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Published on May 16, 2023 Updated 13 Days ago
Politicising a bilateral issue with Mauritius after the now-muted ‘India Out’ campaign will have consequences in the long term for Maldives
Maldives: Border settlement with Mauritius At a time when the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is at the centre of an ever-evolving post-Cold War geostrategic architecture, India and Maldives, together, have crossed a milestone in their security cooperation as their respective defence ministers Rajnath Singh and Mariya Didi jointly laid the foundation stone for the India-funded ‘Ekatha Harbour’ of the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) on Sifaru island, recently. Rajnath Singh is the first Indian Defence Minister to visit Maldives after A K Antony in 2009. The Indian Defence Ministry tweeted that the harbour project was a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s SAGAR project, to ensure ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’. It is a take-off from the 2021 bilateral pact for India setting up a Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) dockyard for undertaking vessel repairs locally. In turn, this agreement flowed from a Maldivian request in 2013—reiterated in 2015 and 2016—and formed part of the former President Abdulla Yameen’s ‘Defence Action Plan’. This plan was signed during an India visit in 2016, with a US$50-million Line of Credit from New Delhi. The foundation-laying ceremony was held at Sifavaru Island, which is on the same lagoon as Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF). Located in Malé atoll, also known as Kaafu atoll, both islands lay close to the capital Malé.
The Indian Defence Ministry tweeted that the harbour project was a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s SAGAR project, to ensure ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.
Ministers Singh and Mariya Didi pledged to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation, capacity building, and trade. A joint communiqué issued at the end of Singh’s three-day visit stated that, “Both the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security in the region and recognised the need to work together to address common security challenges.” It also added that they underscored the importance of, “respecting international law and rules-based international order and expressed their commitment to upholding these principles.” The statement further read that, “Both parties reaffirmed their commitment to further strengthening the partnership between their countries, and expressed common sentiments that they looked forward to continuing the dialogue and cooperation in the future,” Rajnath Singh also met up with President Ibrahim Solih, handed over two naval platforms, namely, a fast patrol vessel (replacement for the ageing one that was gifted earlier) and a landing craft assault ship, to the MNDF in his presence. Speaking on the occasion, Singh recalled how ‘India has emerged as a leading defence exporter’, manufacturing ‘world-class equipment to meet not only our own needs but also for exports’.

End to an old dispute

Singh’s visits and his engagements in Maldives form part of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and the Solih government’s ‘India First’ policies. From a sub-regional perspective, the two nations, along with common neighbours, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, have formed the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), with the Seychelles and Bangladesh continuing as ‘observers’ for now. The idea is to ensure shared security as equal partners. Ending or limiting bilateral legacy irritants form an unsaid part of all such regional initiatives. Against this overall context and background, a peaceful and mutually-agreeable conclusion to past maritime border disputes assumes greater relevance and significance, not only in the bilateral but also in the regional context. Thus, a 58-year-old dispute in favour of Maldives, dating back to its independence in 1965, came to a peaceful conclusion when the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) recently ruled that the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) dispute in the Chagos region would be settled by applying the ‘equidistance’ rule under UNCLOS. In doing so, the tribunal upheld Maldives’ contestation that the low-lying Blenheim Reef, which Mauritius argued should be the measuring point, did not fall within that country’s maritime borders.
From a sub-regional perspective, the two nations, along with common neighbours, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, have formed the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), with the Seychelles and Bangladesh continuing as ‘observers’ for now.
The ITLOS dispute flowed from a 2019 ICJ ruling that the Chagos archipelago, which is closer to Maldives’ southern Addu City’s coastline than Mauritius, was a sovereign territory of the latter. This implied that the IMBL between the two Ocean neighbours could be demarcated. Thus, under the ITLOS award, from a disputed maritime area of 95,000 sq km, Maldives gets the larger portion of 47,232 sq km and Mauritius, 45,331 sq km.

Huge win, no losses 

President Solih hailed the ITLOS verdict and said that the nation’s maritime boundary has now been fully demarcated. Maldivian foreign minister Abdulla Shahid tweeted that it was a victory for the nation’s full adherence to international laws and principles. Prof Payam Akhvan, who was the lead counsel for Maldives at ITLOS, along with Attorney-General Ibrahim Riffath, described the ruling as a ‘huge win with no losses’. Wisham Ismail, President of the Bar Council of Maldives, also hailed it as a ‘major achievement’ and congratulated the entire team. But there are few who disagree. Months away from the September polls, where President Solih is seeking re-election, not only Opposition parties but even ‘friends’ of the government have registered their protests. Former President Mohammed Nasheed, who is also the head of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and who had lost the party’s presidential primaries to incumbent Solih, was among the first to contest the ITLOS’ ruling. He alleged that the current Maldivian position is tantamount to the retraction of the nation’s earlier sovereignty claims over the Chagos Islands, leading to the nation now losing a part of its ‘maritime territory’. As may be recalled, late last year, the Solih government withdrew the sovereignty claims but stuck to the inherited dispute over the IMBL. The ITLOS ruling now relates to the latter and is a victory for Maldives. Days prior to the ITLOS’ ruling, Nasheed also registered his reservations while presiding over the Parliament as Speaker. With many members absent, the 87-seat Parliament voted 23-19 on an ‘emergency motion’ alleging ‘shallow deals’ with Mauritius. Opposition members wanted a letter purportedly written by the Maldivian government to its Mauritius counterpart tabled and a new letter sent, instead. Nasheed has since tweeted that as President (2008-12), his efforts were to work out a negotiated settlement between the two nations.
The Solih government withdrew the sovereignty claims but stuck to the inherited dispute over the IMBL. The ITLOS ruling now relates to the latter and is a victory for Maldives.
Both jailed PPM-PNC leader Abdulla Yameen and another presidential aspirant and Jamhooree Party President Gasim Ibrahim, wrote separately to ITLOS to delay the ruling, implying that if elected President, either of them would review the incumbent government’s position. Gasim has since declared that he will ‘work to recover lost territory’. Another presidential aspirant, retired Army Colonel Ahmed Nazim’s Maldives National Party (MNM) and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Maldives Reform Movement (MRM) too have opposed the ITLOS ruling—and more so, the Solih government’s ready acceptance of the same. MNP parliamentarian Ahmed Usham said that the Opposition parties would move a no-confidence motion against the ‘negligent leaders’ in the next session of the Parliament. So-called apolitical religious fundamentalist Jamiyyath Salaf, Chief Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohamed called for Solih’s impeachment. The non-existent anti-Solih grouping does not have the numbers in the 87-member Parliament, to meet this purpose. It is against this background that senior PPM leaders have met Nasheed at Yameen’s insistence, to discuss a joint strategy on the issue. A pro-Yameen journal, Maldives News Journal, interpreted the ruling to mean that Maldives has lost 45,331 sq km allotted to Mauritius after ITLOS redrew the IMBL, and called it a ‘loss of Maldivian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)’. Maritime Law Expert Dr Mohamed Munavvar, who as Gayoom’s attorney-general had drafted the nation’s maritime law in the early ’90s, claimed that by accepting the ITLOS’s ruling, Maldives would be losing the continental shelf case. He pointed out that the government had 30 days to appeal the ITLOS’ ruling but stated that he did not expect the current leadership to take any initiative in the matter.
The non-existent anti-Solih grouping does not have the numbers in the 87-member Parliament, to meet this purpose.
Reacting to these criticisms, Foreign Minister Shahid called the Opposition claims ‘misleading’. Separately, the President’s Office contested the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s claim that Solih had ‘acted outside his constitutional mandate’ when he withdrew the sovereignty claims over the Chagos archipelago last year and committed to support Mauritius’ case against the UK, in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) vote this year. After the verdict, pro-Solih MDP Chairman and Economic Minister Fayyaz Ismail stressed the failure of the ‘India Out’ campaign of Yameen’s PPM-PNC Opposition combine, and said the latter attempted to twist the truth on the Chagos issue and have failed now. For his part, the Minister of Fisheries, Marine Resources and Agriculture, Hussain Rasheed, clarified that the country would not lose ‘fishing grounds’ as alleged. Instead, the ‘State's power over the southern seas has strengthened, and there is more opportunity to maintain, control and profit from the area,’ he tweeted. Solih’s religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) coalition partner too has said as much. The Environment Ministry has stated that it would draw up a ‘spatial plan for sustainable fishing’ for that area. While domestic disputes of this kind are inevitable in an election year, continually seeking to ‘externalise’ the national agenda to sub-serve petty political interests and try and achieve personal goals has long-term consequences. Thus, politicising a bilateral issue with Mauritius after the now-muted ‘India Out’ campaign will have  consequences in the long term. Maldivian political leaders need to learn from how Pakistan, has suffered over the decades, by adopting an ‘India-centric’ policy, in domestic politics, foreign, and security policies.
N Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and political commentator, based in Chennai
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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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