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Singing to the Island: India-China Soft Power Play in Maldives; By Asma Masood

Updated: Feb 1, 2023



C3S Article no: 0157/2016

Courtesy: FPRC Journal-2016(4)

Atlantis, the legendary island in the Atlantic Ocean off the Straits of Gibraltar, is said to have once conquered Mediterranean lands. On the other hand, according to the ancient legend, the island was swallowed up by the sea as a result of earthquakes.1 The tale of Atlantis may be a myth, but it strikes a remarkable similarity to present day islands which face threat of submergence under water due to climate change.


 A tropical paradise archipelago with a population of 372,057, Maldives is facing this threat stemming from rise of water levels by 2040. 2 In context of this concern, Maldives has been the fourth country to sign the Paris Climate Treaty. India has also recently followed, by ratifying the climate treaty of the century. China preceded India, along with U.S.A to ratify the treaty.


The hypothetical question arises, that if Maldives is submerged someday, of where will the people of the island nation desire to resettle. Will they look to India or China? Or will they overlook both and choose another state? This may as well depend on the success of the level of soft power of China and India in Maldives.


Hard power vis-à-vis defence and strategic ties will influence the tilt of the government of Maldives. However the people can be won over only by soft power.


What is Soft Power?

Joseph Nye coined the term soft power, to demonstrate U.S.A.’s resounding influence which surpassed its hard power. He stated that a country’s soft power – the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion – rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. It arises due to the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies, that is, through elements which are “real but intangible.” 3


Uma Purushothaman succinctly describes the aspects of soft power as follows:

The success of soft power heavily depends on the State’s reputation within the international community, as well as the flow of information between States. Thus, soft power is often linked to the rise of globalization and neoliberal theory. Popular culture and media is often identified as a source of soft power, as is the spread of a national language, or a particular set of normative structures. A nation with a large amount of soft power and the goodwill so won can inspire other countries to acculturate, thus avoiding the need for expensive hard power expenditures.4


Tunes Wafting in From the Past

India has many avenues to practice its soft power upon Maldivians, thanks to the mirror of the past. These channels can be promoted by the Indian and Maldivian government to exalt ties of antiquity. In fact, Maldives’ very identity may be linked to India: Some scholars believe that the name “Maldives” derives from the Sanskrit maladvipa, meaning “garland of islands.”5 Besides, it is most likely that early Maldivians were “Buddhist or Hindus migrating from the Indian subcontinent.”6  Trade is also an integral connection between the island country and India since ancient times. Maldives, according to the archeologist Thor Heyerdahl, was a trading junction for several ancient maritime civilizations including Indus Valley traders.7 There is also a religious connection, as according to Thor Heyerdahl, the legendary sun-worshipping Redin people of Maldives may have descended from one of these ancient civilizations, such as the Indus. Around 500 B.C, the Redin either left or were absorbed by, apart from Sri Lankan Buddhist settlers, Hindus from North-west India.8


However there are also tales of harassment of Maldivians by “Mopla pirates from the Malabar coast” (present day Kerala state on India’s western coast).9 This wasn’t the only ‘threat’ felt by Maldives from India. In the 1860s, the Borah merchants from Bombay, India established such a monopoly over foreign trade in Maldives, that the Maldivian ruler feared they would gain total control of his nation. Thus he signed an agreement with the British colonizers in 1887 recognizing Maldives’ statehood and formalizing its status as a protectorate.10  This harks of the modern character of Maldives, where it seeks relations with India without being overshadowed by the bigger country.


Although the last two examples cited may not be in positive light, they show the depth of interaction between Maldives and India since time immemorial. In addition, they set a blueprint for present and future linkages. After all, India is a country that always learns from the past, thus avoiding the impasse of history repeating itself.


On the other hand, China is showing a contrasting picture. It has graduated from mere ancient expeditions by Chinese explorers to now eyeing Maldives as a strategic location in its Indian Ocean ambitions. In the historical context, around 1413, the Chinese navigator Zheng He sailed from China, onwards to Sumatra and then to Ceylon, while sending another branch fleet to Maldives. In his navigational map, nearly ten islands were marked in what was known as “Liu” (Maldives).11 Guyuanuliu was the Chinese name for Male, the capital of Maldives.12 The Chinese navigators would sail from Maldives, on to the Persian Gulf and East African coast. Thus Maldives lay on a strategic route of the ancient maritime Silk Route. The Chinese navigators of yore had their own term for Maldives, referring to it as the ‘Three Thousand Weak Waters’.


Interestingly, Chinese records show the Maldivians also sent ambassadors with gifts to the court of the Tang Dynasty.13 This shows that Maldives, like many other ancient regional kingdoms proximal to China, was practicing the tribute system to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ that was China. Although Maldives was not invaded by China, the island kingdom felt that it had to pay traditional homage to the Chinese emperor. This is on a widely distinct note from India-Maldives historical bonds.


While such the phenomenon of giving tribute is now extinct, Maldives does have strong relations with China in the current era, moreover in the soft power arena.


The Present Day Duet

Cultural relations between China and Maldives are set to receive a boost, due to President Xi Jinping’s initiative of the Maritime Silk Road. Maldives’ ideal geographical location, on the pathway between the Middle East/East Africa and South Asia, offers scope for higher trade and infrastructure partnerships. This is likely to increase people to people contacts between the two countries.  In addition, modern ‘explorers’, namely tourists from China constituted “almost 31 per cent” 14 of Maldives total tourist arrivals in 2013. These numbers play an important role in Maldives’ economy which is highly dependent on tourism from China.  In fact, a slight dip in Chinese tourist arrivals in 2015 and 2016 prompted a Maldivian media outlet to study the reasons for the decline and recommend measures on how to improve the figures.15


It is surprising that Maldives’ media desires enhancement of Chinese tourist numbers, despite the fact that “they are not high spending persons, unlike European tourists.”16 Their strength lies in the phenomenal number of visitors per year. This reflects that Maldives needs people to people contact with China for fulfilling a hard power component, namely economy. On the other hand, India’s cultural connect with Maldives is an inherent part of bilateral relations such that it is taken for granted. As Shashi Tharoor has pointed out “…such strategic advantages as have accrued from India’s soft power… has been a largely unplanned byproduct of the normal emanations of Indian culture. Such goodwill has not been systematically harnessed as a strategic asset by New Delhi.”17


Perhaps the time has come when India needs to wake up and smell the Maldivian brew. This concoction of opportunity has already tempted the Chinese to go so far as to assist in infrastructure development of Laamu Atoll in Maldives, raising fears in India that it could be developed as a port by the Chinese. Hence India needs to promote an increase in Maldivian popular opinion. This cannot be achieved by focusing on ancient cultural links alone. Indian soap operas and Bollywood are very popular in Maldives.18 However they will not help sway Maldivian government decisions.


There are certain positives in India’s soft power permeation in Maldives. For example, Indian news channels such as NDTV and Times Now are well-liked in Maldives, as is Vividh Bharathi.19 Indian languages are widespread in the island country as well, according to Mr. N. Sathiya Moorthy, Director, Observor Research Foundation Chennai. Nevertheless, there is room for the Chinese language also to pick up in Maldives:


“A few people from older generations (in Maldives) may also know Gujarati or other north Indian languages and dialects, having spend their younger years in some madrasa or the other in India. In more recent times, some of them have picked up some Tamil, and more so Malayalam, and less of Kannada, too, after school or college education in these parts, and more definitely, hospitalization in Thiruvananthapuram. The people of the Northern Islands have historic and cultural relations with Minicoy, and thus speak or understand Malayalam. All of it also shows that Maldivians are good learners of languages, and if there is a need/occasion (like employment), they could pick up at least a minimum working knowledge of Chinese. I am sure, the Chinese Embassy in Male might even start language courses for locals, as the Indian embassy has been having for decades now.”20


Interestingly, while Indian languages and television programmes are in trend in Maldives, the island state is not looking to India alone for partnership in the entertainment industry. As Mr. Sathiya Moorthy states that, in October 2016, “The Maldives Broadcasting Commission discussed a project with the Chinese Ambassador, to train their television artistes.”21 He adds that around the same time as this occurred, “Maldives released a postage stamp for King Agrisen, who founded the Aghroa dynasty in North India, from where traders travelled to Maldives centuries ago.”22 He compares the two incidents, by observing that while the broadcast authority decision “may have some political use for China over the medium and long terms. But the release of Agrisen stamp is just a gesture, which India and Indians can fondly remember, but nothing more.”23


This statement may be true, but it does not override the reality that Maldives adopts an ‘India First’ policy. One recalls how India dispatched “water aid” to the Maldivian capital of Male, after a fire destroyed the generator of its biggest water treatment plant in December 2014.24 Much earlier, India had assisted Maldives in disaster recovery, after the 2004 tsunami.

India has thus proved that it relies not only on media and entertainment but also on actual aid in times of crisis. The question springs to mind whether this is enough or should India do more to make soft power towards its neighbours, including Maldives, part of its integral strategic culture.


How can the Tiger’s Violin outperform the Dragon’s flute?

Soft power, when effective, can make its intangible character result in tangible results. India can employ soft power tools to harness hard power objectives such as strategic and political returns. Tourism to Maldives can be promoted, to boost economic interdependence between the two countries. However Mr. Sathiya Moorthy opines that “The Chinese (tourists) outnumbered Indians by leagues at their peak. Even when their numbers have fallen, I do not think Indians can fill the gap, nor spend the way Maldivian industry has seen Europeans spend.”25 He recalls that “The Chinese especially, and to a much lesser extent, Indian tourists helped Maldivian tourism industry, when at the time of post-tsunami recovery, the global economic meltdown took them (Maldivians) by surprise. The Maldivian government and industry had an imaginative idea to promote tourism in China and India, and Chinese flocked in large numbers.”26


India should not wait for a crisis before taking action again. Tie-ups can be made between corporates and well-performing public sector units in India and the tourism industry in Maldives. The Indian government can encourage Indian film makers to shoot in the eye-catching locales of Maldives. While such measures may seem that Delhi has to go out of its way to relate better to Male, the effort will be worth it. Indian media and social media are platforms to provide such an approach. One draws the parallel of Chinese media, albeit state-controlled, encouraging its citizens to visit countries with which it has strong diplomatic relations.


There is no presence of diaspora from India or China in Maldives. However the Indians working in Maldives can continue to be valuable ears on the ground in Maldives: “There is no Chinese diaspora in Maldives to influence anyone — other than their embassy, and their deep pockets. There cannot be any Indian diaspora either, as non-Muslims cannot become Maldivian citizens (barring a few). But Indians working in Maldives do have access to information and policy-makers more at a personal-level, some of them having been working there as teachers and doctors and otherwise in Male in particular. Others in the islands have access to local officials and politicians, who are in touch with Male.”27


Indian doctors in Maldives can do more than just relaying messages back home to ensure strong bilateral ties. They can galvanize support to help manage a life-threatening disease, thalessaemia, which is highly common in Maldives. According to a Thalassaemia International Federation report, “The Maldives have one the highest prevalence rates of thalassaemia globally. This chronic and potentially lethal hereditary anemia constitutes a major public health and social issue contributing to premature death in both children and young adults, and making increasing demands on the country’s resources.”28


The report highlights how the process of blood transfusions, which are used to treat thalassaemia, is facing problems due to blood shortages, especially when it comes to rare blood groups. The Maldivian Blood Services (MBS), which is responsible as the National Centre for thalassaemia, gets “no cooperation of the various blood banks in other hospitals, such as the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), which could alleviate shortages, especially when a rare blood type… is being sought.”29 The IGMH, which was a gift from India to Maldives, is a state-run hospital and is interestingly being managed by an Indian healthcare enterprise, Apollo Hospitals, since 2010.30 If Apollo Hospitals were to manage the partnership with MBS for ensuring smooth blood donations supply, it can take a huge burden off Maldivians’ shoulders. This in turn can improve the quality of life of affected Maldivians, making them grateful to Indian efforts.


It is important to note here that whatever measures India does take to aid Maldives, even if part of a larger soft power strategy, will be with shades of sincerity. India believes in assisting other states not for pure self-seeking motives. It genuinely desires the well-being of Maldives and its citizens. The deeply entrenched history and diplomatic ties support the same.


It is also obvious in the gesture by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of announcing that a SAARC satellite (perhaps to be renamed as South Asia satellite) will be gifted to benefit countries of the region, including Maldives, notwithstanding Pakistan’s non-cooperation. This satellite can contribute to weather-mapping, which will enormously help Maldives in times of climate change. It will facilitate prevention of a climate refugee crisis. As Mr. Sathiya Moorthy emphasizes,


“There is nothing India or any other nation can do to stop the climate-change processes in the medium term, which is the danger-zone, if at all, for nations like Maldives. But India can still plan — and should plan — to have Maldivians housed in India, but not as a separate Maldivian nation-State. India should prepare and constantly update a policy in this regard, with human security, and national security issues in mind.”31 Such a policy will need not only strategic perspectives but also soft power ideas. The Maldivians need to be comfortable with resettling in India if the situation arises. Sending out positive feelers in this direction via the various methods discussed, including promoting the historical and cultural linkage, is required at the earliest.


In the meantime, China is giving substantial grants in aid to Maldives. The Maldives and China have signed in 2013 an Agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation, under which the Chinese government will provide 50 million Yuan in grant aid to the Maldives.32 However, it is likely that Beijing is eyeing Maldives for spiraling business after the island state passed a law allowing foreign ownership of land.33 While China denies claims of planning a military base in Maldives, there is no guarantee of events which can occur if and when Maldives is submerged, and is sought by China as a submarine base in the Indian Ocean.


India must realize that a proactive approach is the best way forward. China may well be the proverbial Pied Piper of Hamlin, luring the Maldivians with its sweet flute music of huge monetary grants. But India can be the violinist that plays according to the tune of the local Maldivians, allowing them to enjoy the symphony of bilateral measures. In other words, India can engage in soft power strategies not for its own gain alone, but to assure Maldives that it is a concerned Big Brother, desiring the well-being of the island country. If this soft power design is successful, then Maldives may one day boast of being the Atlantis whose people triumphed despite disaster thanks to the hand being held out by India.


NOTES :

  1. Atlantis-Legendary Island, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Atlantis-legendary-island

  2. “Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg2/index.php?idp=671 (Accessed October 3 2016); Sergei DeSilva- Ranasignhe, ‘China India Rivalry in the Maldives’, The Jakarta Post, June 17 2011, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2011/06/17/china-india-rivalry-maldives.html

  3. Raja Mohan, “Indian Diaspora and ‘Soft Power’,” The Hindu, January 6 2003.

  4. Uma Purushothaman, “Shifting Perceptions of Power: Soft Power and India’s Foreign Policy,” Journal of Peace Studies, 17, Issue 2&3 (2010).

  5.    “Maldives – History”, Global Security, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/indian-ocean/mv-history.htm (Accessed October 3 2016)

  6. Ibid 5

  7. Tom Masters, Maldives, (London: Lonely Planet, 2012) , page 17 https://books.google.co.in/books?id=D9ZBUFG05jAC&printsec=frontcover

  8. Ibid 7

  9. Ibid 5

  10. Ibid 7, page 19

  11. Information Office of the People’s Government of Fujian Province, Zheng He’s Voyages Down the Western Seas, (China: China Intercontinental Press, 2005), page 35, https://books.google.co.in/books?id=QmpkR6l5MaMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

  12. Ibid 11

  13. ‘History of the Maldives’, Maldives Holidays, http://www.maldivesholidays.org/history-maldives, (Accessed October 3 2016).

  14.  ‘Maritime Silk Road to bring closer China-Maldives ties’, China Daily, June 9 2014, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2014xisco/2014-06/09/content_18574884.htm

  15.   Mifzal Ahmed, “The Receding Dragon: The decline in Chinese Tourists to the Maldives”, Mihaaru, July 16 2016, http://en.mihaaru.com/the-receding-dragon-the-decline-in-chinese-tourists-to-the-maldives/

  16. Email Interview with Mr. N. Sathiya Moorthy, Director, Observor Research Foundation Chennai, October 4 2016

  17. Tharoor, S, ‘Indian Strategic Power: Soft’, Huffington Post, May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shashi-tharoor/indian-strategic-power-so_b_207785.html

  18. Ibid 16

  19. Ibid 16

  20. Ibid 16

  21. Ibid 16

  22. Ibid 16

  23. Ibid 16

  24. ‘How India staved off Maldives’ water crisis’, The Hindu, December 5 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/how-india-staved-off-maldives-drinking-water-crisis/article6665385.ece

  25. Ibid 16

  26. Ibid 16

  27. Ibid 16

  28. Dr Michael Angastiniotis, ‘The Maldives WHO Mission August 2014 Report’, WHO Regional Office for Southeast Asia, August 2014, http://www.searo.who.int/maldives/mediacentre/thalassaemia-report-august-2014.pdf

  29. Ibid 28

  30. 30.  ‘Apollo Hospitals to manage the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, Republic of Maldives’, Apollo Hospitals, January 25 2010, https://www.apollohospitals.com/news/apollo-hospitals-to-manage-the-indira-gandhi-memorial-hospital (Accessed October 15, 2016).

  31. Ibid 16

  32.  ‘Maldives and China sign Grant Aid Agreement of 50 million Yuan’, Maldives High Commission London, December 5 2013, http://www.maldiveshighcommission.org/news/news-from-maldives/item/349-maldives-and-china-sign-grant-aid-agreement-of-50-million-yuan

  33. Ananth Krishnan, “China says fears of Maldives military base baseless”, India Today, July 28 2015, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/china-says-fears-of-maldives-military-base-baseless/1/454608.html

(Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. She can be contacted at asma.masood11@gmail.com. Twitter: @asmamasood11)

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