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Above: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in Male. This was Modi’s first trip to the island nation as PM/Photo: PIB

With the recent election of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, India has a greater chance of once again being a major influence across the Indian Ocean

By Seema Guha 

The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed between China and the Maldives in December 2017 had always been controversial. So it comes as no surprise that the newly elected Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih would revisit the agreement signed during former President Abdullah Yameen’s visit to China.

Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the MDP, in a recent interview to the BBC, hinted at scrapping the FTA: “The trade imbalance between China and the Maldives is so huge that nobody would think of an FTA between such parties.” He added: “China is not buying anything from us. It is a one-way treaty.”

Nasheed also spoke of a number of islands which were leased to Chinese companies on a 50 to 100 year lease. The new government would look into these too. He had also spoken about China’s land grab during Yameen’s tenure. There is little doubt that the MDP government, which regards China as a friend of Yameen, would wish to roll back many of the projects passed by the previous government. The Maldives’ new foreign minister, Abdullah Shahid, is expected to visit China by the end of the year to discuss issues of debt repayment and the FTA. He is also coming to India on November 26.

In the India-China race for influence across the Indian Ocean, the Maldives under Yameen had tilted heavily towards Beijing. The traditional friendly ties were punctured following Yameen’s election. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Male in 2014—the first Chinese leader to do so—the island nation signed in to Xi’s ambitious Maritime Silk Route.

India regards the revival of the ancient road and sea routes as China’s attempts to project its power and influence across Asia. Delhi had opted out on the grounds that part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is centred around Gwadar Port in Balochistan, passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). India claims PoK as part of its territory and has lodged protests over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, saying it touches on the sensitive issue of sovereignty. India and close ally Bhutan are the only South Asian nations to give the BRI as well as its maritime counterpart a miss.

During his presidency, Yameen had got GMR—an Indian conglomerate which was awarded the contract for modernising and operating the international airport by the former president—ejected from the project. It was then handed over to a Chinese company. China had poured billions into infrastructure work in the island nation all through Yameen’s tenure. Planeloads of Chinese tourists also began flocking to the island.

However, Indian helicopters donated to the Maldives were asked to be taken back. Visas for Indian company workers were delayed during Yameen’s tenure.

In short, China replaced India in the island nation, which is of strategic im­por­tance. Naturally, Delhi heaved a sigh of relief to see the back of Yameen.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite his hectic election schedule, had taken time off recently to be present at Solih’s swearing-in. Delhi wants to lose no time in re-establishing its presence in the Maldives. In recent years, an assertive China had ramped up its presence in India’s neighbourhood. Chinese ships and submarines are now a constant in the Indian Ocean. There were fears that eventually, China may have a military base on one of the islands in the Maldives. That would have posed a major security challenge for Delhi. With the change of government in Male, India wants to make sure that it quickly builds on getting back its traditional warm relations with the government there.

During the rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1978-2008), India’s ties with the Maldives were excellent. In fact, Delhi came to Gayoom’s rescue when a coup led by a local businessman, with the help of Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka, tried to grab power in November 1988. India helped to free Gayoom and quickly established control. Except for a small detachment of soldiers who guar­ded important installations, Indian troops were not stationed on the island.

Gayoom ruled with an iron fist and had repeatedly thrown Nasheed, a young challenger, into prison. Nasheed was agitating for a free and fair democratic election. When he came to India as an opponent of Gayoom, the UPA government, which was comfortable with Gayoom, gave him short shrift. He had to wait for several days before getting an appointment with officials in the external affairs ministry. Gayoom’s defeat changed all that.

There were many twists and turns in the politics of the state, and Nasheed was soon overthrown in what he and his party alleged was a coup. Delhi remai­ned a mere observer at that time.

But today, Nasheed is seen as a friend of India, the man who relentlessly criticised Yameen’s decision to turn to China. The FTA with China and the way rules were flouted were constantly criticised by the MDP. Having kept up a barrage of opposition since then, it is only natural that the new government will review the agreement.

The FTA, in fact, was hurriedly passed in the Majlis (parliament) without adequate number of lawmakers in attendance. The then opposition had cried foul because normal procedures were bypassed. But Yameen was in a rush as he wanted to get the consent of the Majlis ahead of his state visit to China in December 2017.

The parliament session was attended by just 30 of the 85 lawmakers present. But according to the Maldives Constitution, voting on any matter requiring compliance by citizens can only be done when more than half of the total members of the Majlis are present at the sitting. None of the procedures were followed. However, Yameen rushed this through before leaving for China. The Maldives is the second country in South Asia to sign an FTA with China. Pakistan, China’s all-weather friend in the region, was predictably the first.

Now India has the opportunity to gain lost ground. In the past, there was no challenge to India in its immediate neighbourhood. Delhi’s concern since Independence had been to keep major powers out of its neighbourhood.

But today with the rise of China, that narrative has changed. India has to be prepared for the rising influence of China and take into consideration that it is a factor in bilateral relations with its neighbours.

At the moment, India has gained in the Maldives. But in neighbouring Sri Lanka, pro-China leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is back on centrestage. Nepal has gone China’s way, but is not in a position to oust India altogether. Bhutan is slowly stirring. It is obvious that Indian diplomacy will have to be nimble to counter China.

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