Maldives: China's gain, India's loss

Different analysts might come to different conclusions but the 2017 story of the Narendra Modi government's 'neighbourhood first' policy was about India continuing to struggle against China's relentless charm offensive in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

The smallest South Asian country in both land area and in population, the island state of Maldives occupies a pivotal place in Indian Ocean geopolitics. Maldives' importance is enhanced because of its crucial geostrategic location as it sits astride important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs).

India also regards the Maldives as falling squarely within its South Asian sphere of influence. The Maldives forms a vital component of India's maritime strategy, considering its increasing presence in the western Indian Ocean, with its commercial and strategic route to the African continent extending to the western hemisphere.

India is the closest neighbour which has always been the first to respond whenever Maldivians have faced any crisis or challenges. However, India's ties with the Maldives have been recently impacted by China's growing footprint on the island. The Maldives has been reorienting its foreign policy, allowing the Chinese to have a much greater influence than it did in the past. It needs to be recalled that China opened an embassy in Male, the Maldivian capital, only in 2011.

Many countries have non-resident embassies, either in New Delhi or Colombo, and the Chinese embassy in Colombo was also catering to the Maldives till 2011. After Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the Maldives in 2014, military, diplomatic and economic ties have strengthened remarkably between Male and Beijing.

The Maldives is the only South Asian country that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited since taking office in 2014. Although it was in the itinerary for his March 2015 Indian Ocean tour, the visit had to be cancelled due to domestic political turbulence in the Maldives.

New Delhi's influence over the Maldives began to deteriorate soon after former president Mohamed Nasheed, perceived as pro-India, was removed from power in 2012. It is widely believed that President Abdulla
Yameen does not represent popular will in the Maldives. Though a democratic framework remains in place, there have been disturbing changes in Maldives' internal politics and foreign policy orientation.

Although the current government of Abdulla Yameen proclaims a commitment to the 'India First' policy, it is no surprise that the Maldives cosies up to China since Beijing does not talk about the state of democracy in the country. On the other hand, China is equally happy to engage the Maldives economically and militarily as it provides a strong foothold in the Indian Ocean.

Yameen had visited India in April 2016 and the two countries exchanged agreements in the fields of defence, taxation, tourism, conservation of mosques and space research. But his tilt towards China is unmistakable.

China's emergence as a major power on the global scene is leading to fundamental changes in global geopolitics and geoeconomics. India's immediate neighbourhood has also become witness to growing Chinese assertiveness.

Disconcerting deal

In early December, Maldives rushed through the much-criticised Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China in the Maldivian parliament at midnight, without any opposition member being present there. This is Maldives's first FTA with any country, and China's second, after Pakistan, with a South Asian country. The secrecy and stealth with which China secured the FTA is nothing short of a 'diplomatic coup'. Given its security impact in India's strategic backyard, China's foray into the Maldives has aroused a great deal of discomfort in New Delhi.

Following the unexpected FTA deal, India's foreign ministry issued a statement saying it is India's "expectation that as a close and friendly neighbour, Maldives will be sensitive to our concerns, in keeping with its 'India First' policy." Rather than addressing India's concerns, the Maldivian government suspended three local councillors for "unauthorised" meeting with the Indian ambassador.

A pro-government Maldives paper has published a vehem ently anti-India editorial descri bing India as the biggest enemy nation while showering praise on China, the "new best friend" of Maldives. It also accused New Delhi of plotting a coup against the Yameen government. Unfortunately, India's non-coercive options for compelling Male into a course correction do not seem promising. This must set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.

As 2017 has not been a very promising year for India's 'neighbourhood first' policy, the Modi government must prove that it is not merely political rhetoric but a strategic goal. By focusing renewed energy and commitment on the Indian Ocean region, the Modi government can demonstrate that India has the capability to promote regional peace and economic integration.

As China has deeply entren ched its economic and strategic footprint in the Indian subcontinent, the Modi government has a bumpy road ahead if it wishes to reverse China's relentless march in its immediate periphery, inclu ding in the Indian Ocean region.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University, Jodhpur)

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