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NEW DELHI: It was only a few weeks ago that Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim arrived in India as a special envoy for President Abdulla Yameen, swearing by his ostensible “India First” policy. Little known was the fact that India-Maldives relations would soon plunge to an all-time low with the Yameen government refusing to address any of India’s concerns.
By then, nobody in the Indian system set much store by these words, because it had become clear for some time that for President Yameen, “India First” has been replaced by “China First”. How did that happen?
It must be remembered that President Yameen did not bring China into the Maldives. That credit goes to former president Mohamed Nasheed, who, in 2011, allowed the Chinese to open their embassy in Male, and opened the doors to Chinese economic presence in the Maldives, despite Indian reservations.
However, Yameen took the China relationship to new levels, even as his profound distrust of India deepened. From India’s point of view, the biggest “red line” was breached after Yameen
signed a free-trade agreement+
(FTA) with China in December 2017, rushing it through the Majlis late at night, when members were given less than 15 minutes to read and approve the deal.
India had signed a preferential trade pact with Maldives way back in 1981, according to which, India supplies all essential commodities, aggregates and river-sand to Maldives, while the Maldives could sell anything it manufactured to India, without restrictions. Since the Maldives had tuna to export, that worked out just fine.
But New Delhi feels that the FTA with China is aimed at India, particularly after Yameen announced he would seek a similar pact with the Modi government. The FTA opened the floodgates to cheap Chinese goods into the Maldives. The 1981 pact allowed Maldives unfettered access to India but had no space for third country re-exports. Indian trade officials realised that the FTA was China’s way of accessing the Indian market through its neighbours. (In Sri Lanka too, the new SEZ in Hambantota is actually aimed at the Indian market.)
Not only did India squash any thought of a new FTA, the Maldives envoy was called in to reaffirm India’s concerns. This happened after a series of missteps in 2017, especially Maldives sudden announcement that it would allow Chinese warships to visit the archipelago. India sent an urgent message to Male saying this would seriously impact Indian security. Yameen replied the warships were on a goodwill visit and he would not refuse them.
India, which had studiously snubbed Yameen’s political opponents, in retaliation, allowed Nasheed to make his first visit to the country in August, coinciding with the visit of the Chinese warships. This may have been Yameen’s trigger to go hell for leather to China. India’s actions came after the first visits by MoS MJ Akbar and former foreign secretary S Jaishankar.
India also began facing other stumbling blocks in Maldives that were connected to China. For instance, Male began a ‘go-slow’ on the Indian radar installation project. Second, Yameen’s government began to push Indian entities and presence away from its southern atolls — this is where China has the bulk of its investments — the friendship bridge between Male and Hulhule, real estate projects in Hulhumale and a potential Chinese military base in Laamu Atoll. This is because China wants unfettered access to the 1.5-degree channel, which is very important for its Indian Ocean coverage.
India had already given a project plan for iHavan, on the condition that China should not be part of it. India has offered to open it to other ‘friendly’ countries like Japan. But, here too, Yameen played a strange game. On the one hand, he asked India to give him the money, on the other, he was found to be courting China. Again, the iHavan project is on an atoll very close to India and controls the 8-degree channel which China has its eye on.
In 2016, India welcomed Yameen with a defence cooperation pact and a host of other agreements, hoping to wean him away from China. An India-Maldives Action Plan for defence would build an institutional mechanism of defence secretaries and include port development, training and capacity building, equipment and maritime surveillance. Yet, a year later, the Maldives-China FTA opened the door to much of this from China.
On Thursday, the Maldives special envoy to China, Mohamed Saeed, even asked China to provide “security” to protect Chinese investments in the Maldives. China refused, which is just as well, because that, more than anything else would have triggered Indian action. But it signals growing desperation by Yameen.