The Maldives is the second youngest of the South Asian countries. It came into existence as an independent nation in 1965, when it had a population of one lakh. Today it’s home to more than four lakh people, who face the real possibility of extinction should the God Almighty be unkind enough to allow the Indian Ocean to inflict a six-foot wave-tsunami on it. Of the 1,200 islands in the Maldives, over 900 are uninhabited, posing a potential threat to its very existence due to calculated infiltration, organised smuggling, illegal occupation and the forced use of its territory as a terrorist training ground. India was one of the first to recognise the Maldives as an independent country and also the first to open its diplomatic mission in Male. Consequently, India-Maldives bilateral ties flourished. So much so that when the bona fide, legitimate government in Male headed by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was threatened by terrorists in 1988, then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi quickly rose to the occasion and rushed its armed forces to save the country and rescue its leaders from an impending disaster. In Churchillian terms, 1988 was “their finest hour”, an apogee of the New Delhi-Male bilateral bonhomie.
In reality, the seeds for this were sown much earlier. It was the strategic ocean foresight of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that resulted in the Indo-Maldives Preferential Trade Agreement being signed in 1981; which among other things ensured the supply of all essential commodities to the Maldives from India. In return, the Maldives could sell anything and everything it manufactured to India without any restrictions. This scenario was too good to last. For the dragon entered South Asia to sail into the sea, and make a space for itself in the coveted island nation. In September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Male to sign a series of agreements on trade, infrastructure development, defence, security and tourism, clearly targeting the Indian position. Here too, the real game had started much earlier; when then Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed had allowed China to open its diplomatic mission in 2011, just a day before it was to host the Saarc summit. (The Chinese are now playing the same trick and trying desperately to open their embassy in India’s northeastern landlocked neighbour of Bhutan as a way to corner India.)
The situation in the Maldives today is a clear warning on the future scenario in India’s northeastern frontier. When incumbent Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and China’s President Xi Jinping signed a free trade agreement in December 2017, it crossed the rubicon for India. The move is clearly a long-term outflanking strategic manoeuvre against India. The Maldives Majlis (Parliament) simply rushed through the agreement late at night, in a record 15 minutes. Though the pact was apparently aimed at bilateral ties between Beijing and Male, the target, without an iota of doubt, is India’s position in the South Asian region. Chinese pressure and direct intervention in the island stands at its supreme and “sovereign” best — to make Male capitulate and crawl before the dragon. The Communist czars in Beijing desperately need to depict India’s democracy in a poor light despite the fact that the Han mandarins actually run a open-market capitalist order, with its dictatorial tradition upheld by eruptions like Tiananemn Square 1989.
Today, the Maldives’ Abdulla Yameen seeks (certainly not on his own volition) a similar FTA with India despite being fully aware that the Sino-Maldives FTA has already opened the floodgates to cheap (and substandard) goods into his country. He seems to be either ignoring or forgetting the fact that under the 1981 Male-New Delhi trade agreement, India had allowed the former unfettered access to this country, in which there was no room for third country re-exports. Thus the recent Beijing-Male FTA is one of the many ways China will try to access the Indian market through a neighbouring country. In nearby Sri Lanka too, the Hambantota SEZ is targeted towards the Indian market for Chinese goods.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to see the Chinese media’s stern warning to India — saying that “for a long time the Maldives ... (was) being manipulated by India... (which) has a strong desire to control South Asian countries”. It goes on to say that “India regards the region (South Asia) as its backyard”. Should then India leave the geography of South Asia for good, and the subcontinent be turned into Far East China’s courtyard of one-way, monopolised laissez-faire? Or should India remain, and play the perennial second fiddle? The absurdity goes on: “India takes it for granted that it can openly intervene in their (small South Asian countries’) domestic affairs... The Maldives sovereignty should be respected”. But when has India ever failed to respect the sovereignty of the Maldives? Or is Beijing confusing this with its own acts of omission and commission — from Tibet to Taiwan, Xinjiang to the South China Sea, Senkaku to the Spratly Islands, and beyond?
Maturity is sorely needed in diplomacy and the conduct of international relations. What then explains China’s attitude towards India? Is it because China feels “boxed in”? Or is it a prelude to ensure that the Maldives goes bankrupt and is then forced to hand over some its islands to China, which can then use them to set up a naval base? The developments in the Maldives can no longer be seen as a Sino-Indian tug of war in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives constitutes India’s fifth front. There are two land fronts (Pakistan and China) and three naval ones (Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean). The idea is to bleed India white; increase expenditure on the Pakistan Army-ISI-run terrorists deep inside the hinterland; hike the budget for two-front land warfare; spend more money for an expanded Indian fleet to face the Chinese Navy, which now has a 360-degree unfettered command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and deployment facility and operational flexibility pertaining to its fleet in the Indian Ocean. If the Chinese can virtually overnight build islands in the South China Sea, the 900-plus unihhabited islands of the Maldives will present very little challenge. Let us see who finally manages to prevail. But unfortunately, the victim in this scenario is sure to be Maldives — if not today, then surely tomorrow.