Maldives' President-elect invites Modi to attend oath-taking
Defence & Diplomacy, Opinion

Maldivian election: Will India cut China to size in Maldives after Yameen is gone?

This must be a presidential election result in the Maldives for which India would be waiting for a long. As even without waiting for the Maldivian Election Commission’s confirmation on opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s victory, New Delhi rushed to promptly welcome the outcome of the polls. “We heartily congratulate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih on his victory and hope that the Election Commission will officially confirm the result at the earliest,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on Monday. Rubbing salt into the injured ego of China-backed Abdulla Yameen who lost the election with a big margin of votes to Ibrahim Solih, the MEA’s statement further said: “This election marks not only the triumph of democratic forces in the Maldives, but also reflects the firm commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi too was not late in picking up his phone to congratulate Ibrahim Solih on his victory.  It spoke volume of happiness in the Indian camp with the political development in the Maldives.

In fact, India never shared comfortable relations with the Indian Ocean archipelago under Abdulla Yameen as he presided over a regime which gave a free run to China in almost all political, economic, diplomatic and strategic matters of the country at the cost of India’s interests. Straddling the Indian Ocean, the country of atolls ignored India’s concern with impunity; it gave away on lease Laamu Atoll to China for building military base, signed Free Trade Agreement with the latter, allowed Chinese warships to anchor in the archipelago and  pumping in of huge Chinese money for the construction of bridge, airport and other infrastructure in the country. With this, China acquired a larger-than-life size image in the island nation. To the extent that this year in February when in a sweeping action President Abdulla Yameen imposed emergency in the country and put Supreme Court judges, including Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed and former President Abdul Gayoom behind bars, China refused to speak against the Yameen government’s action. Instead, when exiled former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, ousted in a coup in 2012, sought India’s help in averting political crisis in the island nation, China promptly came in defence of the Yameen government. It issued a warning that any external intervention in the archipelago would complicate the situation there.

Maldives The State with Beauty and Beast

In the aftermath of the imposition of emergency, President Yameen sent special envoys to China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to brief them about the situation in the Maldives, but conveniently bypassed India. As if anti-India actions were not enough, Male pressured India to pull out Indian defence personnel who accompanied two advanced helicopters that India had gifted to the archipelago in 2013. Although, succumbing to the Maldivian pressure, India had withdrawn one helicopter, but stayed put with another despite pressure from the island nation. However, indignant Male put a squeeze on Indians’ visit to the country. In December 2017, it even put restrictions on Indian envoy Akhilesh Mishra and other diplomatic officials’ movement within Male, saying they need prior approval of the country’s Local Government Authority before moving out and meeting any Maldivian political leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all South Asian countries, including Pakistan even as only for a brief stopover, but he has not visited the Maldives since assuming power in May 2014.  Rather, he had to cancel his trip to the archipelago in March 2015 following the political crisis and brutal opposition crackdown there. Earlier this month, the Indian High Commissioner boycotted inauguration ceremony of China funded Sinamale Bridge in the Maldives, thereby, hitting relations between the two nations all-time low.

However, after the victory of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in the election, India is hopeful that its’ good days will be back in the island nation. For China, it would be a setback. As exiled former Maldivian President whose supporters backed Solih in the polls, has hinted that the new government in Male will review all agreements that his country, under the Abdulla Yameen regime, signed with Beijing in the past five years. Experts have already warned that the Maldives risked falling into China-led debt trap. In this backdrop, next few months will be very crucial for China, as anti-Yameen brigade supported by the US, the UK and other international democratic forces may squeeze Beijing’s space in the island nation.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

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Shankar Kumar is a Delhi-based diplomacy and strategic affairs journalist. He tweets at @shaanka

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