Opinion World

Riding on China, Maldives challenges India

India’s failure to counter China’s enlargement in South Asia does not bode well for its neighbourhood policy.

On March 16-17 this year, the tiny capital of Male saw one of the biggest protests in recent years against Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom for imposing internal emergency and curtailing the fundamental rights of its citizens. The protesters, who were in thousands, were subjected to pepper spray and tear gas. More than 141 were arrested.

A few days later the government of Maldives announced that it had lifted the emergency, but democracy activists based out of Male and Colombo claim no respite in state repression. The top leaders were imprisoned long back, and now the government has ‘detained’ hundreds of lower level party workers. What has contributed to the helplessness of those who oppose President Yameen is that India has not done much after giving an impression that it did not like what was happening in the Maldives when it issued statements against the imposition of internal emergency or demanded the implementation of the Supreme Court order that asked for the release of political prisoners. If a recent report in a Delhi daily is anything to go by, then the government has conveyed to Beijing that it would not invade the Indian archipelago and bring about a regime change. This was not unexpected after ample indications began to emerge that Delhi was resetting its ties with China.

However, when Maldives issue blew up in early February this year, there were expectations that India could intervene in some ways. This hope amongst the Maldivian opposition and democracy activists stemmed from the fact that India being Maldives’s closest big neighbor had a stake in its stability and that of the Indian Ocean region. Also, as a diplomat from a Western country told Hardnews, “It (The Maldives) is in India’s backyard and so it is India’s responsibility to fix it. The Maldives is not a priority for us.” The Maldivians, too,  had slowly got used to their fledgling democracy expected India to protect it, but India’s pronounced ambivalence allowed President Yameen to continue with his repressive ways.

For one of the world’s tiniest capital built on a small island of 5 square km with a population of about 2.5 lakhs, neither the protests nor the excessive police action is normal. For a city of narrow lanes that has one of the highest population densities in the world, the impact of state violence is felt all over the country. While skirmishes between the opponents of the government and the police was routine, confrontation between the government of President Yameen and its opponents got exacerbated after the Supreme Court passed a ruling on 3 February 2018, ordering the government to release nine political prisoners, including exiled former President Muhammad Nasheed, and giving them an opportunity to contest the forthcoming presidential elections.

President Yameen refused to listen to the Supreme Court. He sent the police to the court and arrested the judge and overturned the earlier ruling. He also got his half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom arrested. Thereafter, he imposed an internal emergency in his effort to snuff out dissent. As elucidated above, the emergency is being lifted, but the judges and the former President would be tried.

Initially, there was a strong reaction to President Yameen’s aggressive ways from the European Union, the US and even India — that normally stays out of the internal affairs of other countries — but it seems to have subsided.

President Yameen, who has been in power since 2013, has been emboldened by the support that he enjoys from China and has been showering praises on President Xi Jinping and sees great wisdom in the manner in which the Chinese Constitution has been amended to extend his term for life. His opponents have interpreted his comments as an attempt to replicate a similar model for the Maldives where President Yameen would like to carry on forever. Besides, his recent utterances against democratic dissent and independent media also stem from this realization that there is nothing that India or any of the countries critical of his decisions can do to him.

It is evident that President Yameen read the waves of the Indian Ocean that gently caress the white beaches of its archipelago better than many of his opponents. In 2013, when Yameen Abdul Gayoom became President, the Chinese already had an embassy in Male and were keen to enlarge their footprint in the Maldives to protect their sea-lanes that carry their fuel and other cargo. Their anxiety was deepened by attempts of the US to create a strategic counterpoint to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through a Quad that included Australia, Japan and India. Since then, their presence has grown exponentially.

Chinese tourists come in big numbers — more than a quarter of a million odd that visit this high-end resort every year. India in comparison sent only 83,000 tourists last year. The Chinese are building the $1.2 billion airport project that was earlier given to Indian company GMR for $500 million. Then there is a bridge that connects capital Male with the island where the airport is located. Opposition leaders claim that without really divulging the details of the agreement, the Yameen government has given out islands on lease for as little as $50,000. Former President Nasheed had alleged that the Chinese controlled 17-18 islands. There were also allegations that China is creating observation posts and naval assets in some of these islands. The Chinese Ambassador in Male disputed this allegation and claimed presence only in 7 islands and claimed that China was only the fifth largest investor.

Opposition parties disagree with this assertion and claim that the country was being sold cheap. Due to opacity in decision-making there is no way to ascertain what has been sold and for how much. They have also alleged that projects are being padded beyond their cost to help in payment of bribes. A diplomatic source gave an example to this writer of the airport that China is constructing in the Maldives. According to him, an Indian company was willing to build it for $500 million and the Chinese are constructing it for $1.2. It is anyone’s guess where the money has gone. There is evidence of pay-offs, too, that was captured on camera. An Al Jazeera sting in the documentary, Stealing Paradise, showed money being carried to the President’s house. Last year, President Yameen acknowledged that the money was indeed paid, but he did not know then that it was ill-gotten. He promised to return the money to the treasury. No one really knows if he did.

Why does President Yameen not like India? This is a question that has been raised again and again in cafés and restaurants of the capital city Male. Many attribute it to the failure of India and its companies to help him earn through commissions and kickbacks as China is able to do. “India can’t pay the kind of money that China is able to. Yameen does not want democratic scrutiny at home or in India of all the deals he has signed.” His opponents also claim that his deals have landed the Maldives into a debt trap and its sovereignty would be compromised, hurting its ties with its neighbours. India’s opposition to the BRI stems from how countries that are engaging with China could lose their sovereignty. “It is a lopsided relationship between $11.2 trillion economy and an economy that has an annual budget of $1.2 billion only. Does the Maldives stand a chance to defend its interest?”

The fact that India has failed to convince the Maldives or for that matter any other SAARC country to think about sovereignty issues before they signed deals with China shows that Beijing not only promises funds but also immunity for recipients from harm. In Nepal, as well as in Sri Lanka, both the leaders who came to grief for supporting China are back in the reckoning. KP Sharma Oli has got re-elected as the Prime Minister in Nepal and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party has won important elections in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan watchers claim that Rajapaksa is not far away from capturing power. All these developments have dark forebodings for India’s neighbourhood policy. It has not been able to craft a policy where its influence does not get eroded by Chinese enlargement. Recent attempts by New Delhi to reset its ties with China by lowering its hostility stems from this realisation that it cannot stand alone against its mighty neighbour — it has to engage and resist at the same time

About the author

Sanjay Kapoor

Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of the Delhi-based Hardnews Magazine, which is the South Asian partner of French Publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.
Sanjay follows South and West Asia closely. He has authored a book on corruption and is a regular commentator on Indian and foreign TV channels.