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.
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.