Written by Anil Jai Singh.

The political crisis in the Maldives continues to fester. President Abdulla Yameen has extended the State of Emergency, first declared on February 5th,  by another 30 days and has refused to release and reinstate members of parliament as ordered by the Supreme Court. Instead he has imprisoned two judges including the Chief Justice and his half brother, the former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The genesis of this crisis began in February 2012 when a series of peaceful protests led to the resignation of President Mohammed Nasheed  after he too ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice at that time, insisting it was a coup. Nasheed had assumed the presidency following the Maldives’ first democratic election and succeeded Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had led the country since 1978. Following Nasheed’s ouster, President Abdulla Yameen became president in November 2013  in a highly controversial general election.

Present Status

The landmark judgement by the country’s Supreme Court had raised hopes of a return to democratic politics in the Maldives. Abiding by its judgement of reinstating the 12 MPs however would have jeopardised Yameen’s presidency. Thus his decision to impose a state of emergency.

Former President Nasheed who has been living in exile since his ouster has sought India’s help in resolving this crisis. However President Yameen is in no mood to relent – having sent a special envoy to India to state his case, whom the Indian establishment refused to meet.

This refusal to meet was criticised in some quarters as it was felt that the meeting should have taken place and a response articulated thereafter. In fact Mohammed Nasheed initially requested India’s military intervention but realising that this could be politically volatile and sensing India’s reluctance, toned it down to seeking political support.

As things stand, there seems to be no easy way out of the crisis. India is caught in a bind – while popular sentiment and the intelligentsia in Maldives is seeking Indian support for the restoration of democracy, it is the larger geopolitical significance that will determine the Indian response.

India is monitoring the situation closely but has has virtually ruled out military intervention at this juncture. India’s calling the extension of the Emergency as ‘unconstitutional’ elicited a stern rebuttal from Maldives and New Delhi was told to “refrain from any actions that could hinder resolving the situation facing the country”. The current crisis stands in sharp contrast to the operation carried out by  the Indian Special Forces and the Indian Navy in 1988 when former President  Mohammed Gayoom (currently imprisoned) sought Indian intervention to quell an insurgent-led coup in his country. That operation was viewed as legal under international law as it was in response to a legitimate request from an incumbent constitutional head.

Under the present circumstances, any Indian military intervention could well be interpreted as an attempt at regime change, which India is loath to do in line with its non-interventionist foreign policy.

Geopolitical Significance

Situated about 400 kms southwest of India, the Maldives is the smallest Asian country in terms of size and population. However its location and archipelagic conformation bestows on it a strategic significance that belies its size.

The country comprises 26 atolls  and is dotted with over 1000 islands, many of which are luxurious beach resorts, the favourites of honeymooners and tourists from all over the world.  However, these idyllic havens reflect a luxurious ambience which is quite at odds with the urban sprawl of the country’s capital Male and their benign calm is far removed from the political turbulence in the country.

The current constitutional crisis, created due to a combination of internal and external factors, now threatens to embroil the country in the great geopolitical game that is unfolding in the Indo-Pacific and it is this larger strategic implication that is of more concern, not only to India but the entire region.  The absence of a quick solution threatens to engulf the country, creating a crisis which could make extra-regional intervention inevitable.

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific as the global geopolitical centre of gravity, driven by the remarkable rise of China and its belligerent foreign policy, has effectively brought into focus the importance of the small island nations. As demonstrated in other maritime domains, such islands are now key strategic force multipliers for power projection by the larger players.

China makes no secret about its intention to dominate the Indo-Pacific. As it develops its navy, its intentions are becoming increasingly clear. The recent establishment of a base in Djibouti, the reorganisation of the military into theatre commands and the control of Hambantota and Gwadar ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively, amongst other initiatives,  are aimed at a gradual dominance of the Indian Ocean and its strategic Sea Lines Of Communication which pass close to countries like the Maldives.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), ostensibly an economic construct to promote global connectivity, is a thinly disguised attempt at establishing this strategic dominance. The economic largesse being generously promised to those who sign up to the BRI will come with strings attached as Sri Lanka is discovering and Pakistan soon will. This economic stranglehold will provide China tremendous economic and political leverage over these small nations which it will then ruthlessly exploit – its actions towards controlling the South China Sea are indicative of its “My way or the Highway” approach.

In the last few years the effect of the Chinese presence has been increasingly evident in the Maldives. Soon after President Nasheed was overthrown, and the present incumbent assumed power, a contract with an Indian company GMR to build an international airport at Male was cancelled and  handed over to the Chinese. The sudden increase in the number of Chinese tourists to Maldives in the last few years is also no coincidence.

Towards the end of 2017, during President Yameen’s visit to China a Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two countries. A number of infrastructure projects are going to be developed in the Maldives with Chinese expertise and financial assistance, and not all of it in the form of aid. These are a source of concern for India. Soon after President Yameen’s visit to China, the Maldivian Foreign Minister visited India to reassure India that the Maldivian “India first” policy , enunciated in 1965 is still very relevant. However after the current crisis and India’s reaction, this relationship may be under stress.

China has steered clear of the controversy so far but has “advised” India to remain neutral and thereby prevent another “Doklam” from developing.

Unless the situation spirals totally out of control, the Maldives will continue to be a major concern for New Delhi and New Delhi alone.

Beijing is smug in the knowledge that the current situation is favourable to it and is perhaps watching India’s discomfiture with interest. It is unlikely that China will remain a passive spectator should circumstances compel India to intervene, either politically or militarily. However, China’s options may be limited – any overt attempt by China to shape the outcome may not be appreciated by the other countries that China is wooing. At a time when the intent of the BRI is being increasingly questioned, Chinese intervention may prove counter-productive to its longer term interests in the Indian Ocean.

As things stand, there seems to be no easy way out of the crisis. India is caught in a bind – while popular sentiment and the intelligentsia in the Maldives is seeking Indian support for the restoration of democracy, it is the larger geopolitical significance that will determine the Indian response. India has always been the first responder to any crisis in the Maldives. In November 2014, when a fire broke out in the water plant in the Maldives, India rushed ships and aircraft with drinking water for the people of Maldives.  Former President Nasheed, during a visit to India last week met the Indian Defence Minister and stated to the media that he had discussed the situation in the Maldives. The Indian establishment quickly responded stating that it was a routine meeting and the crisis in the Maldives was not on the agenda.

The current imbroglio is looking increasingly complex and regrettably, the Maldivian people are faced with not only the current political crisis but perhaps an existential one with their very sovereignty under threat.

President Yameen, in his naked bid to remain in power will become increasingly authoritarian and his pro-China tilt will make him a perfect pawn in Chinese strategic designs in the Indo-Pacific. India will have to weigh its options carefully and develop a calibrated response. New Delhi is unwilling to concede space to China in its own “strategic backyard” but would not like to be seen as the bully who effected regime change. The lack of a response on the other hand will impact India’s credibility as a self-mandated provider of net security in the Indian Ocean besides letting some of its strategic sea lines of communication become vulnerable to extra-regional interference.

For India, the current campaign for the restoration of a democratic government in the Maldives is unlikely to find much traction in the world’s capitals or in the UN. Unless the situation spirals totally out of control, the Maldives will continue to be a major concern for New Delhi and New Delhi alone.

Anil Jai Singh is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and the Vice President and Head-Delhi branch at the Indian Maritime Foundation. Image credit: CC by Sarah Ackerman/Flickr.


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