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Maldives Elections 2018 and the changing contours of India-China power play in the Indian Ocean; By

Image Courtesy: Daily News/ China Daily

Article No. 56/2018

By all accounts the elections in neighbouring Maldives that completed on 23rd September 2018 has surprised observers and analysts alike with the unexpected result which has brought in the joint opposition leader ‘Ibu’ Ibrahim Mohamed Solih , thereby rejecting the claims of Yameen for another five-year term as the President. The expectations were that the elections would have been rigged by Yameen and a democratic process perhaps scuttled by the state machinery abused by an autocratic leader with scant regard for the judiciary and the electoral processes.  The win by the ‘Ibu’ Solih by some 16 percent has reinforced the faith of the neighbouring countries and other nations that the situation in Maldives is not beyond redemption. The Maldivian Ambassador in Delhi did not lose any time to stress that the democratic process in the Islands was not tampered with and this demonstrates that all is well with the processes which were under increasing strain.

That the united opposition was able to have a single leader to take on Yameen in the end analysis proved useful. From the local media reports, it is clear that there was disenchantment brewing amongst the population before the elections.  A section of the population was also unhappy that while the erstwhile Government had lost no time in removing statues from a semi-submerged art piece terming it as un-Islamic, had no qualms about putting up a large cutout of the Yameen for the inauguration of the Friendship Bridge.

It is clear that Yameen did not find favour with the electorate due to the autocratic manner in which he ran the country during his five-year term.  There was increasing dissidence and disillusionment with the public, who were concerned with the scale of investments by China and the economic challenges in the coming years under the burden of loans.

The experience of Sri Lanka which lost out Hambantota to repay debts to China was a grim reminder that mere heavy investments on third party loans would not promote prosperity and well being of a nation. On the contrary, it would be a foolproof recipe for debt traps. For an island nation with a small population of fewer than four lakh people, and a combined area of just under 300 square kilometers, it was becoming increasingly difficult to absorb the aggressive investments by China which was working to a plan for expanding its footprints in the Indian Ocean. If Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh ports offered leverages in the Bay of Bengal; ports in Maldives, Pakistan, and Djibouti complemented this westward expansion in the Arabian Sea much to the consternation of India which was concerned with the poaching by China in Delhi’s traditional areas of engagement.

The reasons for the animosity by the Yameen’s Government towards India are indeed complex. The first sign that things were going wrong was when GMR, a renowned Indian company which had the contract for modernising the Male airport, was evicted with the contract being handed over to China. GMR which went in appeal to an International tribunal only received part of its expenditure and is estimated to have lost some USD 15 million.  It was clear that China was leaving no stone unturned to transform Maldives into another constituency on the lines of Pakistan.  China ensured that the money kept flowing in to Maldives for many investments including the so-called Friendship Bridge built at considerable expense. There were also talks of having a joint ocean observation station at Makunudhoo, a westernmost atoll in the archipelago. This raised concerns in the Indian establishment of the possibility of this being converted into a naval base. Chinese tourists arrived in large number and did contribute to the tourist economy. As per statistics, it was as if there was a tourist for each Maldivian every year.  However, the cultural differences and the local belief that China’s investments and loans would lead the country astray were major factors in turning the Maldivian voters away from Yameen who was seen as wielding too much power and leaning heavily towards China.  China on its part has indicated that the investments are benign in nature and has sought to defend itself on many occasions. The locals, however, are not convinced that they would not witness a similar situation as faced by other developing economies which were becoming wary of Chinese investments. The Friendship Bridge (Sinamale) built at a cost of over USD 210 million which was opened in August 2018, was accused of being built by Chinese prisoners .

Many Maldivians including the opposition felt that it was unwise to cultivate China at the cost of traditional friend India. The recorded history of India-Maldives relations has many positives and the degree of confidence in the big neighbour’s ability to bail them out in times of crisis has not been lost sight of by the people of Maldives.  Operation Cactus in which India played a major role in thwarting an effort to take over Maldives by mercenaries in 1988 was a turning point in the history of Delhi-Male bilateral relations. The Tsunami in 2004 reassured the maritime neighbours that India which has the capacity and the capability can be counted up on to provide immediate help. The 2014 water crisis in Maldives which was attended to by airlifting water in IAF aircraft also proved to them that India is a reliable friend who will rush to their aid even at short notice.

Yameen had made his dislike for India well known by snubbing India by nonparticipation in many of the forums that had allowed the two sides to engage in a meaningful manner.

Maldives from the previous friendly regimes always welcomed India’s initiatives to have a seamless Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The Trilateral engagement-  Dosti, a  forum for the maritime security agencies of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to work together ensured that there was a common platform for enhancing interoperability and coordination for meeting the challenges at sea.

The trusted friend of India, Nasheed who was operating from Sri Lanka will continue to play a pivotal role in rebuilding relations with India. Sri Lanka did not hesitate to provide all the support to Nasheed in exile to oversee the turn of events at Maldives.  At times, Nasheed may have felt that India did not do enough in Maldives when things were going wrong under Yameen’s rule, but he would have understood that the patience in allowing a democratic process to overthrow an unpopular leader has been more rewarding than any hasty action by India. Even within India, there was a view that India should have militarily intervened to overthrow Yameen, but India though upset with the developments in Maldives much to its detriment,  has behaved as a mature neighbour by allowing the citizens of Maldives to choose their own fate. That this restraint was exercised in the face of developments that were harming Maldives’ growth and relations with its neighbours holds India’s actions in good stead.

Nasheed has already indicated that the order for return of Indian naval helicopters from Maldives base will not be implemented. Yameen in addition to asking for the helicopters to be taken back, had gone ahead and signed an agreement with Pakistan to augment its power infrastructure. Madives had also refused to participate in the Milan this year in its efforts to move away from India led initiatives.  Also, the statement by the leaders makes it very clear that all the investments made by China will be reviewed to assess the long term impact on the financial capacity of Maldives to repay the loans.

China would be upset with the development as, with the ouster of Yameen its trusted friend and ally, it has lost considerable ground that it gained in the last five years. It will fear that India will regain its position as a friend and supporter with the help of the new Government considered as pro-India.  India on its part cannot take anything for granted as China will continue to play its cards of loans and investments on the proclaimed plank of connectivity and development via the Maritime Silk Road.

India needs to revisit its policy towards Maldives to ensure that it does not yield any quarter to China. Beijing would attempt to go out of its way to regain its position in the archipelago of great strategic importance in its IOR ambitions.  The proactive measures to facilitate the growth and prosperity of Maldivian people need to be top agenda in bilateral relations.

India will have to up the ante to ensure that is ahead of the competition and will have to be innovative in engaging the new Male Government and the people even more vigorously with a sense of purpose.  While the traditional engagement for medical tourism and healthcare has firm foundations in India, Delhi will need to augment the facilities both in India and in Maldives for providing world-class health facilities and easing the processes for medical tourism. India needs to be more accommodative of the needs of the people of Maldivians who are aware of the strength of India which can be a source of mutual benefit. The SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) which has been given a high degree of importance will need to include the aspirations of Maldives for prosperity.  The process of allowing Maldivians for education should be simplified further. There has to be greater exchange at different levels of both the governments also enhanced scale of people to people contact.

The format of Dosti should be tweaked to make it happen more frequently and expand the scope of engagement to include joint Blue Economy initiatives, HADR, SAR, fisheries and environmental protection. Joint fishing initiatives and investments in fisheries sector led by India would provide the necessary impetus for furthering the relations to harvest the oceans.

In conclusion, the recent election that has brought in a friendly Madivian Government is seen as a positive development by India which was under considerable strain for the entire duration of Yameen’s rule. Delhi had to exercise enormous restraint to keep away from the internal affairs of the neighbouring island country despite the provocations and even invitations by the opposition to intervene to displace an undemocratic ruler in Yameen. However, India by being patient and allowing the process of elections has vindicated its position and appears now to be in better position to engage with Maldives while being a mature neighbour.

China, having taken the chance of Yameen’s re-election for granted, would be disappointed with the development. Publicly Beijing will welcome the development, but will continue to work behind the scene with the Maldives opposition to keep its options. The review of the projects by the new Government would throw up many challenges if the contractual obligations have to be met. Here again, there should be no hesitation on part of India to bail out Maldives should there be a need to renegotiate certain projects and funding.

Overall, there is a new chapter in the relations of India and Maldives that opens up new vistas for strengthening the traditional relations and to contribute to mutual growth, security and stability in the region.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi, and Director, C3S. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any institution he is affiliated with. He can be reached at]

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