Pearl in the Ocean

The Mal­dives needs to be at its diplo­matic best in ma­neu­ver­ing its re­la­tion­ship with the two re­gional pow­ers – In­dia and China.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Si­jal Fawad

The Mal­dives needs to be at its diplo­matic best in ma­neu­ver­ing its re­la­tion­ship with In­dia and China.

With China’s ris­ing eco­nomic clout, one can­not blame re­gional and in­ter­na­tional lead­ers for be­com­ing sus­pi­cious of the real in­tent be­hind some of the coun­try’s eye­brow-rais­ing ini­tia­tives. On the face of it, mega eco­nomic projects, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial fa­cil­i­ties, seem to be the log­i­cal step to­wards build­ing an econ­omy which has proven to hold more po­ten­tial than one would have thought a decade ago. But on the flip side, th­ese projects be­ing strate­gi­cally planned at crit­i­cal ports in the In­dian Ocean – the much-dis­cussed ‘string of pearls the­ory’ – have led to con­jec­tures about China aim­ing to have a geopo­lit­i­cal supremacy over her re­gional ri­val In­dia.

That’s what has fanned con­cerns in the Mal­dives about the 21st Cen­tury Silk Road openly voiced by Mal­di­vian politi­cian Mo­hamed Nasheed.

Pro­posed by Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping last year in Oc­to­ber, the 21st Cen­tury Mar­itime Silk Road (also known as MSR) is aimed at en­hanc­ing com­mer­cial ties be­tween China and South­east Asia in par­tic­u­lar, with the ini­ti­a­tion of a strate­gic mar­itime route along the In­dian Ocean. The idea was sug­gested dur­ing Jin­ping’s speech to the In­done­sian par­lia­ment. Yang Baoyun, a pro­fes­sor of South­east Asian Stud­ies at the Pek­ing Univer­sity, said, “The new route will di­rectly fa­cil­i­tate China's eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and neigh­borly diplo­macy with South­east Asian na­tions.”

Even the In­done­sian me­dia talked about the project pos­i­tively, while of­fi­cials in Sri Lanka and the Mal­dives have also ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm about the prospects aris­ing from the MSR. In fact, Sri Lanka is al­ready a part of the project, hav­ing re­ceived roughly $1.4 bil­lion to build a port city in Colombo as a crit­i­cal point along the MSR and to com­pete with ports in Dubai and Sin­ga­pore.

How­ever, while Mal­di­vian Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla Yameen has ex­pressed his ve­he­ment support for the

project, it ap­pears that his op­po­si­tion lead­ers do not share the same level of ex­cite­ment. Prom­i­nent among the op­pos­ing stances is the one touted by Mo­hamed Nasheed, for­mer pres­i­dent and leader of the op­po­si­tion party the Mal­di­vian Demo­cratic Party. Nasheed is crit­i­cal of the Mal­dives’ in­volve­ment with the MSR on grounds that it is be­ing es­tab­lished to fa­cil­i­tate China. He is op­posed to par­tial­ity to­wards a sin­gle coun­try, ar­gu­ing that Mal­di­vian wa­ters and ports have al­ways stood for neu­tral­ity and bal­ance when serv­ing re­gional economies, with­out any spe­cial ad­van­tages given to a cer­tain coun­try.

Nasheed is es­pe­cially ap­pre­hen­sive about the per­ceived se­cu­rity threat aris­ing out of the strate­gic par­tial­ity of the Mal­dives if it gets in­volved in the MSR project. He hints at New Delhi’s pos­si­ble ire due to China’s strate­gic move and of the pos­si­ble power tussle aris­ing be­tween In­dia and China in the Mal­di­vian wa­ters. He ar­gues that the is­land has stood for peace through ages and by sup­port­ing China, Ab­dulla has risked the peace of the is­land na­tion, be­sides jeop­ar­diz­ing Mal­dives’ in­de­pen­dence.

“Pres­i­dent Yameen (has been) di­rect­ing his at­ten­tion to­wards dis­rupt­ing the peace in In­dian Ocean. (He has) dis­carded age old poli­cies adopted by Mal­di­vian lead­ers. It is not re­spon­si­ble, I say. In­stead of be­ing a tar­get for bad will of re­gional pow­ers within the In­dian Ocean, the Mal­dives should re­main a pro­tec­tor of peace,” Nasheed was quoted by a lead­ing news web­site of the Mal­dives.

The ‘string of pearls’ the­ory – which hasn’t been of­fi­cially con­ceded or ac­cepted by Beijing yet – is what has stoked con­cerns such as the ones dis­cussed by Nasheed. With the Mal­dives be­ing one of the ‘pearls’ along China’s strate­gi­cally planned ‘string’ of mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial routes in the In­dian Ocean, there is a fear that for lo­cal busi­nesses to ex­pand their mar­kets across re­gional part­ners, hope­fully help­ing the Mal­di­vian pop­u­la­tion at large. It will only help to have the support of a boom­ing global econ­omy like China, and one has to look for the ben­e­fit of the lo­cal

The Mal­dives and China need to work to­wards pro­pel­ling their economies for­ward and an ex­tra chan­nel for trade and trans­port in the form of Mar­itime Silk road will be a pos­i­tive step.

the is­land will get in­volved in a brawl be­tween re­gional su­per­pow­ers.

How­ever, Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla ar­gues that this is not a pos­si­bil­ity be­cause of ami­able re­la­tions be­tween the Mal­dives and In­dia. In fact, he main­tained a diplo­matic stance to­wards In­dia, claim­ing that she is wel­come to ini­ti­ate such projects with the Mal­dives too.

Nasheed may be play­ing a hard to please op­po­si­tion leader, but his ar­gu­ments can­not be en­tirely ig­nored ei­ther. With the bal­ance of power hav­ing be­come an is­sue of con­tention be­tween re­gional economies China, In­dia and to some ex­tent Ja­pan, such a move by the Mal­dives may hint at the is­land tak­ing sides. Given In­dia’s sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards China’s planned moves to re­in­force ties with South­east Asian coun­tries, almost in In­dia’s back­yard in the In­dian Ocean, Nasheed is vexed by a pos­si­bly un­pleas­ant re­ac­tion from In­dia.

How­ever, one can­not ig­nore the ben­e­fits of the MSR for the Mal­di­vian econ­omy, es­pe­cially in the ar­eas of for­eign trade and de­vel­op­ment. Both the Mal­dives and China need to work to­wards pro­pel­ling their economies for­ward and an ex­tra chan­nel for trade and trans­port will only be a pos­i­tive step. The Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zones es­tab­lished in the Mal­dives may help for­eign busi­nesses to flour­ish, but the MSR will pro­vide ad­di­tional means pop­u­lace, rather than just ag­o­nize over pos­si­ble re­gional wran­gles aris­ing out of an econ­omy-driv­ing move. Be­sides, Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla has not taken an ob­vi­ous side, since he is en­cour­ag­ing In­dia to es­tab­lish an eco­nomic ini­tia­tive with the support of the Mal­dives, just like China.

Yet, the pos­si­bil­ity of this lead­ing to some ten­sion and strife be­tween Beijing and Delhi can­not be ig­nored al­to­gether. Even though the Chi­nese pres­i­dent’s re­cent visit to In­dia was aimed at paint­ing an ami­able pic­ture of the re­la­tions be­tween the two emerg­ing su­per­pow­ers, the strate­gic im­pli­ca­tions of China’s mar­itime fa­cil­ity in the Mal­dives and Sri Lanka have not gone un­no­ticed by In­dian of­fi­cials. A Cold War like sit­u­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries may be a pos­si­bil­ity.

Given th­ese cir­cum­stances, Mal­dives needs to be at its diplo­matic best in work­ing out the dy­nam­ics of its for­eign pol­icy. Nasheed has a point in con­tend­ing that a friendly deal with China may spark a con­tro­versy. The is­land na­tion has to strike a bal­ance in sup­port­ing the two na­tions. Yet, at the same time, the in­ter­ests of the Mal­di­vian peo­ple must be borne in mind, and the right for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions made ac­cord­ingly.

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