Maldives' crisis not just an internal political struggle, it's an unfortunate result of China's smash and grab neo-colonialism

Writing in an Indian newspaper on Wednesday, former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed has again urged India to intervene and restore democracy in the Maldives. While New Delhi is still calibrating its response amid media reports that it has kept the military on standby and is mulling over imposing some sanctions, it is worth remembering that the turmoil in the atoll nation is not just internal politics, it has deep strategic ramifications for India.

Some commentators have argued that the 1988 Operation Cactus-style military op cannot be replicated in 2018 and India would do well to bide its time as the political theatre unfolds. The contention is that any Indian intervention at this stage could be strategically counterproductive and morally indefensible. This argument rests on an assumption that the Maldivian flux is essentially domestic.

It is not. It will be a mistake on India’s part to see the crisis in isolation, as a context-free internal struggle for power which doesn’t have any geopolitical spill. That is the certainly the line China wants the international community to take. Its state-controlled Global Times has already fired the first salvo, warning India against “meddling” in Male’s “internal affairs”.

File image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

File image of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

The unrest in the archipelago is in equal parts strategic and political and has been a long time coming. China lies in the thick of it. Beijing has wormed its way into the Maldives and now threatens to permanently alter the balance of power in South Asia by co-opting the island nation into its aggressive maritime expansion strategy.

China’s long-term strategic objectives in Maldivian thrust involve laying a ‘string of pearls’ around India by acquiring naval bases, exercising hegemonic control over key shipping lanes stretching from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and throwing around its global military might.

As this column has argued in the past, letting panda-hugging Abdulla Yameen get away with his authoritarian excesses won’t just be detrimental to Maldivian and India’s interests, it will be tantamount to endorsing the actions of a president who is complicit in China’s efforts to turn the atoll nation into another of its vassal states.

Incidentally, a major part of Nasheed’s column in The Indian Express agonises over the deep Chinese influence in Maldivian economy which is rapidly turning into strategic muscle. The former president writes: “Foreign powers, among them China, are engaged in a ‘land grab’ of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure, and even essential utilities. Shrouded in secrecy, all manner of projects have been awarded to foreign state-run companies.”

In an earlier interview to Reuters, Nasheed had said China has already seized around 16-17 islands through an “opaque leasing process” in the Maldives that consists of around 1190 islets scattered over the Indian Ocean. Only a handful of these is inhabited by the locals.

“It always starts with a real estate project, but it can be turned into something (else)... that China has actually grabbed more land,” the news agency quoted him, as saying.

Allowing for some exaggeration from an exiled former president at odds with the current regime, Nasheed isn’t too far from the truth.

For a country that didn’t have even an embassy presence in the Maldives up until 2011, China has acquired a massive amount of sway into Maldivian economy and is now moulding the nation’s politics in its favour.

President Yameen has defied international pressure to promulgate emergency and martial law in the faraway islands, jailed a former president after letting cops break into his residence at the dead of night, let loose security forces in Supreme Court complex, arrested the chief justice and another Supreme Court judge and forced the apex court to revoke its decision of setting free key political prisoners.

For a leader who apparently enjoys little grassroots support and international credibility, Yameen’s wanton excesses and stubborn defiance raised speculation that China is giving him tacit support. It may be noted that Beijing, unlike the international community, has gone out of its way not to comment on the political instability the in the Maldives or censure Yameen’s undermining of the Constitution or crushing of civil liberties, rule of law and democracy. A pliant figure as the head of state in a strategically important location certainly serves its purpose.

“Nobody should underestimate the influence of China over Yameen. We saw that in the manner in which he recently signed the FTA with China. I think it (support from China) has allowed him to be bold,” Abdulla Shahid, former speaker of the Maldivian Parliament, was quoted as saying in The Times of India.

As Anand Kumar had argued in a 2012 paper 'Chinese Engagement with the Maldives: Impact on Security Environment in the Indian Ocean Region', China’s strategic objectives in the Maldives hadn’t been very successful due to President Nasheed, who was perceived to be ‘India friendly’.

“However, as Chinese economic engagement in the Maldives increases, it might affect the close relationship between India and the Maldives,” he wrote rather presciently in academic journal Taylor and Francis Online.

China’s engagement with Yameen regime has been vast and swift. The measure of its influence lies not merely in the fact that Chinese influence is ubiquitous in the paradisiacal islands from rush of tourists (more than 30 percent of total footfalls), signboards, restaurants, menu cards, contractors, enterprises, hutments, inter-island bridges, ports and other mega infrastructure, Beijing has been able to co-opt India’s close neighbour as a key member of its Belt and Road Initiative and even weigh upon the political establishment to amend the Constitution and change land-holding clause.

It is not a coincidence that following the announcement of China-Maldives maritime silk road partnership in 2014, a year later the Yameen regime “amended the Constitution to allow foreigners to own land in the country on freehold basis on condition that the investment should be to the tune of at least $1 billion and 70 percent of the project should be on reclaimed land. It's no surprise that these two clauses looked like they were tailored for China.”

Chinese expansionism is also evident in the way it has taken over the Maldivian economy. The free-trade agreement, Maldives’s maiden, allows its fishermen access to world’s largest consumer market. But the balance of trade is hopelessly skewed. The FTA has seen Maldivian imports rise 200 times of the export figure with China and Hong Kong.

Yet another island nation’s sad descent into Chinese debt-trap has begun. From a trade surplus, the country now runs a deficit. The debt-to-GDP ratio now stands at 34.7 percent, and is slated to cross the 50 percent mark within the next three years, reckons IMF.

The two-kilometre China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, linking capital Male with an airport island is being funded by China and is being developed by a Chinese firm, reports Yuji Kuronuma in Nikkei Asian Review. On Hulhumale, a reclaimed island, “another Chinese company is constructing 7,000 homes. The contractor has taken out a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China... More projects are underway elsewhere, like a housing complex surrounded by a forest on Addu Atoll.”

Along with Chinese presence, a simultaneous churn has seen lessening of Indian footprint. The volume of Chinese imports has crossed Indian goods, and Indian companies are being kicked out of Maldives. GMR, for instance, was asked to leave after its contract to develop the Male International Airport was prematurely cancelled by the Yameen regime.

GMR moved an international tribunal, but the compensation of $270 million was promptly paid by the Maldivian government leading to suspicion in India that China had filled Yameen’s purse. As Indrani Bagchi had reported in The Times of India, in August last year, Yameen disregarded India's request to deny permission to three Chinese warships from docking in the Maldives.

In his newspaper column, Nasheed mentions the airport deal as indicative of the hold China has over the Maldivian economy. “The development of the Ibrahim Nasir international airport is a case in point. President Yameen has revealed a plan to finance the project through $800 million worth of foreign loans — in 2014, China’s EXIM Bank gave a $373 million concessionary loan to upgrade and develop the airport... As I watch my country in exile, I fear that piece by piece, island by island, the Maldives is being sold off to China,” the exiled president writes.

The economic hegemony is being translated into a strategic grip. The totality of Chinese neo-colonial tactics in the Maldives can’t be understood if we disregard the military objective. As Professor N Manoharan writes in an Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies article, “Maldives has emerged as an important 'pearl' in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ construct in South Asia. Given (its) strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has been vying for a maritime base in the atoll with the primary motive of ensuring the security of its sea lanes, especially the unhindered flow of critically-needed energy supplies from Africa and West Asia through the Indian Ocean.”

As China ramps up its infrastructure projects through a predatory pricing mechanism, like many other South Asian nations including Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Maldives will also be forced to lease or sell its real estate to tide over the debt-trap. This is post-Cold War-era colonialism, where economic tools have replaced military instruments.

Monika Chansoria writes in Sunday Guardian how China “is developing the iHavan Integrated Development Project in the northernmost main sea line of communication joining Southeast Asia and China to West Asia and Europe.” This project is being run on “huge concessional loans/aid financing from China and it is being forecast that the Maldives shall almost certainly default on payments, thereby allowing China to seize a few berthing facilities there.”

India’s actions in the Maldives will have a larger bearing on how smaller South Asian nations adjust themselves in relation to China and India. The dynamic is in a flux. Underlined by Gandhian principles, India’ foreign policy has a strong moral component. At times, however, it is immoral not to act in self-defence. Great powers must exercise its rights, or risk being trampled over by other great powers.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 18:59 PM

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