India should build ties and rescue Maldives from China’s debt trap, challenge Beijing's might in the Indian Ocean

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Male to attend the swearing-in ceremony of president-elect of Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The smooth transfer of power on 17  November will mark the restoration of democracy in Maldives as well as a major diplomatic boost for India.

Maldives is a strategically located nation in the Indian Ocean, as it sits at the head of the international sea lane that moves traffic from the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz to India, Southeast Asia and East Asia. Maldives’ northernmost Thuraakunu island is just 100 kilometres from the Indian naval station in the Lakshadweep island of Minicoy.

Consisting of over nearly 1,200 islands and spread over about 90,000 square kilometres, Maldives has traditionally been a pro-India nation. But the strong ties between the two countries suffered a set back when Abdulla Yameen became the country's president in 2013.

 India should build ties and rescue Maldives from China’s debt trap, challenge Beijings might in the Indian Ocean

File image of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. AP

Before the remarkable regime-change in September, the Maldives was dangerously drifting away from India’s strategic orbit. Disturbing political developments remained a cause of concern for India as unfriendly gestures of former president Yameen frustrated the Modi government’s neighbourhood outreach.

The alleged undemocratic regime led by Yameen not only created a constitutional crisis in the country on several occasions but also allowed China to boldly pursue its strategic objectives in the Indian Ocean.

In his campaign trail, Solih did not forget to make references to the Chinese ‘debt trap’ while also describing Chinese development projects in the country as ‘land grab’.

His election victory against an increasingly autocratic Yameen certainly represents a great triumph of democratic spirit of Maldivian people, but it would be a mistake to believe that it will automatically reverse the process of China’s deep strategic inroads during the incumbent president’s rule.

Maldives, which slid into authoritarianism under the Yameen regime, is the only South Asian country that Modi has not visited after he became prime minister in 2014. Although it was in the itinerary for his March 2015 Indian Ocean tour of three small neighboring nations, the visit had to be cancelled due to domestic political turbulence in the country.

India’s ties with Maldives have been impacted by China’s entry into the island nation. China had opened an embassy in Male, Maldivian capital, only in 2011. Many countries have non-resident embassies either in New Delhi or Colombo, and Chinese embassy in Colombo was catering to the Maldives till 2011.

After Chinese resident Xi Jinping’s state visit to the Maldives in 2014, military, diplomatic and economic ties have strengthened remarkably between Male and Beijing. Last year, some 306,000 Chinese tourists visited Maldives, accounting for more than 20 percent of the country’s total number of visitors.

The Yameen regime had come out openly in support of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A contract to an Indian company to upgrade the Male international airport was canceled and later given to a Beijing-based company. Since then, China has taken up several important projects in the country.

In December 2016, Maldivian government leased Feydhoo Finolhu, the nearest uninhabited island to Male, to a Chinese company for 50 years. The Chinese are helping build a Joint Ocean Observation Station on Maldives’ northern-most atoll of Makunudhoo, which is likely to have a military application. Makunudhoo is not far from India’s Lakshadweep islands and quite close to the sea lane connecting to the Suez Canal.

Maldives rushed through the much-criticised Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China in December 2017. This was Maldives’s first FTA with any country, and also China’s second such pact with a country in the South Asia region after Pakistan. On the sidelines of the FTA, Yameen reiterated support for China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) which is part of the BRI. Given its security impact in India’s strategic backyard, China’s foray into the Maldives aroused serious concerns in New Delhi.

Defence ties also took a plunge. Yameen regime asked India to take back the naval choppers (ALH Dhruv) that India had gifted to the island nation as their letter of exchange (LoE) had expired in May this year. Male not only refused to renew it but also asked New Delhi to complete the process of removal of both Indian choppers at the earliest. It needs to be recalled that India had stationed six pilots and some naval ground personnel to operate the ALHs. Yameen’s real purpose was to get rid of the Indian naval personnel maintaining the helicopters.

When Maldives imposed emergency in February this year, India strongly reacted against the move. However, India’s displeasure did not have any effect on the Yameen government’s authoritarian rule. Aimed at consolidating Yameen’s power ahead of general elections, the supreme court justices and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom were imprisoned in June. This prompted India to express 'deep dismay'. The expression of ‘dismay’ rather than ‘condemnation’ was seen as an indication of India’s cautiousness, as any strong reaction was thought to push the Yameen regime further into China’s lap.

The Indian government came under pressure, including from the Maldivian opposition, to intervene militarily. There was an  occasion in which India had intervened in 1988 to foil a coup bid in that country. But there was a big difference this time as no legitimate government invited India to intervene. New Delhi preferred to exercise patience and keep a close watch on the electoral process.

In order to get re-elected, Yameen projected himself as a Maldivian nationalist who focused on economic development, pointing to infrastructure projects built with the Chinese assistance during his term. His tactics gave every hint of his strong penchant to cling to power by any means, whether by getting rid of the electoral competition in politically motivated cases or by brazenly interfering in the election process. But Solih emerged from nowhere and skillfully tapped into the strong resentment against Yameen. His victory has suddenly changed the whole dynamic.

When Solih was declared winner in the presidential election, there was a sigh of relief in New Delhi. Yameen had initially conceded defeat, but when he challenged the outcome, alleging vote rigging and fraud, there were apprehensions in New Delhi and other Western capitals. However, the dismissal of Yameen’s petition seeking annulment of the election by Maldives' supreme court finally put the lid on efforts by Yameen’s loyalists to put a spanner in the smooth transition of power.

The supreme court of Maldives has also restored the membership of those lawmakers who were disqualified after they defected from Yameen’s party last year. The police and army which played a crucial role in helping Yameen tighten his grip on the power have already issued statements saying the election results would be upheld.

Indian diplomats are visibly elated over the election victory of Solih. New Delhi hopes that Solih regime will either roll back some of the China-linked infrastructure projects or put them in cold storage. According to a reliable estimate, Maldives owes nearly three-fourth of its external debt to China. It remains to be seen whether Solih-led Maldives will get out of the debt trap by emulating the example set by Malaysia’s newly-elected prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who recently cancelled Chinese projects worth billions of dollars.

However, the biggest challenge before Solih will be to keep diverse elements together who ensured his victory. India should advise Solih to take everybody along so that they can win the parliamentary elections of 2019. Solih should not waste much time in implementing judicial reforms and cracking down on corruption while confronting Islamic fundamentalism.

We should not forget that Maldives has allegedly sent the highest per capita foreign fighter contingent to the Islamic State terror group. With radical jihadists trying hard to establish their presence in the country, there is a growing concern that the ground is being prepared for terrorist attacks on tourism-related targets.

There is no doubt that China-India rivalry has been playing out in the Maldives, leading some observers to describe the just-concluded presidential contest between Yameen and Solih as Indo-Chinese proxy war.

Solih has indicated after his landmark victory that he would work towards a fresh beginning on his country’s bilateral ties with India. The return of former exiled president Mohamed Nasheed, who is ideologically considered a pro-Indian leader, is also being seen as a step in improving ties with India. Nasheed was forced to quit his office in 2012 in what is widely regarded as a coup, and was narrowly defeated by Yameen in a presidential poll in the following year.

The Solih-Nasheed duo is likely to reverse the Maldives’ tilt to China’s strategic sphere. Maldives has just become the latest member of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) after India pushed for its inclusion. Having a friendly government in Maldives is very important for India’s neighbourhood policy which will substantially boost the prospects of the Indo-Pacific region. But India will need to be more proactive this time so that what has happened in Sri Lanka is not repeated in Maldives.

China may be down, but it is certainly not out, which is clearly reflected in its current maneuverings to retain its influence and leverage even after Mahinda Rajapaksa, seen as close to China, was defeated in presidential elections in early 2015 by Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power on an anti-China agenda. Sirisena’s ousting of prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in favour of Rajapaksa unmistakably suggests a dramatic shift in position.

Beijing would again try to re-establish its clout in Maldives through the debt-trap diplomacy. The Modi government should, therefore, come out with a long-term plan for infrastructure development in Maldives, which would substantially reduce the ill-effects of the Chinese debt.

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 19:07:43 IST