Ports and islands are useful things, especially those scattered across thousands of miles of a hotly contested ocean in one of the most volatile regions of the world. To lease, occupy and possibly even own one is every country’s ambition.
Take the United States, long settled in its largest overseas military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia (leased from the British in the late Sixties in exchange for a handful of Pershing missiles). Since all roads on the world terror map somehow lead to the AfPak region and given China’s expansionism across Asia, US presence in the Indian Ocean has swelled in recent years.
For India and China, more than 80 per cent of whose crude oil needs are met by tankers traversing the ocean (with Sri Lanka’s Colombo port playing a pivotal role), the battle for supremacy here began a long time ago. But while New Delhi under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance governments remained stultified in the stranglehold of coalition partners such as the anti-Sinhalese Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, Beijing cast its pearly net swiftly and precisely all over the Indian Ocean region — in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh — and beyond. In Sri Lanka, it went from strength to strength.
It built and enjoys unrestricted access to the south eastern port of Hambantota and was later awarded the coveted $1.5 billion dollar contract for constructing Colombo’s Port City. The last rankled New Delhi the most, since more than 80 per cent of India’s overall commercial shipping traffic passes through Colombo.
Scattered across 90,000 sq km, the 1,192 islands of the Maldives are of particular interest to all players, more so since the country’s growing closeness to Saudi Arabia has allegedly led to a rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the archipelago. Since 2014, all religions other than Islam stand banned and the country will receive a grant from Saudi Arabia to intensify the study of the Quran, build more mosques and therewith almost certainly allow the radical Wahhabi form of Islam to strike roots in the Maldives.
Most recently, Western nations fighting anti-terror wars around the world found a handy weapon to threaten action against the Maldives: The ousting of democratically-elected former President Mohamed Nasheed and his quasi-banishment to the UK, ostensibly for medical treatment. An international campaign calling for sanctions against the Maldives has been launched and is being spearheaded by none other than Mr Nasheed’s lawyer, the glamorous Amal Clooney.
But like its approach in Sri Lanka under the all-powerful Rajapaksa, China’s Maldives policy too has focused on geo-strategy and predictably ignored alleged violations of “human rights” and “democratic principles”. China is building infrastructure in the Maldives and has for long been suspected of maintaining a nuclear submarine base in a southern atoll. The liberalisation of land sales by Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and his welcoming his country’s inclusion in China’s Maritime Silk Road plan will certainly lead to more Chinese acquisitions across the archipelago.
India’s presence in the Maldives is not unsubstantial. It maintains naval ships and radar stations there and has helped out in times of natural disasters. But on the political and geo-strategic front India has so far teetered indecisively, at times supporting and at others,ignoring the calls for democracy that have grown over the past decades, chiefly at the behest of the ousted Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), now restricted to the opposition. Relations soured after India’s GMR group was ousted from the Male airport modernisation project and the contract given to a Chinese company which will invest $800 million in it.
Suddenly, “human rights” became an issue and India joined Western nations in denouncing Male for sacking the Chief Justice and arresting several ministers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s omission of the Maldives on his Indian Ocean tour was conspicuous. Sri Lankan analysts often point to how it was primarily India’s support of Western, anti-Sri Lanka resolutions at the United Nations that pushed Colombo into the waiting arms of the Chinese. Indian policy towards the Maldives too seems stuck in a similar groove.
It was the age-old conundrum: Do we side with the big boys of the West and denounce Male, or craft a more pragmatic policy? For the first time in decades, those questions were answered decisively by Mr Modi when President Yameen arrived in Delhi earlier this month. Mr Yameen came to power by illegally ousting Mr Nasheed. Votes were rigged, Opposition members — of late even 30 journalists — were slammed behind bars. Mr Yameen belongs to the same party as former President Gayoom who ruled the Maldives with near-dictatorial control for over three decades. And, finally, this is the same Yameen who has visited Saudi Arabia three times in under two years and given that country unbridled access to investment and education in the Maldives.
And yet, Mr Modi initialled six agreements, including one on “defence cooperation” with the Maldivian President earlier this month. Further, India has been making backroom efforts to prevent international sanctions against the Maldives. So are geo-strategy and an India-centric thrust going to be the new benchmarks of Delhi’s Maldives policy?
After all, for all their political troubles, the Maldives have for decades remained a tolerant, if conservative society, permitting alcohol, pork and scanty beachwear — items forbidden by Islam — on the hundreds of islands leased to international luxury resort chains. Despite the indignation and loud protests by their governments, Western tourists continue to flock to what is one of the most beautiful countries in the world to sample its superlative, high-end hospitality.
India’s new approach to relations with the Maldives seems to have factored in that relatively peaceful history too.
Though India has every reason to be worried about the growth of Wahhabism anywhere in the neighbourhood, Mr Modi, for now, seems content with Mr Yameen’s promise to “curb radicalism” and his assurance of “institutional reforms”. Oxymorons from the self-appointed President of an increasingly conservative Islamic nation, say analysts. India, as the Indian Ocean Rim’s most powerful country, must demand action.