Insights into Editorial: A change in the Maldives
Voters in the Maldives delivered a stunning defeat for President Abdulla Yameen in a contentious presidential election, an outcome regarded as a victory for democracy over authoritarianism in the Indian Ocean island nation.
The people of the small archipelago in the Indian Ocean voted for change and brought to power the Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. They came out in huge numbers with the turnout being 89.2%.
Importance of Maldives:
The Maldives, long a popular tourist destination, has grown in strategic importance in recent years as China and India to establish their influence in the region, and as Beijing pushes ahead with its global trade and infrastructure plan.
Spread over nearly 1,200 islands spanning more than 90,000 sq km, key shipping lanes where Beijing and New Delhi compete to pursue their often-conflicting maritime strategies pass through this tiny Indian Ocean nation.
Though small, the Maldives is India’s important neighbour. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Maldives “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood”.
India-Maldives “ties are built on a very strong foundation” the contours of which are defined by shared strategic, security, economic and developmental goals.
However, the bilateral ties are not without irritants, which can be seen in two broad areas: political and strategic.
How is China engaging with the Maldives?
Beijing has made large investments in infrastructure projects in the Maldives during Yameen’s time in office.
They include a US$830 million investment to upgrade the Maldives airport and build a 2km bridge to link the airport island with the capital Male, according to the Centre for Global Development.
Chinese are also building a 25-storey apartment complex and hospital in the Maldives.
Meanwhile, some 306,000 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives last year accounting for 21 per cent of the country’s total number of visitors. When three Chinese naval ships docked in Male in August last year, it only amplified India’s concerns.
Tilt towards China:
Mr.Yameen’s China visit last year, the two nations signed 12 pacts, including a free trade agreement (FTA).
Mr. Yameen not only fully endorsed China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Road initiative but also made the Maldives the second country in South Asia, after Pakistan, to enter into an FTA with China.
The Yameen government pushed the FTA through the nation’s Parliament, the Majlis, stealthily, with the opposition not attending the parliamentary session.
Chinese Investments: Massive Debt trap, according to opposition:
The opposition accused the Yameen government of allowing a Chinese ‘land grab’ of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure, and even essential utilities, which “not only undermines the independence of the Maldives, but the security of the entire Indian Ocean region.
The massive infrastructure growth funded by Chinese debt was a key part of Mr. Yameen’s election campaign but the massive debt trap made it a difficult proposition to be accepted.
How have the Maldives ties with India fared under Yameen?
Bilateral ties between India and the Maldives have deteriorated during Yameen’s time in power.
In March 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his state visit to the island nation over the treatment of Mohamed Nasheed, the former pro-India Maldivian president who had been jailed.
The Maldives also declined India’s invitation to take part in its biennial eight-day naval exercise, Milan, this year.
Yameen’s government has also rejected visa renewals for Indians who were legally working in the Maldives, without giving any explanation.
Concern areas that need to be improved between India and Maldives –
- No FTA with India: Maldives and India do not have a Free Trade Agreement. However Maldives and China entered into Free Trade Agreement.
- Maldives growing “closeness” with China: Both China and Pakistan stepping up their strategic inroads into the Maldives
- Religious radicalization: The Maldives is being radicalized by the Saudi funds and influence
- ISIS threat: Growing Islamic radicalisation in the tiny island-nation of about four lakh people once known for its tolerant practices has many foreign governments, including India, deeply concerned.
- Yameen government had asked India to remove its Dhruv advanced light helicopters from Maldives (which India had gifted in 2013).
- Yameen government has alleged that tensions over the presence of the two Indian helicopters in two strategically important locations in the Laamu and Addu atolls have been growing.
- Work permits are not currently being issued to Indian Nationals.
By changing to more democratic form of government in Maldives, India can engage with Maldives to establish much more friendly relations than previous government era to protect the safety and security of entire Indian Ocean region.
Notice the picture for more points in importance of Maldives for India.
Many of the challenges the Maldives faces linger. The opposition may have been united in its desire to oust Mr. Yameen but this unity will be tested in governance.
Democratic institutions have been weakened and a fragile democracy can also be susceptible to radical ideologies if not effectively governed. Its economic presence in the Maldives is a reality that all governments will have to contend with.
Mr. Yameen’s defeat has certainly produced a favourable outcome for New Delhi and it should seize the moment to rebuild ties with Male.
If there is one lesson out of the Maldives crisis, it is that political elites in India’s neighbours will come and go.
But if India can stand together with the aspirations of citizens of neighbouring countries, then the prospects of a long-term sustainable relationship will be much brighter.