India turns heat on Maldives as Chinese dragon spews fire in Indian Ocean
India has turned heat on Maldives, a country shifting its alignment at a fast pace with China. With uncertainty growing in Maldives and President Yameen Abdul Gayoom openly taking anti-India stance, New Delhi has decided to curtail the supply of vegetables - potatoes, onions -- and other essential articles -- rice, flour, eggs, pulses and sugar - to the island nation in the Indian Ocean.
This follows a series of face-off incidents between the two countries. Maldives recently considerably reduced the number of visas to Indian workers prompting Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan raise the issue with the Centre. Maldives also asked India to take back the two helicopters gifted to the country's disaster management agency by India. Maldives told India to remove the helicopters from its atolls by June end.
Earlier in the first week of June, a Maldivian ruling party MP Ahmed Nihan complained that he was sent back from Chennai airport by Indian authorities after asking a few questions over his diplomatic passport. Ahmed Nihan claimed that he was visiting India for medical consultation and treatment.
India's shift in policy towards Maldives comes in the backdrop of growing Chinese influence in the country. President Yameen has openly favoured China over India. On domestic front, Maldives is facing political chaos that China seems to relish but which has left India deeply concerned.
Maldives is back to its authoritarian days. All Opposition leaders of any considerable influence have been either put behind the bars on various charges or forced to flee the country. Backed by an authoritarian communist regime of China, President Yameen Abdul Gayoom will be seeking virtual unopposed reelection in September general elections. Yameen has been pushing India to the margins of Maldives affairs as China enlarges its footprints in the island nation.
Among those sent to jail in Maldives is President Yameen's half brother and long-time dictator president of the country Moumoon Abdul Gayoom for attempting a coup. Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who sought military intervention from India, is living in exile - shuttling between Britain and Sri Lanka. Chief Justice of Maldives Abdulla Saeed has also been sentenced to jail for obstructing justice.
From British colony to Chinese satellite
Maldives got independence from Britain in 1965 and three years later, it decided to be a republic in a referendum. Its first president Ibrahim Nasir ruled for 10 years during which the British retreat continued which saw tourism and fish export-based economy failing. Facing an anti-government campaign, Nasir fled to Singapore with millions of dollars from Maldives treasury.
Moumoon Gayoom became the president in 1978. He practically led a single-party (Maldivian People's Party) rule surviving at least three coup attempts in 1980, 1983 and 1988. Indian forces saved the day for Gayoom in the last coup attempt. That also settled the governance debate in Maldives politics for another 20 years.
With Gayoom becoming more autocratic, Opposition parties found favours with people. Gayoom agredd to multi-party general elections in 2008, which journalist-turned-activist Mohamed Nasheed of Maldivian Democratic Party won.
Nasheed brought widespread taxation reforms and launched a range of social welfare schemes. But during his tenure, hardliner Islamic sentiment grew in the country. Protests were held against the government and repeated coup attempts were made.
A frustrated Nasheed resigned from the office of president. His vice-president succeeded him for a year. Nasheed was arrested and tried for various charges including terrorism. In 2013 elections, Nasheed again won the popular vote but the Supreme Court annulled it. In the re-rerun, Gayoom's pro-China half-brother Yameen won the elections.
Yameen and China in Maldives
Yameen defended radical Islam in Maldives by dismissing the concerns as anti-West campaign. He developed close ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan while opening the gates for the Chinese. In April, Pakistan and not Yameen government announced at Pakistani military would guard exclusive exonomic zone of Maldives, which signed a free trade treaty with China in December, 2017.
Till 2015, Maldives largely maintained a positive balance of payments with China. But in three years' time, Maldives owes 70 per cent of its debt to China, which is arm twisting the country to fall in its line of geostrategic game.
Maldivian economy is deep in debt, which is roughly equal to 40 per cent of its GDP. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted that by 2021, the debt-GDP ratio would cross 51 per cent. China views the failing economy of Maldives as an opportunity to get hold of the country.
China is currently building an eight billion dollar airport after Maldives cancelled a deal originally signed with an Indian firm, a 4 billion bridge, a residential colony on an inhabited island and supplying men and machines to the Indian Ocean country.
Why should India worry?
During the ongoing political crisis, Maldives sent its emissaries to "friends" Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China before contacting India, the traditionally most influential neighbour of the country. Only two years ago, India had saved the country from going thirsty after receiving a late night SOS from Male following a mega electricity failure causing acute drinking water shortage.
President Nasheed's anti-India stand has been more pronounced since India expressed its dismay over subversion of democratic institutions in the country after the Supreme Court verdict in February. The court had ordered the release and retrial of Nasheed and other prisoners calling their sentences politically motivated.
But Yameen responded by declaring a state of emergency and had Abdulla Saeed, another Supreme Court judge, Ali Hameed, and Gayoom arrested. The remaining three Supreme Court judges overturned their previous judgment. India and a host of other nations expressed concerns. But China continued to support Yameen.
Strong Chinese presence poses a security concern for India. Maldives is an archipelago of around 1200 islands. It is located only 700 km from Lakshadweep and 1,200 km from the mainland.