The Republic of Maldives has taken steps that are straining its age-old ties with India. These anti-India moves are in contrast to India’s proven record of standing by the Maldives in times of its crisis.
One strong example of how India helped the Maldives dates back to 1988, when some Maldivians along with armed mercenaries, attempted to take over the islands. The coup failed only because of timely intervention by the Indian Armed Forces on the request of the Maldivian government.
Again, in December 2014, the Maldives sent an SOS to India after a fire damaged its desalination plant. The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force supplied water to the Maldives. It would be expected that the Maldives’ government acts keeping these and many other such instances in mind.
The Maldives has signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. This has raised concern in India because, going by press reports, Maldives had stated that it would sign an FTA with India first. The sudden signing of the FTA with China took India by surprise. In a statement, India said it expects the Maldives to be sensitive to India’s concerns.
The bilateral trade between India and the Maldives may be affected by the Chinese FTA. China is likely to replace India as the main exporter in many categories. Of course, the USD 180 to 200 million exports by India to the Maldives is a fraction of the total Indian exports of $275.8 billion worldwide.
The Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, in an interview with The Tribune, said the FTA with China was not signed suddenly and there was no promise that an FTA would be signed with India first.
He did not, however, clear doubts about the FTA voiced by the opposition in the Maldives. They claim the FTA was rushed through the Maldives’ parliament in a hurry and ratified overnight without giving sufficient notice to the opposition and without any proper discussion.
Opposition legislators have demanded a scrutiny to ensure that the FTA is in the interests of the Maldives. Mohamed Nasheed, former president and head of the opposition party, Maldivians Democratic Party (MDP), told PTI in a statement that the agreement will deepen the country’s debt trap to China. “Already more than 70 per cent of our foreign debt is owed to Beijing, which gives it a huge leverage over us, undermining Maldivian sovereignty and independence,” he was quoted as saying by PTI. “This is not in the Maldivian national interest,” he added.
Trade is not the only issue. The state-backed media has criticised India in three unjustified hostile articles.
Also, three local councillors who met the Indian ambassador were suspended under a rule that prior permission of the government is needed to meet a foreign ambassador. This rule has not been enforced for those meeting ambassadors of other countries. These moves lead to the inference that the Maldives government has abandoned its ‘India First’ policy and is working to cut down India’s influence in the country.
The Maldives’ anti-India stance could be explained as the need to cozy up to China and expect benefits in return. Another reason could be the suspicion in the Maldives government that India prefers to deal with the opposition leader, Mohamed Nasheed, who has been granted asylum in Great Britain as a political refugee. He was sentenced to 13 years’ jail by a Maldives court under the anti-terrorism law for having imprisoned a judge when he was the president. The opposition has termed the trial as unfair.
Elections are due in the Maldives this year. The results will definitely affect India-Maldives’ relations. If current head of state President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom loses the polls and Nasheed comes to power, the foreign policy may swing in India’s favour.
Many countries have called for fair and free polls in the Maldives. India must back these calls. Till the elections take place, India must take a neutral position between Nasheed and Gayoom.
Apart from this, there is not much scope for action. Taking steps against the Maldives may only push them towards China.
Waiting and watching patiently seems to be the best bet for now.