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Above: Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen (centre) is opposing India and harming New Delhi’s interests/Photo: UNI

Thanks to support and funding from China, Maldives is flexing its muscles at Delhi and jeopardising the security environment in the Indian Ocean

~By Seema Guha

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy, announced soon after he took office in 2014, was widely praised as a step in the right direction. It was high time India shifted focus to its immediate neighbours, more so as China was spreading its footprints across South Asia. However, four years down the line, the policy is virtually in tatters.

While Pakistan has always been a problem and China too is a difficult neighbour, now it is tiny Maldives, virtually a stone’s throw away from the Indian mainland, that is giving Indian officials sleepless nights. Cocking a snook at its towering neighbour, its strongman, President Abdulla Yameen, remains defiant and is ready to take India head-on.

For one, the Maldives has asked India to take back two helicopters gifted to the Maldives National Defence Force in 2013 along with the personnel deployed. Delhi had tried to persuade Male to keep the two helicopters but the Yameen government was adamant. Simultaneously, Male is delaying processing work visas of Indian nationals who want to work in various resorts ahead of the tourist season. Workers building a new police academy, sponsored by India, are also finding it difficult to get travel pa-pers. To add insult to injury, the Maldives have signed an agreement with Pakistan for building power projects. A team from the Maldives state electricity company was in Pakistan negotiating and working out a deal in this regard.

Part of the problem between India and the Maldives is the belief in Male that Delhi has sided with the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader, Mohammed Nasheed. Whether that is a fact is difficult to say. As a young opposition leader, when Nasheed visited India, South Block gave him the cold shoulder. Delhi was comfortable with Maumoon Gayoom, the dictator who frequently threw Nasheed into prison. Even when Nasheed won the first free and fair elections, Delhi was not too comfortable with him. Like Arvind Kejriwal, he was more an activist than a mature politician. Delhi did not reach out to him when he was deposed in an alleged coup.

However, over time, Nasheed has been raising issues about China’s land grab in the islands and criticising a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that Yameen signed with China in December 2017. This Agreement was rushed through and endorsed in the Majlis without the mandatory number of lawmakers present. India was naturally concerned as this is the second FTA signed by China in South Asia. The first was with Paki­stan. The FTA will boost the Maldives’ fish exports and open it to the Chinese market. It will also help Chinese investors build hotels and resorts in the Maldives and boost tourism. Already, Chinese holidaymakers who arrive in planeloads are the largest number of tourist arrivals in this tiny nation.

Earlier in 2015, Yameen also proposed legislation which allowed foreigners who invested as much as one billion dollars to own land there so long as 70 percent of the project was on reclaimed land. Though the law is not China-specific, this Asian giant can benefit hugely from it as it has experience in dredging the ocean floor to reclaim land. It has already done so in islets in the South China Sea. As Nasheed and the MDP kept up pressure on Yameen, Delhi’s opinion changed. It knows that Nasheed is India’s best bet or, more accurately, that Yameen’s pro-China leanings hurt India’s security interests. However, Delhi has little option but to do business with Yameen.

Yameen has ruled the island nation with an iron fist. He has slapped cases against all opposition politicians and got a pliant judiciary to do his bidding in putting them behind bars on trumped-up charges. Nasheed was labelled a terrorist and charged in 2015. Two senior judges, who dared to throw out the false charges against Nasheed and asked the government to release him and all other political prisoners, are now languishing in jail for their defiance. What can democratic governments do when this happens? First, all democracies like India, the EU and the US roundly condemned the stifling of opposition voices. All but China. Its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean are more important. Since 2015, China’s presence in the Maldives has grown by leaps and bounds. As democratic nations kept up their criticism of Yameen, he turned more and more to China which grasped this opportunity and opened its wallet wide to fund infrastructure projects.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was scheduled to make his first official visit to the Maldives, has called off the Male leg of his three-nation tour. The opposition welcomed it. Yameen took it as a personal insult and has not forgiven the Indian prime minister.

However, India’s troubles with the Maldives did not start with Yameen. It began with Mohammed Waheed Hassan, president from 2012 to 2013, who scrapped a deal given to Indian conglomerate GMR for modernising and running the international airport in the Maldives. Nasheed, as president, had initiated and finalised the $511-million deal through a global competitive bidding process in 2010. The successful bidder, GMR-MAHB (a Malaysian company) Consortium, entered into a 25-year agreement with the Maldives Airports Company and the government of the Maldives.

Delhi was furious about the project being scrapped but could do little to help GMR as Waheed was adamant and the anti-Nasheed opposition, including former president Gayoom, opposed it. That important project was finally awarded to a Chinese company. Since then, there has been no stopping China. This has major security implications for India. The Maldives are strategically located near the sea lanes through which two-thirds of the world’s oil and half its container shipment pass. It is just 700 km from Lakshwadeep and 1,200 km from India’s mainland. The Maldives are, therefore, an essential link in Xi Jinping’s ancient Maritime Silk Route project.

The Maldives have also signed in to Xi’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative which Delhi regards as China’s projection of its growing political, economic and military clout. The Maldives also all-owed three Chinese warships to dock in Male in 2017. China is seeking to build a naval base in the islands. In March this year, the Maldives admitted that China is interested in building a port in one of its several islands. China acquired its first naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. It controls the Gwadar Port in Pakistan and in Sri Lanka, there is Hambantota.

There is little India can do except hope that the presidential elections in September will remove Yameen from office. But then, important political figures are in jail and cannot take part in the elections. Even the election commission is batting for the government. This is what Human Rights Watch had to say: “The Maldives’ Election Commission has shed its pretense of impartiality and independence with its rejection of opposition candidates. The commission’s threats not only to oust candidates but to shut down entire parties pose a new risk to the country’s already jeopardised electoral freedoms.”

Former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem was in Delhi recently to garner support from India against an unfair election. The opposition has joined hands to support an MDP candidate with a running mate from the Jumhooree Party. And who has Yameen chosen for his running mate? This is what Nasheed tweeted: “President Yameen picks Shaheem—an alleged recruiter for Islamic State—as his running mate. Saudi amb. @BaderAlkahail endorses him. This tells you everything you need to know about Saudi support for violent extremism in the Maldives.”

That is another worry. The Maldives is a Sunni country but Wahhabi Islam, favoured by the Saudis, has taken root in the Maldives. It has become a potential recruiting ground for Islamic terror groups. A dangerous combination.

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