Maldives grappling with globalisation, says foreign policy expert

The Maldives is grappling with the positive and negative aspects of globalisation, says South Asia security expert Professor Stephen Cohen, formerly of the US Department of State and now senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Speaking to Minivan News during a recent visit to the Maldives, Professor Cohen suggested that the Maldives faced a unique set of challenges as a generally homogenous society, relative to the ethnic and religious diversity of neighbouring countries.

“This is a state [which is coping] with the negative and positive aspects of globalisation – one aspect was the decision to become a tourist resort destination in the 70s, but then [a negative aspect] in recent years is that this has established targets for attacks such as those in Bali or Mumbai,” he said.

“The state has to protect those targets, and the Maldives is not a state with giant capability. If there is an [extreme] Islamist element in the country, is there the intelligence capability to monitor them? Can they be put in jail? Can the government anticipate and break up a plot? We won’t know until it happens.”

In the absence of such evidence, Professor Cohen suggested, a balanced policy of appeasement “I think is the only viable strategy.”

“But you have to watch out for the Afghan model, where they played both sides against the middle but eventually lost control. The Nepalese played both sides, balancing India and Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinians, America and the Chinese, but lost sight of their own domestic political process.”

The Maldives, he suggested, could successfully avoid picking a side “as long as it remains an ‘out of the way’ place – they don’t have minerals or oil, so I think they’ll get away with it.”

Nonetheless, the country’s delicate economy and the import of radical Islam meant the nation had shades of Pakistan in the 1950s-1960s, “to the degree that Maldivians are now travelling to places like Pakistan for training,” Professor Cohen said.

A debate over whether an Islamic country such as the Maldives could reconcile itself with dependence on a liquor-selling tourism industry was part of a larger modernisation dialogue happening in countries like Turkey, he said. “Can Islam be tolerant, and how can it deal with extremists in its own ranks? Can you have a modern Muslim state, compatible with the rest of the world? They are finding ways of working around it.”

The Maldives had the foreign policy advantage of having few natural resources coveted by other states, Professor Cohen noted.

“Strategically the Maldives is the soft underbelly to Sri Lanka,” he said, before adding that the reason countries were interested in the small island nation was less to do with its location and more that they did not wish it to fall into the hands of anybody else.

“Everybody wants an independent Maldives – they want to be able to send tourists, and ships. The Maldives is lucky in that it has no disagreements over oil or fish, and while the tourist islands are a delicate asset, I think [the government] understands that.”

As an aside, Professor Cohen recalled his time at the US State Department and noted US involvement in tracking suspected players in the failed 1988 coup by mercenaries linked to the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

“It’s a little known fact,” he said. “A passing American vessel transiting in the area picked up the escaping ship and pointed [the pursuers] towards it. I had only just left the State Department but I heard about it. It was a pivotal moment in the country’s history, and its purpose was never quite clear.”

Now, Professer Cohen said, the Maldives is challenged with balancing relations between its larger neighbours and major tourist markets such as China.

“China practices a very skillful kind of low-profile diplomacy. They seem to be able to find what a country needs the most,” Professor Cohen observed. “I’ve seen it in Pakistan – Americans are hated in Pakistan, but the Chinese are beloved. And along come the requests for favours.”

It was difficult to measure the effect of such soft power, he said.

“All you are buying is a moment of hesitation in the mind of the policy maker, when they balance the pros and cons. That’s where the influence is, and that’s where you get your money’s worth.”