When an Indian Air Force IL 76 bringing a Para Battalion and supporting artillery from the Para Brigade landed on Male airport in November of 1988, little, did they realise that the opposition to the Maldives was much from inside the country than outside? The 80 strong mercenaries of PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) were in their country at the behest of a Maldivian businessman who was opposed to Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the ruling president. The aborted attempt failed much before it started.
However, 30 years later Maumoon Gayoom was forced out of office, after years of autocratic rule, by the Maldivians themselves. Leading this pack was Mohammad Nasheed, whom himself was thrown out and jailed by his successor Mohammed Yameen, a half-brother of Maumoon Gayoom. Now Mohammed Yameen finds himself facing a five-year jail sentence for corruption and misappropriation of state finances.
The little narrative of the last 30 years above is indicative of the malice this exists in the politics of Maldives. Unfortunately for India, this is the key to securing Maldives alignment in the volatile and strategically crucial Indian ocean region. India has a huge stake in making the Maldives a permanent ally for securing its littoral interests in the IOR (Indian Ocean Region). This status has been challenged by China which has made considerable investments in the Maldives, thereby forcing the island nation to depend on it for bailing it out of the economic distress it faces. More on this later.
Why is Maldives Important?
The Maldives, the smallest country in Asia, is a collection of almost 26 atolls consisting of approx. 1190 islands, out of which only around 196 are inhabited. It lies at the centre of the Indian ocean region such that it covers from north to south a distance of approx. 960 km at latitudes around; 73 degrees east, and longitude;3 degrees north. The island chain is a toll gate for the shipping lanes which pass through Indian ocean between the choke points of Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Hormuz on the west of the Indian ocean and the Malacca straits, in the east.
The geostrategic location of Maldives enables it oversee the entire shipping traffic in the Indian ocean SLOCS (Sea Lines of communications) region. 50 % of external trade for India and 80% of energy imports of India and China transit through the Indian ocean in the vicinity of Maldives.
While no one can impede the trade routes in peacetime, yet in times of a conflict, the nation which has the Maldives as a friendly base will sure to accrue great advantage. India’s mainland is only 1200km away from the nearest atoll, and 700 km from Lakshadweep. China has included Maldives in its string of pearls strategy, with a desire to block India’s reach in the Indian Ocean region.
China has a strategic compulsion to do so as it cannot sustain its battle groups of more than six or seven ships for long in the Indian Ocean Region. While India has no such compulsions, but it does not have a Naval base in the Indian ocean. At best India has listening posts or surveillance systems in Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius.
Given this reality, there is an intense rivalry between India and China to regain favourable influence in the Maldives. The current standoff between India and China in East Ladakh, and the danger of it escalating into a full-fledged conflict, the Indian Ocean region would become the desirable hunting ground for both the navies. The Maldives without Chinese presence will provide a tremendous operational advantage for the Indian Navy.
Can India be Complacent?
Should India be complacent about the prevailing situation which exists in the Maldives? The obvious answer would be ‘No’. It is sheer good luck that the present regime of Ibrahim Solih is more inclined towards India than China. It is because his predecessor was a pro-Chinese ruler. The curve of Maldivian politics has risen in favour of India. However, given the Sine nature of the curve, it could very well be in Chinese favour tomorrow, unless India does some permanent repairs to the relationship.
Maldives has had amicable ties with India over many centuries. The reason is not hard to fathom; the original Maldivians have migrated from India and Srilanka. The religion prevalent before the 12 century AD was Buddhism. The natives of Maldives were converted to Islam by the Arab invaders in the 12 century AD. Today 99 per cent of the country is Sunni Muslims. Maldivians have had a deep-rooted trust in the monarchy, which ruled the island nation over 800 years. Hence their transition to democratic set up has been slow and unconvincing. It was only in 2008 that multiparty democracy was introduced in the Maldives.
The fractured nature of the polity, due to multiple atolls and their tribes, the experiment with democracy has yet not fructified to the desired level. All ruling dispensations from Gayoom downwards have been haunted by their political opponents and voted out of power. The younger generation is frustrated with their political class, which has neither addressed their aspirations nor their livelihoods.
After the Tsunami in 2004, which saw large scale devastations to many of the inhabited islands, the Saudi influence grew in the Maldives. The Saudi money and their preachers brought in the Wahabi culture, thus alienating the youths and inclining them towards Jihad. 200 or more Maldivians were estimated fighting for the ISIS in Syria at the peak of the Syrian conflict.
Mohammad Yameen capitalised on this wave and weaned the nation towards a more fanatic strain of Islam and winning an election in the bargain. To neutralise the western and Indian backlash, he sought help from the Chinese. The time was right, as Xi Jinping was looking for expanding his initiative; the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and the maritime silk route. Xi visited the archipelago in 2004 and signed an FTA(Free Trade Agreement) with the Maldives, and a couple of big projects.
Chief amongst them was the bridge joining the airport to Male, expansion of the current airport (a project was initially given to GMR an Indian firm), a housing complex and a 25 storied hospital. The net result was the Chinese investment grew in the Maldives, and it now stands at 1.5 billion US dollars. Some officials in the government; the current speaker and former President Mohammed Nasheed believe it could be close to 3.1 billion US dollars.
With the Maldives GDP hovering around 5 billion US dollars, the debt is anything from one third to two-thirds of the current GDP. The debt is tough to service because the GDP is likely to shrink, as fiscal growth shows a negative trend, more than minus 20% this fiscal year. The shrinkage is irreversible as the tourist count in the Maldives had not reached even the halfway mark by July 2020. The Maldives being essentially a tourist economy, the corona pandemic has hit them very hard.
The Chinese banks have been pushing, Maldives to pay up the next instalment of the loan amounting to 10 million dollars (US), including the interest due, despite the Chinese claims that they have delayed loan payment given the economic slowdown. However, EXIM Bank of China is not listening, maybe under the direction of the Chinese government. Should Maldives default the loan payment, it allows the China to claim land territory in lieu of the payment. As on date, China has on lease at least 16 Maldivian islands which they could claim in case of the loan default. The Chinese ‘Debt trap Diplomacy’, is in place in the Maldives.
During the reign of Mohammad Yameen, he had allowed Chinese Navy access to Maldivian ports. Three Chinese warships had been reported to berth at Male commercial port in August of 2017. Strong objections by India, resulted in denial of extension visas to Indian officials to tour to Male. China has created an infrastructure facility at the FeydhooFinolhu island which the Chinese have taken on lease until 2066.
The island is strategically located in the middle of the archipelago towards the eastern side. A loan default could lead to a Chinese taking over the island with full control of its territory. An island with China will play havoc into India’s Indian ocean dreams. Could it happen? Yes, it could happen. If it can happen in Srilanka, it can very well happen in the Maldives. The country is on the verge of defaulting its loan repayment. India has promised financial assistance of $ 1.4 billion (US) since the new government has come to power.
However, given the fragility of the Maldivian economy, the Indian help would be insufficient for the Maldives to escape the Chinese debt trap. Another development that has recently been concluded is the signing of the US – Maldives Defence and Security Agreement, on the 10th of September this year (2020) in the US. This signals a shift in approach from a China centric to a more Indo-Pacific centric. This benefits the quad and is a significant step in check mating Chinese designs in the Indian ocean region. The shift in focus cannot be missed as the new regime is trying to distant itself from the Chinese grip. This could also pave a way to potential financial aid in future for the Maldives from the US.
What India must Do?
If there is one factor which has time and again gone against a ruling government, it is their lack of desire to pass on the benefits of the growing tourist economy to the common people. Mohammed Yameen was both corrupt and a despot and hence could not sustain his mass appeal. He had almost pulled it off with the Chinese help, but for the vast public outrage which compelled him to accept the electoral verdict and step down.
The defeat of Mohammed Yameen was a lucky break India received, without making any efforts to regain influence. Hypothetically, if Yameen had been a fair ruler, not a corrupt one, with moderate religious leanings, he could have transformed the island nation with Chinese help into a modern, progressive, and tourism dominated economy, which would have been hard to match. Had the gains of the economy be shared with people, it would be hard to wean them away from the lucrative Chinese aphrodisiac; cheap loans.
All China had to do was to continue acting as a friend and a well-wisher for another ten years, and by then the Maldives would have been well, and truly theirs, like so many other Asian and African nations.
If India got a providential lucky break, it needs to grab it and prevent another Mohammad Yameen at the helm of affairs. India has to think much like the Chinese do, and not like the slow and lazy foreign policy that India seems to epitomise. Neighbours first policy is good for the media, but its actual execution involves working at the grassroots levels.
The Maldives is already radicalised much like the Indian coastal states. ISI has made deep inroads within the younger section of the population. Once their influence seeps into the political system, it would be impossible to bring the Maldives back from the clutches of radical Islamisation and China. It would become another Pakistan for India.
There is time and India can act in many ways as it has advantages, that China does not have. The Maldives is closer to the Indian mainland, and hence access can be improved. Two sections of the Maldivian society need to be addressed on an Operational immediate basis; first is the politicians and second: the younger generation. For politicians, nothing resonates better than economic assistance and commerce.
China sent 300,000 tourists to the Maldives in 2017 in comparison to a paltry 83,000 from India. The politicians are hungry for power and support from the local population. The elders of Maldives are still moderate with inclinations towards India. The youth desire fulfilment of their aspirations. The Indian education system and the corporate ecosystem will appeal to their aspirational needs. Admissions in IITs, IIMs and medical colleges can be a heady stimulus.
India cannot match China on economic aid, yet it can execute many infrastructure projects in the Maldives to improve daily life and the tourist economy. Maldives suffers from many needs and dangers. It has acute shortage of drinking water, it faces grave danger from the sea like the Tsunamis, being the lowest landmass in the world. India will do yeoman service to Maldives if it addresses these problems. India will not get another lucky break in future.
A Chinese naval base at the Maldives may be the final step in the encirclement strategy of the Chinese in the Indian ocean. India needs to heed and move fast. To win over Maldives India has to win over the Maldivian political class first and foremost. They hold the key to the island’s future.