Originally Published 2014-11-26 00:00:00 Published on Nov 26, 2014
The unresolved India-China border dispute brings China closer to the Indian Ocean in every political and geo-strategic calculation of nations like Maldives and Sri Lanka, even though they are not as close to both the 'Asian giants' as the rest of India's South Asian neighbours.
Maldives: Reading China's 'Indian signals' wrong?
By quoting from an official Chinese statement on India's purported interest in China's Maritime Silk Route (MSR) without citing the source, Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon may have committed an avoidable political issue nearer home. However, the double-quick clarification by the Indian High Commisison - later ackowledged by the Maldivian Foreign Ministry, but in the reverse -- have ensured that bilateral relations did not suffer in the process.

The issue arose after Minister Dunya, daughter of former President and founder of ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, chose to clarify the Government's position on foreign and security policy issues, to a parliamentary question on the perceived Indian concerns over the island-nation signing up for the Chinese MSR. The American-styled presidential form of Maldivian government does not require/provide for ministers being present in Parliament throughout the session. Their presence and interventions, hence, confirm the importance and the criticality that the Government attaches to the discussion.

In the present instance, Minister Dunya was answering a question in Parliament, if India had expressed concern over Maldives joining the Chinese MSR, signed during President Xi Jingping's visit to the archipelago earlier in the year. According to media reports, the Minister said that the Indian Government too had welcomed the MSR initiative during President Xi's visit to New Delhi (as the last leg of his three-nation South Asia trip, which included Sri Lanka).

The Indian High Commission in Male was quick to respond and clarify the position. Citing Syed Akbaruddin, the official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), a High Commission statement said, "...As regards the new silk route? this matter was neither raised, nor discussed, nor is it reflected in any of the outcomes of the visit of President Xi Jinping to India." Both the IHC statement and the spokesperson's clarification clearly indicated that this was not the first time that the latter was commenting on the subject, and the very same way.

Clearly, there was some confusion on the Maldivian side, but the Foreign Ministry in Male has since reluctantly and belatedly clarified that their surmise was based on an official Chinese statement on President Xi's India visit. As a section of the Maldivian media pointed out, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's official statement had only said that "both sides" (China and India) "should accelerate?conduct and cooperation?within the frameworks such as?the Maritime Silk Route?", etc. It did not claim that the subject was discussed in the first place, for any decision to be arrived at.

Not to lose a chance to target the Government wherever and whenever possible, the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), cited the IHC statement, and called Minister Dunya a 'liar' and her parliamentary statement, 'shameful'. Though the Dunya's PPM did join issue with the MDP, the Foreign Ministry at that stage had itself clarified that Minister Dunya had "noted her concern if her choice of words had led to any confusion".

Coming as it did only days after Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's stop-over discussions with Minister Dunya at capital Male's Huluhule airport island, the latter's parliamentary statement had caused eyebrows to raise - both in terms of what she said - or, did not say -- and also its very timing. That the Indian media, which went hyper over the 'GMR issue', did not have time for Maldives since has meant that avoidable criticism of the Government of President Abdulla Yameen in the larger neighbour remained avoided.

Locational advantage - or, disadvantage?

However, the possible proclivity for Maldives to read the India-China, or India-Pakistan relations wrong too needs to be noted. It seems to flow from the smaller Indian Ocean archipelago-nation's inherent external security concerns in the midst of an indefensible geo-strategic locale, circumstances and directions, over which it could not aspire to have any control whatsoever.

To an outsider or another nation, near or far, nations like Maldives have as a 'strategic locational advantage' to hedge. From inside, that too when the sights are trained exclusively on safety and security, sovereignty and territorial integrity, it's a 'locational disadvantage' - which it actually is. Standing 'exposed' in the lil' games that small nations play after a time, they end up believing in playing with Paul and Peter together than playing Paul against Peter.

It was possibly thus that then MDP's President Mohammed Nasheed inaugurated a Chinese mission in Male the very day Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was landing in the country for attending the SAARC Summit in 2011 along with a bilateral. President Nasheed is also reportedly credited with proposing for Maldives to play mediator of sorts between India and China on the one hand, and India and Pakistan on the other, in resolving what essentially have been bilateral issues of a historic nature and consequence.

Despite change of political leadership in New Delhi, the Government of India has consistently stood by the early decision to keep bilateral issues bilateral, and not involve third-nations or institutions in resolving the same. Primarily, the Indian position was tempered by the games global powers wanted to play in its backyard and neighbourhood. Given the wheels-within-wheels of geo-strategic diplomacy, India also seems wanting to keep smaller neighbours too out of the picture even while not suspecting the genuineness of their deep-seated concerns for their own security and sovereignty, flowing from any 'clash of the titans'.

The re-injection of extra-regional power-play in their own immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood does not make things easier for nations like Maldives. It's true, in this case, of India's neighbours, both on land and across the seas. The media-reported efforts of the Nepali host of the SAARC Summit now to have India-Pakistan leaders to meet on the sidelines to try and break the ice in their bilateral relations too may have been borne out of such shared concerns for the region, and of and for their own nations.

India respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of individual nations, near or afar, more than most nations of its standing. India would like neighbours to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity likewise, and in ways their understanding of the Indian expectations become appreciated, without compulsions - overt or covet. That the genuineness of their national concerns and the consequences of their initiatives flowing from those concerns do not always match or balance is another matter that they too need to address in their own independent and sovereign ways.

'Independent' foreign policy

It is in this background that Minister Dunya's parliamentary response on larger issues pertaining to Maldives' 'independent' foreign policy needs to be appreciated - if not wholly understood. Like the rest of much of the world, Maldives too is still in the process of re-adjusting itself to the post-Cold War realities, where the alternate 'super-power' in China is not as far away as the erstwhile Soviet Union (in perception, if not distance). The unresolved India-China border dispute brings China closer to the Indian Ocean in every political and geo-strategic calculation of nations like Maldives and Sri Lanka, even though they are not as close to both the 'Asian giants' as the rest of India's South Asian neighbours.

Media reports have not made any mention of Minister Dunya referring to Maldives' new foreign policy, proclaimed by President Yameen in January 2014, in her response in the People's Majlis, or Parliament. It was obviously on the works even before he assumed office. Among others, the document has for its 'Vision & Mission', "sovereign equality of States in accordance with international law", "non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries" and "friendship with all countries based on mutual respect".

Speaking on the occasion, President Yameen said that "bilateral collaborations must be lead through diplomatic dialogue, and that each country was entitled to sovereign equality". Underlining that the main objective of his foreign policy was to increase opportunities for the economic advancement of Maldivians, the President said that in today's world, an independent foreign policy could only be employed by becoming an economically sufficient, and resilient nation.

In context, Minister Dunya, in her Majlis' response, referred to Article 2 of the Independence Declaration as a Protectorate of the UK in 1965, "which clearly states that Maldives does not need to consult with any other country, wait for their approval or say so in order to execute the country's foreign policy". She added: "It is in the interest of Maldives, to protect and defend the independence and sovereignty of the Maldivian nation. The present government would not allow interests of foreign groups being given priority over this."

'Regional strength from India'

If the reference was to India, it was not entirely missed by Minister Dunya's audience, both inside and outside Parliament. Whether it would include - or, exempt - Chinese groups (whether owned by the government or otherwise) is a question that Maldivians should be asking themselves and their government(s). On the larger issue of the nation's safety and security, the Minister said that they were "very much dependent on maintaining peace within the Indian Ocean, and that the Maldivian economy and lifestyle was strongly dependent on the Indian Ocean".

In this context, Haveeru quoted Dunya as saying: "We will counsel with any country necessary in order to maintain peace and security within the region, to make Indian Ocean a region where peace is established. We are holding discussions and working together with any country it is necessary to collaborate with." Nothing would explain, Maldives' complex concerns involving economic security, nation's safety and peace in the Indian Ocean, than what he said in New Delhi only weeks before releasing the new foreign policy in Male.

"We are looking at regional strength from India and also in global politics and international relations we look up to India's leadership. India and Maldives common people, we have a common destiny. So, we believe it is under Indian leadership that we will be able to seek salvation from poverty and difficult situation we have in this part of the world," President said on the occasion. "I hope to achieve substantive progress as far as India-Maldives relationship is concerned. Foreign policy, domestic policy, areas of interest like maritime security, we have very strong bond with India, and our understanding on international matters as far as these issues are concerned, we have common understanding," he added.

In Parliament, however, Minister Dunya would not respond publicly on a specific parliamentary question from retired senior army officer, Ibrahim Didi (MDP), if increased Chinese naval activity in a Maldivian port would threaten India's 'geo-political interests', and leading to deterioration in bilateral relations. She cited 'national security concerns' as the cause for not responding to the question, but suggested that the member take it up at parliamentary committees (with a smaller number of members, and without media presence).

President Yammen himself has been more direct in addressing 'Indian concerns. On return from a China visit in August - dovetailed between the first-ever Japan visit by a Maldivian Head of State, and President Xi's Maldives visit -- he said, Sino-Maldives economic cooperation would not affect "the very friendly, close relations with India". In this context, he also said that "all these (Chinese) projects are also open to India, and we are doing a lot of diplomatic work with India".

President Yameen also specifically referred in public to his Government's decision not to sign a 'Status of Forces Agreement' (SOFA) with the US. As may be recalled, the US had reportedly approached the predecessor Maldivian Government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik behidn the back of the Indian 'friend and ally' in 'Indo-Pacific'. But whether Maldives would address similar Indian concerns equally forthright and effectively viz China is a question abegging a convincing answer, now or later. To that answer would also hinge the Maldivian desire and commitment for peace in the Indian Ocean, particularly in its immediate neighbourhood, which is also the tri-nation neighbouthood with India and Sri Lanka.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation), Chennai Chapter)

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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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