- Maldives immigration authority has not been issuing work visas to Indians since March this year.
- This is retaliation from the Maldives for India’s condemnation of Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s declaration of emergency in February after the country’s Supreme Court reversed the conviction of opposition leader, Mohammed Nasheed, and others.
- The Maldives has also asked India to take back its gift of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters, one manned by the Indian Coast Guard and another by the Indian Navy, by the end of June. Though the Maldivian government has said that these were not the helicopters it wanted, the real worry seems to be the presence of Indian defence personnel who are maintaining and operating the aircraft.
- In retaliation, it is learnt that Delhi voted against Malé and in favour of Indonesia for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council last week.
Weakening ties between India and the Maldives
- There has been a series of setbacks in India-Maldives ties, starting from March 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a visit
- Recent moves by Abdulla Yameen, President of the Maldives, have put Malé on a collision course with New Delhi
- India criticised the government for its incarceration of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, sentenced to 19 months in prison for an alleged plot to unseat Mr. Yameen
- The Maldives in December 2017 also signed a free trade agreement with China
- The Maldives, under Yameen, is also wooing Pakistan, China’s closest friend and ally. Soon after Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa paid a visit to Malé, Islamabad offered a $10 million loan to finance the purchase of two Super Mushak aircraft from Pakistan’s Aeronautical Complex.
- The strain is now evident in two areas where India-Maldives ties had been the strongest: strategic relations and people-to-people engagement
Internal developments in the Maldives which concerned India in recent past
- In the past decade or so, the number of Maldivians drawn towards terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Pakistan-based madrassas and jihadist groups has been increasing.
- In terms of proportion to population, this number of Maldivian nationals(200) joining IS, is quite high compared to other South Asian countries, irrespective of whether they are Muslim-majority countries.
- Political instability and socio-economic uncertainty are the main drivers fuelling the rise of Islamist radicalism in the island nation.
- India has two worries in this regard:
- the exfiltration of members of Indian terror groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM) to the Maldives after their crackdown in India
- the possibility of LeT using remote Maldivian islands as a launch pad for terror attacks against India and Indian interests.
Overall, India’s concern is regarding how radical Islamist forces have been gaining political influence in the neighbourhood.
Role of China
- China’s strategic footprint in India’s neighbourhood has increased.
- The Maldives has emerged as an important ‘pearl’ in China’s “String of Pearls” for ensuring the security of its sea lanes, especially the unhindered flow of critically-needed energy supplies from Africa and West Asia through the Indian Ocean.
- Chinese have remained among the top visitors to the Maldives. Beijing has evinced a keen interest in developing infrastructure in the Ihavandhoo, Marao and Maarandhoo Islands.
- During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s Maritime Silk Route.
- China has provided grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport (called the China-Maldives friendship bridge).
- Amendments to the Maldivian Constitution in July 2015 allowed foreigners to own land, including investments of over US$ 1 billion for projects where 70 per cent of the land has been reclaimed. Looking at the parameters, China will be the obvious beneficiary.
- Chinese nationals now account for the largest tourist arrivals in the islands.
- India views the growing Chinese footprint in the Maldives with concern. India’s concern stems from the increasing Chinese strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region.
- Though the Maldivian government under Yameen has reassured India that the Chinese presence is purely economic, the concern of ‘places turning into bases’ is genuine
- In December 2017, China signed the Free Trade Agreement with the Maldives.
- It paves the way for a tighter embrace between Beijing and Maldives and it will also open the Maldives to Chinese goods and tourists in unprecedented numbers.
- Delhi saw this as a betrayal of the Maldives’ publicly stated “India First” policy
- The Yameen government must reconsider these policies.
- India too must pause to consider why relations have soured so badly.
- India cannot take its predominant power in South Asia for granted.
- Whether it is Nepal, where the people recently elected the pro-Chinese and moderate Communist, K.P. Oli, to power, or the Maldives, Delhi must abandon their perceived arrogance towards its smaller neighbours.
- India needs to separate ground reality from its desires — whatever its discomfort with Yameen, it has to learn to deal with him.
- Elections are due in the Maldives later this year and Delhi must realistically assess the pros and cons, including its policy towards exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed, before taking sides.
- China is here to stay in the Maldives, as well as across the rest of South Asia. Delhi needs to learn to deal with issues realistically.
- There is unmistakable evidence of souring of ties between India and Maldives. Why has the relationship deteriorated? How can it be improved?