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Islamism, China presence twin challenges for India in Maldives

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | BERTIL LINTNER
Published Jun 9, 2019, 6:11 am IST
Updated Jun 9, 2019, 6:11 am IST
The partnership took a significant step forward when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the Maldives on a state visit in September 2014.
The Costliest Pearl. China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean By Bertil Lintner Westland Context Rs 699
 The Costliest Pearl. China’s Struggle for India’s Ocean By Bertil Lintner Westland Context Rs 699

Titled The Maldives, Chapter 7 of this book describes how Islamist extremism and China’s dominance go hand in hand in this island nation and why both must be reckoned with for India to restore its ties with it to their former state. An excerpt.

The Maldives, like the Seychelles, is a high-end tourist destination usually associated with luxury resorts where guests sip fancy cocktails, relax on white-sand beaches, and swim or dive in the brilliant turquoise waters surrounding the islands. That picture was shattered when, in February 2018, political unrest shook the capital Male, a six square-kilometre island that is entirely urbanised. Anti-government demonstrators clashed with riot police who fired teargas to disperse the crowds. The crisis culminated in an election on 23 September in which the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen, the architect of the Maldives’ close relationship with China, was defeated by the opposition candidate, and India’s favourite, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.  On 17 November the day Yameen stepped down as the president of the Maldives and Solih was sworn in as his successor, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the most prominent among the more than 300 foreign dignitaries who attended the ceremony in Male.

 

Nowhere in the Indian Ocean is the strategic contest between China and India sharper than in the Maldives and, despite the outcome of the latest presidential election, the future of the country remains uncertain. Will the Maldives continue to tilt towards China, a new player in the politics of the islands, or revert to its much older, close relationship with India? The Maldives is a tiny country — only 417,000 people live on its 298 square-kilometres of land — but the 26-atoll archipelago with 1,192 coral islands is located to the immediate southwest of India and covers a huge maritime area stretching 750 kilometres from the north to the south. The widely scattered islands of the Maldives offer strategic vantage points from which to monitor vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and, therefore, the country has come to play a pivotal role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)…

As president, Yameen, who saw New Delhi as the main foreign force standing behind [Mohamed] Nasheed and was therefore fiercely anti-Indian, moved the Maldives closer to China…

The partnership took a significant step forward when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the Maldives on a state visit in September 2014. The deal to upgrade the Maldives’ international airport was finalised and China also undertook to build a two-kilometre bridge linking the airport on Hulhule with Male.

Xi missed no the opportunity to fantasise about the fictitious ‘Maritime Silk Road’ which China claims existed in the past but never did. Such petty historical details did not prevent Xi from saying that the Maldives, ‘was an important stop along the ancient Maritime Silk Road’ and, according to official Chinese media, he also welcomed ‘Male’s active participation in China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative.’ In December, only two months after Xi’s visit, the Maldives signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing in support of the BRI, one of the first countries to do so. A free-trade agreement between the Maldives and China was signed when Yameen visited Beijing in December 2017. It was Maldives’ first and it became the second South Asian country after Pakistan to enter into such an agreement with China…

The bridge from the airport to Male was completed on 30 August 2018 and inaugurated by Yameen who said at the opening ceremony that it was an ‘embodiment of the long relations between the Maldives and China.’ It would have been closer to the truth to say that what China had achieved in such a short period of friendship was remarkable.

Among the more controversial Chinese construction projects were plans, announced in early 2018, to build a Joint Ocean Observation Station in Makunudhoo in northwestern Maldives.

China’s shadow over the Maldives, which has resulted in a bitter rivalry with India, is not the only controversial issue facing the archipelago… the Maldives has become fertile ground for Islamist extremism.

Nasheed, on a visit to London in September 2014, said that up to 200 Maldivians had gone to fight for the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria — and that from a population of only 417,000. By comparison, a little of over 100 fighters went from India, which has a Muslim population of more than 190 million. Nasheed warned that the situation was deteriorating and claimed that there were links between jihadist groups and the country's military as well as police force. Maldivian society has become much more conservative, he said, because of the influx of Saudi money, paying for Wahhabi imams and mosques, ‘and spreading a deeply conservative view of Islam at odds with the islands’ traditions.’

The Maldives was not as severely affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as Sri Lanka, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and, of course, places around the epicentre in northern Sumatra — a total of 130,000 people died in the entire region — but Male was flooded and outlying, low-level atolls were badly affected, with 82 people killed and 24 reported missing, presumed dead. But, ostensibly to help with spiritual and other relief work, Islamic preachers, funded mainly by Saudi Arabia, arrived after the tsunami and began working together with local preachers. Azra Naseem, a Maldivian at the International Institute of Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction in Dublin, explained in an interview with the Irish Times what happened: ‘It was a turning point in the radicalisation process. Local Islamists were clever in their use of the tragedy to convince Maldivians that the tsunami was punishment from Allah for not practising the “right” Islam — which is the “purist” Islam that Salafis and other fundamentalists want a
ll Muslims to turn to.’J.J. Robinson noted that ‘almost overnight it became accepted that Maldivians needed to travel abroad to learn Islam “properly”, and many began accepting free opportunities for “tertiary education” at madrassas in Pakistan and universities in Saudi Arabia. On their return to the islands, they would set themselves up as “scholars”, wielding dubious certificates and a few words in Arabic to gain respect and convince those around them of their superior religiosity.’ Up to the 1990s, few women wore the veil. Today, the Arab-style full veil is a common sight in the Maldives.

In September 2007, a bomb exploded in Male… At least two Al Qaeda-linked operatives had been involved in the bombing, ‘in exchange for travel from the islands after the operation and arranged study at a madrassa in Pakistan.’

Islam was becoming a political force to be reckoned with. Soon after Nasheed was elected in 2008, his opponents began portraying him as ‘anti-Islamic’ and whipped up religious fervour to unseat him. He was accused of being a Western-influenced liberal with no respect for Islamic values. But even Yameen has become a target of the most radical among the Islamic fundamentalists…

The media also incurred the wrath of the radicals…

It is clear that any attempt by India to re-establish its influence in the Maldives would be met with resistance from China and its local proxies — and Islamic radicals. The kind of military intervention that India undertook in 1988 would be impossible today…

Nasheed has said China is ‘buying up’ the Maldives, and that those land acquisitions could, in the long run, have military applications. A constitutional amendment bill, passed on 22 July 2015, allows foreign parties who invest at least US$1 billion to lease land on a freehold basis as long as 70 per cent of the area is reclaimed from the sea. Nasheed has claimed that the new law has led to the leasing out of about 16 islets in the archipelago to Chinese interests and that they are building ports and other infrastructure there…

China’s massive lending to countries such as the Maldives to pay for infrastructural projects is another concern. The Centre for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, estimates China's loans to the Maldives at US$1.3 billion, more than a quarter of its current GDP…

Regardless of who rules the Maldives, China has achieved a dominant role that any future government would find it hard to shake off. And if the Maldives decided to re-establish close links with India at the expense of China, Beijing could easily retaliate with the weapon it has used elsewhere in the world: by ‘weaponising’ tourism…

China could also foment political unrest in the Maldives, most likely through proxies and using its patron-client relationship with local politicians such as Yameen.

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