Neigh­bours, Not Mas­ters!

Al­low­ing for­eign­ers to own land in the Mal­dives causes a stir in In­dia.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - F.U.

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.

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