As 2012 draws to a close, the question uppermost in the minds of Maldives watchers is if the country was moving away from the strategic sphere of Indian influence, and has begun tilting towards China, as is often suspected in the case of other nations in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, near and afar.
There are no ready answers that are convincing. But there is nothing to suggest that a ministerial visit here or a bilateral issue of commercial consequences for India there has the potential to effect that change.
There are not as many Maldives watchers the world over as there are international tourists. And most tourists are apolitical holidayers who enjoy the quiet and the sun and sand for which they return year after year, when their pockets are full.
When the economy back-home economy is stifling for no fault of theirs, but that of their governments, holidaying in Maldives faces the axe. It is a terrible thing for the archipelago-nation’s economy, which found new sustenance in resort-tourism decades ago, and is unable to – or unwilling to – diversify. The scope and options are also limited.
Thus, the arrival of Chinese budget-tourists to Maldives also makes news in strategic circles. They have accounted for 25 percent of all arrivals these past years, but their spending-style does not encourage high-cost resort-tourism; yet, it keeps the sector going in troubled years.
But it is bilateral visits by political and military leaders from one country to the other that makes for greater news for the strategic community. How it could be different from any such visit between leaders of Maldives and other countries, barring the immediate Indian neighbour and Sri Lanka, too, is the unasked – and hence, unanswered – question.
India has had a relatively longer strategic and security ties with Maldives in the contemporary era, compared to China and other extra-territorial players, barring the UK. As a British Protectorate, as different from a British colony that India and Sri Lanka were, Maldives prides itself at having the Royal Air Force (RAF) quit at their bidding in 1965.
Independence for Maldives was triggered, incidentally, by a row over extending the runway of the Male airport, connecting the national capital to the rest of the world, mostly through Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was followed by the RAF exit from the Gan Airport in the southernmost extreme, where it had a refuelling base since the Second World War.
Until Indian armed forces intervened at the behest of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – and left promptly afterwards – to quell a coup-bid, there has not been any foreign military presence in the way it is understood.
Today, India has minimal IAF presence at Gan, training and helping its Maldivian counterpart in combing the seas for Somali pirates, and linking up their search and rescue facilities by networking the same with Indian bases. Other foreign forces on Maldivian territory are even fewer in numbers, often assigned to specific programmes to train personnel of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) or the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), through funding by their respective governments.
The fact that neither MNDF, nor the MPS is permitted by law to carry weapons other than a baton, without prior clearance by the Executive President, is not lost on the hosts.
There are fewer Indian tourists in Maldives than Chinese. But there are more Indians working in Maldives than Chinese at present. However, there are fewer Indians than Bangladeshis, owing to cheaper wages and easy availability of unskilled personnel.
There are fewer still strategic observers of Maldives in India, though whenever there is a crisis, the whole of India rises as one man and in one voice, as if all had already been lost. The year 2012 marked such a turnaround in the Indian approach for the first time since 1988.
Thanks to a hyperactive media that had dried up for the day otherwise, Indians came to witness the power change-over in Maldives on February 7. President Mohammed Nasheed, the first elected head of state and government under the multi-party democracy scheme of 2008, resigned under mounting political pressure and street-protests, with last-hour participation by some in the security forces.
He was replaced by his Vice President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, under the US-model constitutional scheme, though it had all along been known that there was no love lost between the two almost from day one.
That was when the talk of a Maldivian tilt in foreign and security policy in favour China began doing the rounds. This was followed more recently by the “GMR row”, when the Government of India, according to some in the Maldivian government, was seen going all out to back the Indian infrastructure major, that too in an unprecedented way, in the concession contract for the Male airport, in what they saw only as a commercial deal unaffected by long-standing bilateral relations.
The Indian media that went out over the airport row, accusing the Chinese of instigating it, until GMR bowed out at the end of the Maldives-appointed seven-day deadline, upheld by the Singapore court, chosen as arbitrator under the contract.
They were relatively silent when Maldives Defence Minister Mohammed Nazim, a retired army colonel, visited China later, met with his counterpart in Beijing, visited military training institutions and signed an agreement for aid to build maritime ambulances for the thin populations dispersed over scattered islands back home.
Yet, there is nothing to show as yet that Maldives is moving away from the sphere of Indian strategic influence, concern and care. For the Maldivian policymaker, influenced as they are by public opinion, the timely Indian intervention during the 1988 coup-bid and the subsequent rush of aid and assistance at the height of the unprecedented Boxer Day tsunami of 2004 are a reflection on the reality of the regional situation and the limitations of extra-territorial sovereign partners in the nation’s growth and development.
In recognition of both, the two countries have continued with their post-coup, bi-annual ‘Dhosti’ series of Coast Guard exercises, in which they have since roped in Sri Lanka too in the eleventh edition of March 2012, thus creating an early regional footprint for what could ultimately emerge as a “South Asian security umbrella”, even if confined to the southern seas.
What is more, successive governments in Male in recent years have also reported to have willed away offers of military assistance, particularly Coast Guard boats, from countries of the West, too. Together, such promising decisions and perceptions should and would silence critics of Maldives, who see the nation forming yet another pearl in the highly imaginative Chinese string.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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