Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 17, 2019
Maldives: ‘China factor’ still hurts, but intra-party equations this time?

In Maldives Parliament Speaker, Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed and Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid continued to mouth contradictory approaches to the nation’s ‘China debt’ and allies issues. It is however still unclear if the two are playing to game-plan, if only to pressure China into yielding more as the two nations re-negotiate bilateral agreements of the kind they had signed when political rival Abdulla Yameen was Maldivian President (2013-18). They have begun taking their domestic and neighbourhood political games outside of Maldivian territory, to become more audible and  to get a more attentive audience. Either way, incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed ‘Ibu’ Solih seems to be getting caught in the cross-fire – if it is not China, or both.

A former President of Maldives, Nasheed is the nation’s most charismatic leader still, and was re-elected president of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for yet another term, though with the lowest, 27 percent turn-out, for the party’s general council meeting. Shahid has long years of experience in politics and more so political administration, especially in foreign affairs, from the days of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s 30 long years in office (1978-2008). He was said to be the personal choice of President Solih, who defeated incumbent Yameen in last year’s elections. At a personal level, he is a friend and kin of Nasheed, and the latter’s personal choice for the presidential ticket, which helped him win the party nomination.

Nasheed has been talking China from campaign time for the presidential poll. Blaming the Yameen regime of the time for pushing the nation into a ‘debt-trap’ viz China, he used to declare that the MDP would scrap such deals wholesale, if they came to power. Solih would not flag the issue himself. However, whenever Nasheed spoke his mind in pubic, Solih would clarify that if elected, he would have the debt-deal and the rest re-negotiated. In the post-poll scenario, it has been left to Minister Shahid to do his President’s bidding, whenever and wherever the ‘China issue’ came to be discussed. With the rest of the international community, it would have been at an official, yet, confidential level. Whenever Nasheed said his say, Shahid has been going public.

Delhi deviation

The latest in the Nasheed-Shahid series happened in New Delhi, and on the same day or days. Talking to Indian and international media persons in the Indian capital after co-chairing the India-Maldives Joint Commission meeting with counterpart, S. Jaishanker, Shahid mentioned his Beijing visit last month, and declared that they would be re-negotiating the Yameen agreements. This has been Shahid’s line since ahead of his maiden China visit as Solih’s Foreign Minister. He has also said as much in the common neighbour Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, more than once.

The latest occurred after his official meetings with the new Rajapaksa regime leaders, including President Gotabhaya R and Prime Minister Mahinda R.  However, Minister Shahid is yet to clarify if through the past full year and more, if they had commenced the re-negotiations act and the progress, if any – not that anyone expected them to undertake such sensitive negotiation  through the media.

Nasheed was in New Delhi the same day, heading a Maldivian parliamentary delegation. Like Minister Shahid, he called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Addressing a news conference, he reiterated that the China deals would have to go. In particular on the bilateral FTA with China , Nasheed said anyway it would have to come up before Parliament for vote, implying a possible showdown within the ruling MDP parliamentary party.

Yameen as President had signed the FTA deal in Beijing in utmost secrecy and pushed it through Parliament in great hurry nd proper debate, that too at a time when the MDP and other Opposition parties had boycotted the House proceedings on a matter of principles and political morals. The MDP had declared at the time that if they came to power, the Government would scrap the FTA, too. When it is true that an amended FTA may require fresh parliamentary clearance, it is anybody’s guess if the Solih Government is re-negotiated the FTA, too, as it has been saying about the ‘China debt’.

Any fresh parliamentary vote on any or all of the China deals has the potential to become a show-down within the MDP, unintentionally or otherwise. The last time it occurred, both sides brilliantly handled the situation by elevating Nasheed as Parliament Speaker, when the latter’s candidate faced stiff competition from a party veteran, reportedly backed by the majority. Whenever a parliamentary vote is taken and whatever the timing and issue, if the ruling MDP were to expose ‘chinks’, if any, then the otherwise dis-spirited and divided Opposition is bound to try and exploit the situation.

Lacking in vision?

This is so despite the MDP having a brutal two-thirds majority of 67 seats in a House of 87, On the Speaker’s choice, the Yameen-centric PPM-NPC combine readily declared its intention to vote for the candidate opposed to Nasheed’s nominee, only that the MDP patched up the difference, and hoisted Nasheed as Speaker, if only to avoid an early show-down that the party could have ill-afforded after the 6 April parliamentary polls this year.

While in New Delhi, both Shahid and Nasheed were also interviewed separately by a host of Indian journalists. On all such occasions, the two reiterated their continued commitment to Maldives’ India relations. Shahid in particular reiterated that the nation’s security relations would be (only) with India – but clarified equally well that the nation’s economic relations with China would continue. He clarified that Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy was borne out of the geographical reality, adding that there was no question of his country pitting India and China against each other.

In his media interviews in Delhi, Nasheed displayed a continued obsession, bordering on antagonism, viz ‘China deals’, if not China, per se. He had said as much when he called on Indian Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu only days prior to his meeting with PM Modi. He told Naidu that Maldives was keen to ‘disentangle’ from China ‘debt-trap’, and reiterated that the Male Government was re-assessing the huge Chinese investments in the country (when Yameen was in power.

In this context, Nasheed’s observation at his news conference caused eyebrows to raise. He said: “If you are unable to restructure these (China projects) or amend the course, I don’t see a soft landing for Maldives at present. If you lack vision or a set of principles to take things forward, then what you do becomes unsustainable.” Clearly, he was not throwing the ‘vision’ question in particular at the Indian journalists, nor at the host-government – and not certainly China.

Goes beyond ‘China factor’

China has been prompt in joining issue with Nasheed on the question of ‘China debt-trap’, viz Maldives, as was the case earlier, too. This time round, This time round, Chinese Ambassador to Maldives, Zhang Lizhong, refuted Nasheed’s  ‘debt-trap’ claims were ‘baseless’.  The envoy aid that Nasheed had “made sensational and baseless claims damaging the China-Maldives relations”, adding that “China has been a key developmental partner and the largest tourist source market for the Maldives”.

For the Solih leadership back home, China maybe only one of the various issues where Speaker Nasheed has characteristically aired his personal views in pubic, projecting them as if they were that of the ruling MDP’s, if not of their Government. It was thus clear that Nasheed’s other claim that fugitive religious preacher, Zakir Naik, wanted by Indian authorities and now residing in Malaysia, had sought asylum in Maldives and was declined. Zakir Naik used to have a huge following for his People TV broadcast in Maldives, and it is unclear if Male had officially kept India informed of the developments – or, if it had left it to Nasheed to communicate it all through media briefings while in Delhi.

Though not directly linked to India in anyway, Nasheed’s berating of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, in an interview to a Delhi-based web-journal too may not have gone unnoticed. Nasheed referred to Baroness Patricia’s consultancy work for his successor President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, and blamed her for delaying Maldives’ re-entry into the British Commonwealth, after the Yameen Government had pulled out, over allegations of ‘human rights violations’ and absence of ‘freedoms’.

Sooner than later, the Solih leadership may be confronted with questions on issues of the kind from international interlocutors, who would want to know, between the two, Speaker Nasheed and Minister Shahid, whose words counted the most for their own reckoning. Alternatively, Solih himself may end up facing the charge of ‘shifting the goal-posts’ constantly on the ‘China factor’ and such other issues, and making others do other leaders in his vicinity to do his ‘dirty jobs’.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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