Rough seas ahead

  • Maldives emergency signals changing dimensions of Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis China’s growing regional presence

Feb 23, 2018-

A few weeks ago, Mohamed Nasheed, the ex-president of Maldives, tweeted, ‘On behalf of Maldivian people we humbly request: 1. India to send envoy, backed by its military, to release judges & pol. detainees inc. Prez. Gayoom. We request a physical presence [sic].’ In asking another country to send a military envoy, it was a most uncharacteristic tweet for a former head of state. But there’s history behind it.


In November 1988, 80 gunmen belonging to a Sri Lankan Tamil militant outfit, funded by a Maldivian businessman, had overrun the Maldivian capital, Male. They had overtaken key infrastructural buildings such as radio and TV stations, cut off power and water supply to the capital, and targeted the President’s residence and headquarters of the security service. A beleaguered President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom made a personal request to India for help. The Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to accede to his requests, and with the codename ‘Operation Cactus’, India sent crack paratroopers to help the besieged president and liberate the Maldivian capital.

Indian troops succeeded in lifting the siege in 24 hours. Operation Cactus was hailed internationally. British PM Margaret Thatcher said, ‘Thank god for India’, while US president Ronald Reagan said Operation Cactus would be remembered as a ‘valuable contribution to regional stability’.

Thirty years later, ex-President Nasheed’s tweet is a desperate attempt by a politician-in-exile to get Indian attention on the ‘15-day’ state of emergency declared by President Abdulla Yameen on February 5 after the arrest of two Supreme Court judges. Despite Nasheed saying ‘India remains in the best position to help us’, there is little possibility of Indian military action in the Maldives today. For, apart from the fact that Gayoom, a sitting president, had formally requested for military intervention 30 years ago, there is another actor in the picture today--China.

Changing dynamics

Under its ‘String of Pearls’ approach, China has made several inroads into what was once considered to be India’s backyard, South Asia. Little needs to be said about Nepal, where Indian policy finds itself desperate to woo the new Prime Minister, KP Oli. Sri Lanka is seeing the resurgence of China ally Mahinda Rajapaksa, as his party’s massive victory in the recent local elections portend. And even as the Indian Navy is now allowed to use the facilities at the Omani port of Duqm, the looming presence of China in the neighbourhood poses a question for Indian foreign policy mandarins. Does India focus on expanding its global imprint, developing closer relations with countries like Australia and Japan, or should it be bogged down in its neighbourhood, something China would be keen to see? Or does it engage in partnerships in the neighbourhood, allowing other international actors to play a role here, and beyond as an insurance against a rising China?

China on its part has been quick to seize the momentum. After Nasheed’s tweet, and an Indian politician’s statement saying ‘[India] need not ask any nation before we act’, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times wrote, ‘If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi’. Chinese officials are said to have told their Indian counterparts they did not want Maldives to become another ‘flashpoint’ like Doklam. Reports suggest three Chinese warships entered the eastern Indian Ocean in the past week, although India and Maldives both denied any movement near Maldivian waters. But the Chinese footprint on the island nation is clear. It recently signed a free-trade agreement with Maldives. The country’s only international airport at Male will be expanded by Chinese company Beijing Urban Construction Group under a controversial $800 million contract. Ex-president Nasheed in an interview said, ‘Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land [in the Maldives] than what the East India Company had at the height of the colonial era,’ and that it has ‘weaponised foreign direct investment’.

On Tuesday, the emergency was extended by another 30 days. On Wednesday, India issued a strong statement, saying it was ‘deeply dismayed’ by the extension. It added, ‘The manner in which the extension of the State of Emergency was approved by the Majlis [Maldives Parliament] in contravention of the Constitution of Maldives is also a matter of concern,’ referring to the fact that the vote took place without the required quorum of 43 lawmakers. A day previously, it had once again urged Maldives to abide by its Supreme Court order to release political prisoners and reinstate 12 disqualified parliamentarians in ‘letter and spirit’--the order being the impetus for President Yameen to declare the emergency. Maldives had earlier sent an envoy--as it did to China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan--to India, but Delhi had conveyed the timing was not suitable as top political leaders were out of the country. On February 15, the Indian Ambassador in Male and the Maldives foreign secretary met and reiterated “their commitment to strengthen relations” between the two countries. Yet, all signs point towards President Yameen ignoring India’s calls as he strengthens his own position in the country.

The Indian response

This column has previously argued that Indian foreign policy has geared itself towards a China increasing its footprint in South Asia. In calling for a UN fact-finding mission to the Maldives, India showed its willingness to cede control in the neighbourhood to Western powers, a departure from the exclusive space it once demanded in South Asia. And by mentioning the ‘concerns of the international community’ in its official statement on Tuesday, India is engaging other nations as a counter against the Chinese, even as it has snubbed Nasheed, who was in India this past week.

The success of such an effort is still to be gauged. India continues to make new friends abroad. It recently allowed its businesses to invest in Iran in Indian rupees, an exceptional case since Indian businesses could only invest in Nepal and Bhutan in INR. The decision was taken to relieve international restrictions imposed on Iran barring it from dealing in dollars and Euros because of its nuclear programme. India is also rapidly developing the Chabahar port in Iran, only 70 km away from Gwadar, the Pakistani port being developed by the Chinese. And together with Japan, it aims to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by building power plants, ports, and railroads in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, and by pushing forth the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, ‘meant to deepen the economic connections between Africa and South and Southeast Asia’.

But while India expands its partnerships in the neighbourhood and abroad, analysts argue it lacks ‘a set of instruments’ to affect policy change that aligns with its interests. Its policy of choosing friends, and not dealing with a wide political spectrum, has allowed snubbed leaders in the region to call it out as an interventionist. Indian overtures to other powers like Japan and the US have also made China nervous and more willing to intervene in India’s backyard. Traditional Indian allies in the neighbourhood have been upended by a new political culture that now has a China willing to match, and even exceed, Indian investments as an alternative. Thus, analysts say, both countries are backing domestic rivals in the neighbourhood, ‘assuming the worst of each other’s intentions’. As an Indian analyst wrote, India’s best option at this moment may be ‘economic sanctions that undercut support for Yameen among the Maldivian elite’, although with China backing Yameen, it’s unclear how much sanctions would impact the nation.

With the Maldives political crisis developing towards a strand clearly not preferred by India, the latter’s response will be closely watched by others in the neighbourhood. If it abandons its traditional political allies in the island nation and tries to counter China’s presence by reaching out to President Yameen, its other partners in the region will be jittery. But if it chooses to stay the course, it risks Maldives moving even closer to Beijing. Can India then develop an appropriate response that keeps its interests intact, even as it ensures its overwhelming regional dominance does not drive other nations closer towards China’s embrace?

Mulmi is a Nepali writer based in New Delhi

Published: 23-02-2018 08:22

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