the Chinese embassy in Colombo was also catering to the Maldives till 2011. After China president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the Maldives sometime back, military, diplomatic and economic ties have strengthened remarkably between Male and Beijing.

India has been getting increasingly frustrated with the unfriendly gestures of President Abdulla Yameen over the last five years. The Maldives has been steadily sliding into authoritarianism ever since Yameen came to power in a controversial election in 2013.

The situation got out of hand when he imposed a state of emergency on 5 February. The fateful decision was triggered by a Supreme Court ruling that quashed convictions against nine Opposition leaders and ordered the government to release those held in prison. The Yameen government has arrested the Chief Justice of the Maldives as well as former president Gayoom on allegations of attempting to overthrow his government.

Mohamed Nasheed is the only democratically elected president of the Maldives since it became independent in 1965. But his tenure lasted just over three years, as he was forced at gunpoint to resign in 2012. Later, he was convicted on charges of false terrorism in 2015 and sentenced to more than a dozen years in jail. Yameen has left the Maldives’ fledgling democracy in tatters. While Nasheed has been living in self-exile, several other Opposition leaders are in jail on long prison terms. To counter Nasheed’s request to India to intervene militarily and restore democracy, Yameen has been trying to curry favour with China and Pakistan in a bid to strengthen his position.

What is the guarantee that Yameen would not permit the Chinese to have a military base?

China already has a full-fledged military base in Djibouti and full access to the port facilities at Gwadar in Pakistan. As Sri Lanka has found in Hambantota, many recipients of Beijing’s poisonous ‘aid’ will soon find themselves caught in a ‘debt trap’ in which they will have little option but to trade their sovereignty by surrendering control of vital infrastructure to China.

Being an authoritarian regime itself, China does not care about the state of democracy in a country with which it wants to develop good relations. That explains Beijing’s eagerness to militarily engage the illegal regime in the Maldives as it can provide China a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean.

After the imposition of emergency in early February, an editorial in China’s state-run Global Times, warned against any military measure by saying that "India should exercise restraint. China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, but that does not mean that Beijing will sit idly by as New Delhi breaks the principle. If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi. (sic)”

In early December, the Yameen government rushed through the much-criticised Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China in the Maldivian Parliament at midnight, without any Opposition member being present there. This is Maldives’s first FTA with any country, and also China’s second with any country in South Asia after Pakistan. The secrecy and speed with which Beijing secured the FTA was nothing short of a ‘diplomatic coup’. Thus, Beijing gets to benefit the most if Yameen were to stay in power.

Even as India contemplates response options, it will be essential not to lose sight of what matters most: the ordinary people of the Maldives. India’s so-called 'soft' options encompassing termination of export of essential commodities and embargoing the Maldives’ trawlers from entering and fishing in waters are politically risky as the same would certainly be exploited by supporters of the Yameen regime to turn the common people of the Maldives against India.

The best option for India is to apply unrelenting pressure on president Yameen to restore the independence of the Supreme Court, lift the state of emergency unconditionally and allow democratic space to the Opposition parties. This is not possible without holding out a credible military threat. Let it not be forgotten by the Modi government that offense remains the best form of defence.

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