The geopolitical and strategic importance of having friendly relations with our smaller neighbours cannot be overemphasised. These should be based on respecting their independence and national pride. If there is a need to put pressure, it should be nuanced and subtle. Any other means indicate that India has lost the diplomatic battle and is resorting to either knee-jerk reactions or being ‘big brother’.
Pakistan, which has a long history of troubled relations with us, and China, with whom we have a border dispute and who overlooks the state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan, needs completely different handling. China is using its economic and military power to encircle India through the ‘string of pearls’ theory by giving economic sops to its smaller neighbours and ‘managing’ the establishments and heads in these states with monetary gains. There are indications that we are losing influence in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives; China is making all efforts to put pressure on the only remaining country, Bhutan. It has reached its economic world power status with cheap labour, lax labour and commercial laws and setting up large industrial areas for mass production of goods to kill international competitors. It now wants to consolidate its economic footprint in Pakistan along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and in the Middle East through access from Gwadar Port. India is making progress with some countries beyond its immediate neighbourhood such as Mauritius, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Oman. This is after failing in our ‘neighbours first’ policy and giving room for China to extend its hold.
The present crisis in Maldives was triggered by its Supreme Court ordering the release of political prisoners and opposition members and convening Parliament, after which Emergency was declared. Two judges were arrested and the order reversed by the other judges. Bribery charges have been pressed against those arrested. The UN, USA, UK, France and India have asked that the Emergency be lifted and democracy restored. Evicting members of Parliament and preventing their entry into Parliament is undemocratic.
There are allegations of attempts at toppling governments, and making of personal fortunes including through sale/long lease of islands, which are likely to be true. Those should not concern India. Yameen says he had to declare a State of Emergency as there was no way to hold the justices accountable. But, then, who will hold him accountable? India has to look at its strategic and geopolitical interests and act in whatever way fit to protect them. Yameen sent an envoy to brief his friends China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia about the present crisis. The trip to India was cancelled at India’s request. There is increasing fundamentalism in the Maldives and reports of jehadis being exported to Syria. A progressive dispensation will be in India’s interest. A population involved in economic activity that the booming tourism industry offers will ensure curbing fundamentalism, which may lead to terrorism affecting India. China on the other hand is not affected by the fundamentalism, extremism/ terrorism in India’s neighbourhood as it is geographically insulated. Turning a blind eye to it is, in fact, to its advantage if it weakens India.
Military intervention which disrupts economic activity and alienates people at large should be avoided as long as there are no moves by China. India needs to use both overt and covert means to ensure that a dispensation favourable to it is in power. Due to geographic proximity, the people of Maldives depend on India for economic activity and for medical treatment. Educational opportunities in India for the people of Maldives should be increased as also Indian tourists visiting Maldives. India has to gain the confidence of the present Maldives government or get a new dispensation in place through coercive diplomacy. It is, however, not easy to decide whom to back and who will lose power: that is where our Foreign Service and diplomats have a role to play. Unfortunately, less importance is given to putting the best people in these smaller countries and the diplomats posted there may not have clarity on policy and intent from the Indian government in power. There are no rules in this game. A diplomatic victory is mandatory!