Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 14, 2016
Maldives President's Delhi visit: A test for Modi's neighbourhood policy?

This week’s India visit of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen, taken to its logical conclusion with some consistency and constancy, can become a test case for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood policy, which has seen enough ups and downs after the latter had assumed office in May 2014. It could help India define and also refine its neighbourhood priorities in the context of evolving global geo–politics and geo–strategy, also in the immediate Indian Ocean context — and possibly begin/re–begin from there, if need be.

Communication has been a problem with diplomacy the world over. The Yameen visit may have had its own share(s) already. Their individual bilateral priorities are not exactly the same. Never has any Indian leadership at any time had personal issues and expectations from Maldives. The reverse has invariably been the case on the reverse side. The two–day Yameen visit that ended on April 11 was no different.

In their post–luncheon joint media meet, Yameen shot from the hip when he spoke about Indian protection from ‘unfair punitive action’ by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). He hoped for continued Indian backing, even while possibly reassuring India about his purported/perceived attempts at improving and fast–tracking governance reforms.

Yameen was obviously referring to the Nasheed/democracy issues, where an ‘East vs West’ syndrome has become increasingly visible in international venues as CMAG. In the case of common neighbour Sri Lanka on post–war ‘accountability issues’ under previous President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in international forums like the UNHRC, numbers, and not always neighbourhood sentiments, reign.

It may have also to do with what the West may want to describe as ‘values’, meaning ‘modern democracy’, as they (alone) understand, and interpret to their convenience and/or geo–strategic priorities/compulsions but in a domestic context. Maldives’ ‘eastern neighbours’ like India, Pakistan, and now possibly Malaysia (though not necessarily Sri Lanka any more), feel these are ‘neighbourhood compulsions’ and/or ‘overnight democracy over-reach’ but with a motive.

'Security and stability'

In his media statement on the occasion, PM Modi said that Maldives’ ‘security and stability’ was linked to India’s national interests. He also reiterated predecessor PM Manmohan Singh’s position that India would remain the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean. He was clearly indicating continuity in the Indian concerns/policy regarding the Ocean despite change of government — and thus a ‘national consensus’ of sorts.

Yameen agreed that the Maldives will remain “sensitive” to India’s concerns. He reiterated his ‘India First’ policy. There is some confusion about whether the Maldivian government put India ‘first’ when it came to ‘protecting’ Maldivian interests as the Yameen leadership saw it, or in putting Indian interests and concerns as well at the top of the Maldivian foreign and security policy priorities.

In context, any Indian reference to ‘stability and security’ of Maldives may be exclusive to the Indian concerns on the latter, viz China and IS, and at times Pakistan, though the last mentioned may not be of any immediate relevance. There may be an equally visible or less visible Indian concern towards Maldivian domestic affairs, not necessarily in terms and conditions as is being mooted by the West.

A via media would have to be found to the current deadlock. India may also be the only neighbourhood/international, ‘external’ stake–holder to be able to work on the rest, towards a negotiated settlement. Other international stake–holders have already taken tough, non-negotiable positions from a Maldivian state/Yameen perspective (which coalesces at present). Even if motives could be attributed to the current Indian position, it has all to do with the Indian geo–strategic security concerns. India is not as much personality–driven as the rest of them are.

From a possible Indian perspective, ‘stability’ in Maldives could/would also relate to ‘political stability’ nearer home in the Indian Ocean archipelago. In the contemporary Maldivian context, there cannot be permanent political stability with the Yameen government addressing the ‘Nasheed issue’, which has assumed multi–level, multi-layered democracy proportions. This is  visible in the international arena and media. Whatever be his demands, motives or methods, Nasheed is still the single most popular political leader, as proven by the results of 2013 presidential polls.

Waking up to the legal/judicial reality belatedly, the Nasheed defence has since hinged on to the use/misuse/abuse of relatively antiquated anti–terrorism law, in their half–hearted Supreme Court appeal. The question would remain if Nasheed’s refusal to argue his case in the trial court till the end and in the High Court later was more of a political strategy than a legal issue.

If so, was Nasheed’s defence dropping him like a hot potato during the trial and his own refusal to appoint another lawyer a take–off from the MDP’s earlier demand in seeking Yameen’s exit without following the constitutional route? The question also follows if this and the subsequent Yameen leadership’s alleged commissions and omissions on the democracy would/could cancel each other out, and they should be prepared to begin on a clean–slate, but without prejudice to the existing constitutional norms and institutions?

Modi invited

As was expected, Yameen has extended an invitation to PM Modi to visit Maldives. Here again, it’s easier said than done, particularly in the Maldives’ domestic context. It was the case earlier too, when Modi had made Maldives the fourth leg in his historic four-nation Indian Ocean southern neighbourhood visit.

Incidentally, as with other neighbours, the last time an Indian PM visited Maldives, Manmohan Singh participated in the SAARC Summit at Addu City, under President Nasheed. He also had a day–long bilateral in Male, where official discussions were held. Yameen himself has visited Delhi thrice in as many years, after assuming office in November 2013. Before him, predecessor President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik too had made a trip to Delhi, so did President Nasheed before him.

Yet, given diplomatic realities and bilateral political practicalities, the ground situation in Maldives need to improve before a Modi trip can take place. An alternative scenario is for a visit of the kind could herald serious and sincere political negotiations, without external interference and/or influence of any kind. For this to happen, Maldivian stake–holders need to keep domestic issues domestic, and negotiate on a domestic platform, if not venue.

De–linking China

The Yameen visit otherwise might have been an Indian acknowledgement of the reality of Chinese presence and investments in Maldives, as among other neighbours of India. India needs to de–link Chinese investments from potential Chinese influence on neighbours in geo–strategic and security fronts. The Modi leadership, like its predecessors, seems to have drawn the line in this context.

As coincidence would have it, the day Yameen landed in Delhi, India’s another neighbour, Sri Lanka’s PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was returning from a visit to China. In Beijing, he had formalised the withdrawal of his leadership’s reservations to the China–funded Colombo Port City project, launched by the Rajapaksa leadership, after inducing and introducing some cosmetic changes.  He also obtained a rare Chinese grant of $500 million (as against high-interest loans), apart from seeking equity–swap against $8 billion Chinese debt.

Ahead of Ranil’s visit, Nepal Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli was also in Beijing. During Oli’s visit, the two countries finalised a highway project and also a port–of–access.

Around the time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a visit to Myanmar where he met Myanmar’s new foreign minister and pro–democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  Yi was Suu Kyi’s first overseas visitor after her party took charge of the government.

Even Afghanistan’s current President, Ashraf Ghani, had made China, not India, his first overseas destination after winning a controversial election with western backing.

Maldives, or Yameen’s Maldives in particular, is thus not alone in courting China on fiscal and development matters in the Indian neighbourhood. Yet, Yameen could have considered Indian sensibilities before launching work on the China–funded/executed Male airport expansion project, just ahead of the India visit. Yameen alone need not be faulted. Earlier President Nasheed too had found it not inappropriate to inaugurate the Chinese Embassy in Male, the very day PM Manmohan Singh was landing in town for the SAARC Summit and the accompanying bilateral.

In all this, the practicalities attaching to India’s fiscal muscle, or lack of it, viz China, would dictate such de–linking of Indian security concerns vis a vis Chinese presence in the neighbourhood from the latter’s dependence on developmental investments from China. As is acknowledged globally, China is the only cash-surplus country in the world. Even if the Chinese economy were to collapse overnight, India would still not necessarily have gained the economic/fiscal muscle to replace China in the neighbourhood investment portfolios.

'India First', but..

The foreign policy document released by Yameen in January 2014 had indicated a desire to move away from the ‘traditional Indian sphere of influence’, without saying so in so many words. The current visit and the Indian role in CMAG have shown that Maldives needs India as much on the international arena as India needs Maldives on the China–related security front.

Yet, the burden of the new foreign policy was to make Maldives economically strong, so as to make the nation chart out its own course in foreign policy. It’s too early to conclude if the Chinese investments would help in the direction, or would only make Maldives near–eternally indebted to China, also on the foreign policy, though not necessarily on the security front.

In Delhi this time, Yameen reiterated his earlier home–front call of last year about not encouraging or facilitating Indian Ocean for military purposes. During his visit, Maldives and India signed six agreements, one on defence matters. This included training for Maldives naval personnel in India. Over the past years, India had donated two helicopters and trainers for the infant air wing of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF).

Already, India and Maldives, along with Sri Lanka, have signed a trilateral cooperation agreement on matters of non–traditional maritime security issues. Seychelles and Mauritius, the other two Indian Ocean neighbours that PM Modi had visited, are now ‘observers’ with expectations of becoming full members.

It remains to be seen, thus, if and when it would all lead to a bilateral ‘defence cooperation agreement’ between the two nations – and also the possible inclusion of Sri Lanka, and also the Mauritius and Seychelles, the three nations that PM Modi had visited together. It may take its time, but that would be saying a lot in terms of India being the ‘net–provider’ of security in the neighbourhood context, and more so in the Indian Ocean.

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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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