Evolving volatility in the Maldives offers an opportunity to the people of the country to restore democratic values in a place where democracy has gradually been slipping into the totalitarian grip. Excessive indulgence of China, which has funded President Yameen’s survival by way of funding infrastructures and acquisition of 15-16 islands in a most opaque manner, has also probably encouraged the President to move towards the single-party rule.
He does not wish to accommodate contrarian opinion. Imprisonment of opposition leaders and 12 opposition MPs, including the former President, is following a similar pattern as that of Cambodia where Chinese indulgence has killed democracy. To imagine a regime of that kind in India’s Ocean (as ex-President Nasheed has rightly said) does not augur well for law-abiding citizens of the island nation, nor for the strategic and security interests of India.
The ‘surprise’ ruling of the Honourable Supreme Court restored some hope in the higher judiciary which was so far being blamed for acting under pressure of the President and not being independent of the executive. Having come to realise their commitment to preserving the spirit of the constitution, the apex court Judges have buckled again and reversed their order after the Chief Justice was arrested and emergency imposed by the President. The arrest of 80-year-old ex-dictator Gayoom (half-brother of the President) was a surprise.
The Police and MNDF have historically been at loggerheads with each other, but President Yameen has brought them together by dismissing the non-compliant Police Commissioner and compromising a weak Chief of Defence Forces. It may be recalled that the state-managed public protest against the then President Nasheed, which lead to his ouster and witnessed police personnel in the crowd encouraging protesters during street demonstrations. At the time, the MNDF regrettably did not play its constitutional role.
The then Defence Minister too played a dubious role. As a result, Mr Waheed moved into the Presidential chair without having been elected. The apex court was peeved with Mr Nasheed due to his mishandling of the judiciary. The then Indian government in Delhi, instead of calling for the restoration of democracy and democratic process, hurriedly declared recognition to the unelected Waheed government. The advice of the then Indian High Commissioner should have been thoroughly debated.
Today the situation is different. The Government of India recognises its role in the Indian Ocean. PM Modi has added boldness and innovation to the Indian Foreign Policy, which thus far had stabilised only on two pillars, i.e. well being of people by economic growth and preserving territorial integrity.
Mr Modi’s initiatives in the IOR have been very dynamic. During his swearing-in ceremony, he invited all the SAARC heads of state. Later, in Mauritius, he announced his future policy roadmap and called it SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). This approach has gone beyond announcements.
The union budget of 2018-19, which was tabled in the parliament on 1 February, has earmarked significant funds for supporting the ongoing and future projects of the island and other neighbouring countries. With the allocation of `125 crores for the Maldives, `350 crores for Mauritius, `300 crores for Seychelles and `150 crores for Sri Lanka it is very clear that Modi Government sees India as a regional power in the Indian Ocean and the larger context of Indo Pacific. It also considers the development of neighbours an important segment of its overall responsibility.
Mr Nasheed, who is currently in Colombo, stated (in the context of IOR) that, “I believe it is India’s Ocean and therefore it is right that it has a stake in what goes on here. She has the right to protect her interests”. Returning to democracy is a “strategic imperative” Mr Nasheed added. He went on to condemn China’s role by stating that “China has grabbed large tracts of land, (and) several islands in the Maldives without firing a shot”.
President Yameen had rushed through FTA with China recently and circumvented democratic processes. Earlier, China was given possession of 12-15 islands under the façade of economic development. It may be recalled that the President amended the constitution to allow foreigners to own islands on freehold basis on the condition that the investment should be in the tune of at least USD 1 billion and 70 per cent of the project should be on reclaimed land.
This was absolutely tailor-made for China. There are also reports that China has been given a runway extension project on seven islands. When concerns were raised from Delhi, China put up a Malaysian entity (in which Chinese companies have a major stake) to bid for airport development projects in the islands north of Male. This is strategically detrimental to Indian security, Minicoy Island being just about 90 nautical miles from the northernmost island of Maldives.
Even a medium-range surveillance radar in these islands could monitor air activity over India’s entire southern peninsula. Since the developments in the Maldives are of both strategic and security importance to India, peaceful and progressive democracy in the Maldives is an urgency. Lifting of emergency and discussions with all political parties needs to be initiated by the President.
China’s aggressiveness in the Maldives needs to be taken seriously. President Yameen has already put his country in a debt trap. Interest servicing bills of Maldives are likely to exceed its annual budget. IMF forecast says that debt to GDP ratio of Maldives stands at 34.7 per cent and is likely to exceed 50 per cent in the next three years.
China prefers ambiguous deals and then it exerts military pressure to achieve its objectives just as it has done in the South China Sea. China has realised that the countries in the IOR are weak and governance is turbulent, just as SE Asian countries are, and exerting military might would keep them quiet. With the economic colonisation of the weaker countries already in place, China finds the opportunity in the Maldives to be just right for the encirclement of India with the string of pearls.
Chinese assertiveness must not be seen as a one-off action. It has the long-term objectives of establishing naval bases in the string of pearls, dominating sea lanes, becoming a hegemonic power in the Indian Ocean and simultaneously monitoring both maritime and aerospace activities of India. The naval base in Djibouti, operational control of Hambantota and the likely development of the Jiwani port next to Gwadar are all signs of increasing Chinese naval presence at all four important choke points in the Indian Ocean i.e. Straits of Hormuz, the Gulf of Aden and Malacca Straits.
It provides energy security to China which will need the passage over the Indian Ocean for nearly 53 per cent of all its oil imports up to the year 2050 if not beyond. China’s collusion with Pakistan, which has nearly become an autonomous region of China, will marginalize the strategic manoeuvring space of India. Smaller nations in the IOR are in the process of strategic realignment with China having received significant monetary benefits. This will probably alter the balance of power in the larger Indo Pacific.
Delhi needs to call the bluff of Chinese threats just as it did in Doklam. It must be kept in mind that India is only 90 nautical miles from Maldivian northern group of islands and having Panda hugging Male at this moment is the last thing Delhi would like to see. Yameen does not have grassroots support, nor does he enjoy international credibility. China has strategic interests in the region, and as a result, India has direct security concerns and must strengthen democracy in Maldives post haste.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Commander in ChiefWestern Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. A version of this article was first published by Hudson Institute, Washington DC on 10 February 2018.