Neighbours, Not Masters!
Allowing foreigners to own land in the Maldives causes a stir in India.
Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said ‘You can change friends, but not neighbours." Following the same dictum, the Maldives now looks beyond the Indian Ocean to explore new friends to strengthen its dwindling economy through foreign investment and help the nation to go bigger despite its small size.
In July, the Maldivian parliament, called People’s Majlis, passed a major constitutional amendment by allowing foreigners with a minimum investment of $1 billion to own land in the country on a conditional freehold basis. Part of a move to lure foreign investment in the Maldives, a cluster of 1,200
beautiful islands, the amendment allows foreign investors to purchase land under the condition that 70 per cent of it will be reclaimed from the ocean.
The government believes that the new law does not pose any threat to the country' sovereignty and will help it attract large-scale foreign investment for mega development projects. The move suggests that the Maldives is now going to follow the same investment models that were earlier applied by developing Asian countries like Singapore, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, with special zones.
With 14 votes against and 70 in favour of the amendment, the constitutional change has become a matter of continuous debate and reappraisal since its approval. The reason behind the uproar is obvious as India deems the move by the Maldives as being ‘pro-China’, clearly inviting the Chinese to gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean and make it a permanent strategic challenge for the Indians.
Maldives is located on the international east-west shipping route, but, according to India, Chinese presence on the route will not only threaten their maritime security but will also place a check on their backyard. India also views the amendment by the Maldives as another opportunity for China to establish a military base and extend its hold on the South Asian region.
The Maldivian government, however, disregards such concerns. In his address to the nation, the Maldives President Abdulla Yameen said, “The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarized zone.” Yameen also mentioned that the Maldives is not going to change its foreign policy and the amendment in the constitution would not pose “any danger to either the Maldivian people or our neighbouring countries.” The Maldives Vice President Ahmed Adeeb also has similar views. He says, “Our sovereignty is not on offer, and we don’t want to give any of our neighbours, including India … any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours."
Given that Chinese companies have rich expertise in executing mega development and construction projects through advanced reclamation technology, China may find itself in an ideal position to make the most of the new constitutional change in the Maldives to exert influence and power in the Indian Ocean.
China does say it has no plans of establishing a military base in the Indian Ocean and its prime objectives is only to achieve the development goals it has set for the whole region, which could not be accomplished without involving the countries located in the area.
Interestingly, the timing of the new law also favours both the Maldives and China. Recently, the Maldives joined China’s two mega projects -Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the Maritime Silk Route and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Knowing that India has already shown its concerns over the proposed Maritime Silk Route as it will pass through the Pakistan portion of Kashmir, the looming Chinese presence in the Maldives will be more than a nightmare for the Indians.
Despite having a long history of dependence on India, the Maldives seem to prefer China to India in other areas too. Last year, the Maldives cancelled an airport upgradation project worth $511 million with Indian company GMR Infrastructure and then assigned it to a Chinese company. The deal was signed when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Maldives in September last year.
In the international community, it is widely perceived that the Maldives is only a small island country which punches above its weight. Despite the concerns raised by India over an everincreasing Chinese influence in the region, it has now been proven that both China and the Maldives share is the need to explore the untapped potential of the region.
The earlier three-decade long authoritarian rule in the Maldives discouraged foreign policies that would align with the emerging geopolitics drift. Moreover, it was a difficult task for a small island nation to see beyond its neighbour, who was hundred times bigger and also have the gumption to exert its influence through political and socioeconomic means.
While China’s development agenda may even be interpreted as an attempt to take forge ahead of the United States in some ways, it seems like a bridge too far. In fact, it is quite an enigma as to what the core Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean are?
Why does China perceive the Maldives as an important strategic partner despite its small size and negligible status? To understand China’s foreign policy is like understanding a Chinese puzzle.
But the fact cannot be questioned that China has emerged as a leading global economy with a huge human capital that is immensely talented and highly skilled compared to the remaining economic powers of the modern era.
Usually, it is America, being the lone superpower, that takes interest in developing nations and aspires to back democracy-driven infrastructures. For its part, India also needs to realize that the Maldives have got something else that attracts China despite having a poor record in democracy.
With a decisive technological edge and technical expertise, China seems to be a befitting strategic partner for the Maldives, whose economy is chiefly based on shipping, fishing and tourism. The new legislation the Maldives may trigger a cold war in the region between China and India, but the tussle is likely to benefit the Maldives in the long run, as the country could attract sizeable foreign investment from Chinese multinational companies and accelerate its economic progress.
It is clear that the Maldives is now making a serious effort to come out from the yoke of dependence on India and has made it obvious that it needs neighbours, not masters. –
Despite having a long history of dependence on India, the Maldives seem to prefer China to India.