The Maldives government, in a move that may irk India, suspended three members of a local body for meeting Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra. This comes soon after Male signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China and Beijing's maritime trade plan.
While New Delhi has not issued a formal statement, sources told The Indian Express that the Indian diplomats in Male have reached out to the authorities there to understand the rationale behind the decision. "We are in touch with the government authorities on this issue," a source told the newspaper.
The Indian Express further reported that the Local Government Authority (LGA) issued a circular on 11 December stating that since all foreign policy powers are vested in the presidency, any meetings between councillors and foreign diplomats could only take place after the home ministry's clearance.
Maldives' move triggered criticism from a number of foreign ambassadors to the country. British High Commissioner to Maldives James Dauris called it an "unfortunate step".
Since I met elected island representatives on Thinadhoo earlier today, all local councillors have been instructed that they may only meet diplomats and NGOs with prior permission.
— James Dauris (@JamesDauris) December 11, 2017
Retweeting Dauris' tweet, US ambassador to Maldives Atul Keshap called it a "further restriction on democracy and transparency" in the country.
A further restriction on democracy and transparency in #Maldives: it appears that local elected officials can no longer meet diplomats and civil society NGOs without central government permission. Why? https://t.co/OwktUf4nPj — Atul Keshap🇺🇸 (@USAmbKeshap) December 12, 2017
Meanwhile, Maldives' growing closeness to China has rung alarm bells in India, prompting it to ask Male to be sensitive to New Delhi's concerns.
Growing China-Maldives bonhomie
The Maldives has signed 12 agreements with China, including a pact to jointly promote the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, The Times of India reported. The agreements with the Maldives is part of Beijing's continuing efforts to persuade South Asian countries to adopt the OBOR programme, and hand over infrastructure construction projects to Chinese companies, the report added.
The Maldives has also reportedly allowed three Chinese warships to dock in Male.
Breaking its silence on the issue, India on Thursday said it expected the Indian Ocean archipelago nation to be sensitive to New Delhi's concerns, according to IANS.
Stating that India attached the highest importance to its relations with the Maldives, external affairs ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that the two countries "have strong historical and civilisational linkages and also at the people-to-people level".
"We are also committed to supporting democracy, development and stability in the Maldives," Kumar said in his weekly media briefing.
"It is our expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns in keeping with its India-first policy," he added.
India has also been apprehensive about reports that Beijing could establish a military base in the Maldives. However, both China and Male have refuted these reports and said New Delhi's fears were groundless, The Hindu reported.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has avoided visiting the Maldives until now. PTI reported that the Maldives voiced its "hurt" at Modi not visiting it during his trip to the region.
"We had extensive discussions with Indian side for a possible visit by Modi but we were told that the environment was not conducive for his visit," said Fathimath Inaya, deputy minister in Maldivian foreign ministry. "We are hurt that the prime minister could not visit this time."
India, as The Times of India points out, has been concerned about the developments in the Maldives since the ouster of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed in 2012, as the islands have been roiled by internal power plays and the growing shadow of China's presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
Since Nasheed's ouster, India's influence has waned in Male because as Nasheed told The Times of India, "Aside from China, President Abdulla Yameen doesn't have a friend left in the world."
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2017 14:34:05 IST