Indian Ocean Turmoil
Caught in the rivalry between global powers, the small island nation of the Maldives is working to strike a policy balance to control the disorders within.
The pains of growth.
Reportedly, the President of the Maldives, Abdullah Yameen, in a message on the eve of SAARC Charter Day, lauded the ‘ Neighbours first’ initiative of the Modi government. He also urged the SAARC countries to prioritize improving relations with each other as a peaceful region was integral to ensuring peaceful nations. For this, the neighbouring countries must work together to combat crossborder terrorism and violent extremism in order to ensure peace and prosperity in the region.
Conceptually speaking, no person in his right mind can dispute what the Maldivian President said and the policy of the Modi government to give priority to improvement of India’s relations with its immediate neighbours. The endorsement of the Indian initiative by President Yameen comes in the wake of attempts to salvage and reestablish relations between the two countries which soured in 2012 when the Maldivian government abruptly terminated an agreement with the Indian infrastructure giant GMR to develop the international airport in Male.
India retaliated with tightening of visa requirements for Maldivians and revoked a special quota for import of aggregate and river sand from the Maldives. These restrictions, however, were lifted when President Abdullah Yameen assumed power in November 2013. The relations again came under strain when Muhammad Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives was imprisoned in March 2015, resulting in cancellation of Modi’s visit to the Maldives. But this estrangement was short-lived and in a sign of improving ties, Indian External Minister Sushma
Swaraj visited the Maldives in October and revived the Maldives-India Joint Commission after 15 years. Both the countries also committed to broadening cooperation in defence, human resource, trade and health sectors. It may be pointed out that India had very strong relations with the Maldives during the rule of Mamoon Abdul Gayoum and even sent troops to quell the third coup attempt against Gayoum.
The Maldives economy has been devastated by losses inflicted by the tsunami in 2004 and the political turmoil that has gripped the country since 2008, after the end of the 30 years rule by Mamoon Abdul Gayoom which more or less provided a lot of stability to the country. The Maldives now needs foreign support for infrastructure development that was destroyed in the tsunami as well as new ventures to keep the economy going. To dilate on the question of whether this new relationship between India and the Maldives inspired by the Indian policy of ‘Neighbours First’ would benefit the former, it would be appropriate to first look at the scope and thinking behind the ‘ Neighbours First’ initiative.
Intellectual circles in India believe that this policy was actually specific to improving relations with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh outside the purview of SAARC and was designed to strengthen security and governance in the north eastern states to stop inflow of arms and contraband and not let the neighbours look the other way when their territory was used to launch militant attacks in the north eastern states.
The BJP and, more importantly, the RSS have for long invested a lot in the north eastern states, trying to loosen the grip of Christian missionaries and stop cross-border flow of arms and contraband to insurgent groups in these states. The thinking is that closer ties with Nepal and Bhutan can check infiltration and much else, particularly in the context of the Myanmar government losing its control over militant groups and the emerging Buddhist-Islamic conflict. Similarly, a friendly government in Bangladesh can nurture a mutually productive relationship that can thwart varied attempts to infiltrate insurgents into the north eastern states. Modi’s overtures towards Pakistan also have had a greater emphasis on tackling crossborder terrorism while moving towards settlement of disputes between the two countries. As is evident, this policy is more focused on security concerns though there are also economic reasons to pursue it.
There is, however, a considered opinion within India that the ‘ Neighbours First’ policy which was being hailed as a radical new breakthrough a year ago has failed to deliver. Relations with Nepal have sunk to a new low and India has watched from the sidelines as the Maldives has prepared to jump into an abyss. Instead of facing the threat from the Jihadists, the government has expended its energies on imprisoning much of the opposition leadership, prosecuting one vice president on charges of trying to assassinate the President, impeaching another, removing defence ministers and throwing out two Supreme Court judges. Bangladesh continues to complain of the lack of counter-terrorism cooperation from West Bengal, among other things. Ties with Sri Lanka, though cordial, have not shown any exceptional energy or direction. Myanmar, outraged by India’s decision to go public with a cross-border raid early in 2015, has been assuaged but there has been no great push on economic ties or strategic cooperation. In short, this policy has not shaken India out of the torpor that characterized the policies of the previous regime.
It is pertinent to note that President Yameen has implemented a foreign policy shift towards increased engagement with China, establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. He has employed Islam as a tool of identity politics, framing religious mobilization as a solution to the perceived attempts by Western countries to undermine Maldivian national sovereignty. His policies have not gone well in the country and an attempt was made on his life on September 28, 2015 as he returned to the Maldives after performing Hajj. Since the vice president of the Maldives was arrested on charges of conspiracy to kill the President, a number of his supporters have been incarcerated and are facing trials. The Maldivian government, overreacting to the attempt, has instituted a broader crackdown against political dissent.
President Yameen is a man besieged by a myriad of lurking dangers. He is trying to secure his position and stem the rot in the Maldivian economy. Therefore, his welcoming the Indian initiative and restoring economic ties with India does make sense in the context of the obtaining situation. However, political analysts believe that it would be difficult for the Maldives to forge the bondage that existed during Mamoon’s time. Things are not as simple as perceived, as new players have entered the arena. The tilt towards India might lead to a situation similar to that of Sri Lanka where, after the installation of pro-India and pro-US government regime, relations between Sri Lanka and China have became strained. It needs to be remembered that China has invested heavily in the country’s infrastructure projects despite its facing a financial crisis.
China still has a well-entrenched position In the Maldives. As such, the country may not find its overtures towards India as rewarding as perceived or forced by circumstances. The western countries are also wary of the policies of President Yameen, particularly linking his policies to Islam, which is radicalizing the Maldivian society and reportedly some youth from the Maldives are also joining the IS. They are also likely to oppose the Maldivian regime and might even try to influence India from extending economic support to President Yameen. It is therefore a very tricky situation for the Maldivian regime and it will have to tread very carefully to avoid being sucked into the dynamics of global politics, as both China and the US-India nexus are locked in a struggle for establishing their ascendency in the region and beyond.