In the midst of hightened political confusion in Maldives, following the arrest and ongoing trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed, here comes a diplomatic event which India will be watching very keenly.
Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom will be in Islamabad on 25 February, on a two-day official visit as per a report in Pakistani daily “Dawn” which can be seen here.
Three things will inevitably be topping Yameen’s talks with his Pakistani civil and military interlocutors, though not necessarily in that order: the arrest of Nasheed and its implications; the scheduled visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Maldives in the second week of next month; and a review of the strategic ties Maldives has with Pakistan and China and how to take it to the next level in double-quick time.
It won’t be surprising if the Maldivian President embarks on a visit to China soon after his Pakistan trip. In many ways, Yameen’s visit to Pakistan would be an appetizer of strategic nature before the main course – his visit to China.
While one agrees that a bilateral visit involving two states does not essentially mean that it is against a third state, it must be appreciated that the timing of such a visit and the circumstances are of crucial significance.
Therefore, one must not lose sight of the fact that the Maldivian President was originally scheduled to visit Pakistan in August 2014 but had to cancel the trip at the eleventh hour as Pakistan was in the grip of a severe political crisis due to a mass agitation by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awaami Tehreek (PAT). Even Chinese President Xi Jinping had to cancel his Pakistan trip around the same time for similar reasons.
At this juncture, while the job of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is comparatively far more secure than it was last August, it is Maldivian President Yameen who is shaky and his political opponents even claim that he is in a slippery situation. This is the significance of the visit and the fact that Yameen is undertaking his Pakistan visit now underlines that some urgency has come about in the Pakistan-Maldives discourse.
In fact, the elephant in the room during President Yameen’s talks with his Pakistani interlocutors would be China and it is the China factor rather than anything else which must bother India most.
A bit of history would be relevant in this context. This would explain how China has been desperately seeking for last 15 years at least to expand its strategic influence in Maldives and own and operate its military bases in that country as mentioned by this writer here.
Consider the following.
China made some intense lobbying with the erstwhile dictator of Maldives Abdul Gayoom who ruled Maldives for three decades till Nasheed ousted him in 2008 in the country’s first democratic elections. The Chinese target was to acquire a naval base in Marao Island and there were reports of Gayoom nearly handing over the island to China in 2001 but apparently could not dare to do so as the United States got whiff of it and scuttled the move.
Pakistan had played the crucial role of a go-between in this regard just as Pakistan had played a similar role in bringing US and China closer decades ago.
A decade after China’s unsuccessful attempt, a resurgent and much stronger China again started lobbying for Marao Island, which will make an ideal submarine base even if climate scientists’ prediction of Maldives going under the sea completely by 2040 or so were to come out correct.
Significantly, China has rapidly moved away from the era of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and their doctrine of “People’s War” which was largely land-based. A White Paper released by China in November 2000 showed that China consciously started its war doctrine focus from land-based to sea-based.
Should anyone be left in doubt, China’s 2001-02 defence budget for the first time hiked the navy’s budget by as much as 35 percent.
China has also been trying very hard to set up naval bases in Indian Ocean countries like Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka, apart from Maldives – the four countries Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be visiting next month.
Maldivian President’s upcoming visit to Pakistan should be seen in this perspective.
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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2015 17:44:08 IST