What was General Bajwa doing in Maldives?

The recent trip of Pakistani Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to the Maldives has implications for India as it struggles to preserve its waning influence in the Indian subcontinent.

Last week, the Maldivian capital city, Male, had an interesting visitor in Pakistan’s Army Chief, Qamar Bajwa. This was the first visit by a Pakistani army chief to Maldives in the last four years. It is also significant that General Bajwa is the first person of eminence to come to this Indian Ocean archipelago after a crisis erupted in early February resulting in the imposition of an internal emergency. His presence not only sought to lend legitimacy to a government that has been savaged globally for the manner in which it has smothered dissent, but also sent out a clear message to India that Maldives has other friends.

The media has been rather parsimonious in analysing the implications of General Bajwa’s visit to the Maldives, but that does not, in any way, minimise its strategic import. For years, India has positioned itself as the guarantor of peace in the Indian Ocean region and exercises sway over these littoral states. China has resented identification of India with the ocean – ever since it unveiled its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the contest with New Delhi has mounted in practically all the countries of South Asia.

The tiniest of them all- Maldives- has been posing a challenge to India ever since President Yameen Abdul Gayoom began to align his country closer to China. In the past few years, the footprint of China has become bigger. It has been given major contracts to build airports, bridges and other infrastructure projects. It is also taking advantage of the Maldivian policy that allows foreign companies to take over islands for a billion dollars if 70 per cent is reclaimed from the sea. Then, there is a move by Beijing to set up a Joint Ocean Observation station in one of the islands of the archipelago. This observatory may have military use and could become a security issue with India. These irritants have been stacking up, with the Indian government at its wits end on how to make President Yameen see reason.

In the latest crisis, the Maldivian Supreme Court ruled that the government had to release all political prisoners and allow them to contest the August 2018 Presidential polls. President Yameen reacted to it by arresting judges and imposing an internal emergency in the country. India denounced the manner in which President Yameen had gone about smothering democratic institutions and arresting his opponents. India found support from the US, the UK, the EU beside many other countries, but it also afforded China an opportunity to reiterate its support to the Maldives by cautioning India from engaging in any hostile act to overthrow President Yameen’s government. China’s prompt caution elicited an assurance from India that it would not intervene militarily in Maldives. This assurance coming from an unnamed source in a newspaper report was neither confirmed nor denied, but it became apparent that India was not ready for a Doklam-like confrontation with China in the Indian Ocean.

What India did not really anticipate was the strategic space it was ceding to China by displaying its inadequacy to manage affairs in the Maldives. For a while, the US had been goading India to militarily intervene and end the stasis that had gripped its neighbourhood policy. That’s not New Delhi’s style, though it had sent its gun ships in 1988 to rescue its President Maumoom Abdul Gayoom from Tamil militants. That military operation was undertaken after Gayoom sent an SOS to New Delhi. This time around, there was nothing that the Indian government could do overtly.

Consequences of this important failing were visible when Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa chose to drop by Male, at the invite of the Maldivian National Defence Forces chief, General Abdul Shiyam. During his three-day visit in the first week of April, General Bajwa also met with President Yameen and other ministers of the government. Beside the usual friendly noises that all visitors make, General Bajwa’s visit also became an occasion for the two countries to announce joint patrolling of the Maldives’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This was an unusual and unexpected development. A decision like this could not have been crafted between the two countries unless some preparatory work would have been done between the Maldivian and Pakistani governments- seemingly at the behest of the Chinese who are keen to protect their investments in the island nation.

The decision to joint patrol sea lanes with Pakistan, has the potential to eat in to India’s maritime influence as much of Maldives’ 900,000 km EEZ is very close to Indian waters. In the past, Maldives had conducted joint patrolling with India and according to the 2016 military cooperation pact that the two countries signed, they were in the process of setting up a coastal surveillance radar system for “real-time surveillance of the EEZ of Maldives”. India had also supplied couple of helicopters for this purpose. Now, Maldives is returning one of them and wants instead a long-promised Dornier, manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. In this context, it is not clear how India would regain its influence till the Maldivian opposition that is in jail or in exile comes to power.

What President Yameen is doing is very clever. He is trying to give space to the two countries, China and Pakistan, which are interested in keeping India in check. Getting Pakistan in Maldivian affairs is particularly troublesome for India as Maldives is an Islamic country that is also fighting radicalisation. More than 200 young Maldivians have travelled to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State. This is a cause for worry for China too!

Both China and Pakistan collaborate on security issues and ever since China invested USD 63 billion in the economic corridor between Gwadar in Baluchistan and Kashgar in Xinxiang, their military cooperation has grown. The Pakistani army takes protection of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a patriotic duty and believes that their country’s transformation is linked to it. China’s influence over Pakistan military affairs has grown- it has reportedly restrained Pakistan from joining the Saudi Arabia led coalition against the Houthis of Yemen. Beijing has been working with the Russians to stabilize Afghanistan by weaving the Taliban in the arrangement. Within Pakistan, the Chinese are also working with the restive Baluchis so that their investments do not face any security threat.

Bajwa is no ordinary General. He is virtually the head of State in a country where army is the State. Of late, his “Bajwa Doctrine” has been shaping the country’s foreign policy and much of its engagement with the West and South Asia. General Bajwa believes that Pakistan has suffered in the fight against global terror and has little business to conduct with the United States of America. Unlike General Mussharraf who agreed to every demand made by the US, General Bajwa has built a reputation in the country for standing up to the Americans and not succumbing to President Donald Trump’s threats.  The Bajwa Doctrine, as stated in a recent report in London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), means standing up to the US. When the US decided to freeze the aid, Pakistan announced that it would trade in Yuan. China was also given permission to set up another naval base in Pakistan. Bajwa has realigned Pakistan’s interests closer to that of China as he believes that the US is on the decline and there is no reason to respect a Washington-centred world.

In some ways, what’s happening in Maldives is not just a minor scramble for influence between neighbours, but a manifestation of larger rebalance of power that is taking place in the region and the world.

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.