Maldives crisis: Male is latest theatre for India-China proxy war; New Delhi must play a more proactive role

Recent developments in Male — where the Maldivian Supreme Court has sought India’s help to tide over the threat posed by authoritarian president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to the nation’s institutions, people and political system — present India with an ideological and diplomatic challenge. In the shadows, lurches the Dragon.

China, which didn’t even have an embassy in Maldives until 2011, has lately emerged as a key player in the domestic politics of the tiny island nation in India’s backyard. Xi Jinping’s signature moves are evident.

Much to India’s chagrin, Beijing has already signed a free-trade agreement with Maldives. It is hugely ramping up trade and diplomatic links with a nation proximate to the Indian mainland and considered firmly within New Delhi’s strategic sphere of influence. Chinese companies are ousting Indian ones in infrastructure projects, the Maldivian political system is tilting away from democracy towards authoritarianism and its leadership is showing signs of falling into China’s lap.

It is obvious that for China, a tiny nation of around 400,00 people holds little economic promise. Beijing’s interest is strategic. It has been pulling strings to wean Maldives away from New Delhi with a series of barely disguised steps.

Ever since Mohamed Nasheed, Maldives’ first democratically elected president was ousted in 2012 following a military coup, the new regime led by President Abdulla Yameen has been tilting towards China. An Indian company’s contract to develop Ibrahim Nasir International Airport was prematurely terminated and given to Chinese entities. GMR later won the first round of arbitration proceedings in Singapore.

The tiny archipelago, which still claims to have a “special relationship” with India, has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has allowed Chinese companies to invest heavily in infrastructure development projects. There have been media reports that China is considering opening a base in Maldives after acquiring one of the islands on lease. In December last year, the Abdulla Yameen government signed an FTA with China that was reportedly fast-tracked through the Parliamentary procedure with lawmakers on the ruling side barely getting time to read the papers and those on the Opposition kept in darkness.

“The details of the agreement are yet to be shared with the Opposition and even the public. The government allowed for less than 1 hour for the entire Parliamentary process to approve the 1000-page document,” reported Sachin Parashar in The Times of India quoting deposed president Nasheed.

The tiny island nation is also heading towards a familiar debt trap with over 70 percent of its total debt hypothecated to China that takes up nearly 20 per cent of its budget. Sudha Ramachandran writes in The Diplomat that China-funded and built “mega infrastructure projects” in Maldives include “the Friendship Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb built on reclaimed land.” Moreover, the FTA will allow Chinese firms and investors to “operate hotels, restaurants, yacht marinas, as well as travel agencies and transport services” and open up the tourism sector.

Economic prowess is followed by political influence. Signs that Maldives is becoming vulnerable to Chinese manoeuvres are evident. A Maldivian ‘pro-government’ newspaper has recently described China as Maldives’s new best friend and India, with whom it shares a century-old trade and cultural exchange, as an “enemy nation”. The Abdulla Yameen government’s open defiance of the Supreme Court has transformed a slow churn into a fast-paced thriller. Yameen has interpreted a landmark SC ruling as a move to impeach him, and has gathered the military and police in his corner.

In response to the apex court’s decision to quash the cases against former President Nasheed and eight other Opposition politicians whom the court has deemed to have been unlawfully imprisoned, Yameen has fired two police chiefs since Thursday and set the cops on Hassan Saeed, the head of Maldives’s judicial administration department.

The Supreme Court also ordered the Yameen government to restore 12 members of Parliament who had been stripped of their seats. This could turn the Yameen government into a minority one. In response, Yameen has accused the family members of Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed of corruption. Senior members of Yameen’s ruling party are trying to shut down independent TV channel Raajje TV saying it was spreading discord, according to news agency Reuters.

“We need India to take tough measures to ensure that rule of law is implemented in the Maldives,” The Times of India quoted a “top source in Maldives Supreme Court” in saying. India’s moves are keenly awaited. US ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Atul Keshap tweeted:

The Ministry of External Affairs has so far chosen reticence over action, restricting itself to a statement — “In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court. We also hope that the safety and security of the Indian expatriates in Maldives will be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances. As a close and friendly neighbour, India wishes to see a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives.”

For New Delhi, this is a moment of reckoning. Should it continue with its policy of non-interventionism, or should it interfere to restore democracy and sanctity of institutions?

If non-alignment or strategic autonomy remains one of the major strands of India’s foreign policy, non-interventionism is the other one. Partly owing to a colonial past and partly due to an abiding commitment towards democracy, India has by and large sought to balance own strategic interests in nations within its sphere of influence with a hands-off approach in domestic politics of sovereign nations.

Oftentimes, this ideological position has resulted in strategic paradoxes. India wants to be recognised as a global power but still cannot let go of its Nehruvian isolationism. It has repeatedly shied away in the past from taking steps that an aspiring global power must exercise. This wasn’t too much of a problem in the post Cold War paradigm but China’s rise has altered the equation. If India fancies itself as a security guarantor in Indo-Pacific (a role that the US, Japan and even the ASEAN nations want it to play) it must develop a more proactive policy in its immediate neighbourhood.
Maldives is too strategically important for India to allow it to lapse within China’s stratosphere. India must act to secure its backyard and also to ensure the survival of democratic liberalism as a template for national development and maintenance of geopolitical order.

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