What can India do to end the stalemate in Maldives?
New Delhi: India has played tough with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom for his moves in the ongoing political crisis in the Indian Ocean atoll nation, but with policymakers in New Delhi acknowledging the crucial significance of the country for India’s national security, the question is what can India do to break the stalemate?
For starters, the thinking in New Delhi is that India cannot let the Maldives slip further into strategic rival China’s embrace.
Still, New Delhi’s options seem limited to “soft” measures that have the potential of hurting ordinary Maldivians more than Yameen, whose avowed “India first” policy has now changed to a distinct “China first” approach.
India’s “soft” options’ menu includes stopping the export of essential supplies and embargoing Maldives’ mechanized trawlers from entering and fishing in its exclusive economic zone. But these could be used by those in power to turn popular sentiment against India—something New Delhi is keen to avoid.
Signals from nations like Britain, Germany, France and the US indicate that they would like India—the dominant power in South Asia—to take the lead in leaning on the Maldives, three people familiar with the developments said.
As things stand now, New Delhi would like to see the United Nations take steps that will force Yameen to roll back the emergency imposed, release political prisoners and those arrested in the recent days including ex-president Abdul Gayoom and the Supreme Court chief justice, said one of the three people cited above.
While India’s relationship with Yameen may have run its course, New Delhi is wary of instability taking root in a country of 400,000 people—mostly Sunni Muslims—where the radical Islamic State (IS) has been making inroads.
Of immediate interest to India though is the increasing profile of China in the Maldives. China has reportedly been involved in the construction of the Male airport as well as a project to build a key bridge connecting key Maldivian islands besides a housing project that envisages 7,000 residential units.
New Delhi fears that Chinese infrastructure facilities in the Maldives could serve as surveillance posts, keeping an eye on sensitive Indian military installations. That Maldives allowed Chinese “research” vessels, besides a Chinese frigate and a tanker to dock in its ports last year has been another sore point with India. “This is not being sensitive to Indian interests,” said a second person familiar with the developments cited above.
Earlier, New Delhi had been careful not to upset Yameen, barring Maldives’ opposition figures from visiting India, the second person said, pointing to Indian statements that had eliminated references to words like “democracy” and phrases like “rule of law.”
Ties took another dive in December when Yameen visited China and signed a free trade pact that allows both countries to waive tariffs on more than 95% of goods imported by both sides, along with a commitment to open services markets in finance, healthcare and tourism. India viewed this as a move that allows Chinese goods to enter India through the back door.
Another maritime cooperation pact between China and the Maldives also raised hackles in India given its potential to jeopardize India’s security interests. That Yameen’s special envoy, foreign minister Mohamed Asim who visited New Delhi last month was not able to assuage India’s concerns, did not help matters.
But with no public outcry or large-scale protests demanding Yameen’s ouster, India is watching the situation, and allowing diplomacy to run its course, the third person cited above said.