August 2018 marks 10 years of the introduction of a new constitution to introduce multi-party democracy in the Maldives. Political stability in the atoll state has been patchy since. Within a few years, Maldives faced a constitutional crisis that saw the exit of Mohamed Nasheed, the first elected president under the new constitutional arrangement. In 2013, Nasheed was defeated in the presidential polls that election observers considered not so fair. President Abdullah Yameen has not settled down since then due to a constant tussle with other branches of the government —executive and legislature. As a result, rule by emergency has become the order of the day.
How does political instability in the Maldives impact India-Maldives relations, especially in a national security context? There are at least two issues that impinge on India’s relations with the Maldives: Islamic radicalisation and the increasing role of China in the island state. Firstly, over the past decade or so, the number of Maldivians drawn towards Islamic State and Pakistan-based madrasas and jihadist groups has risen.
Protests by Islamists bearing IS flags are widespread on the island. About 200 Maldivian citizens have reportedly been fighting along with IS. In terms of proportion to population, this number is quite high compared to other Muslim-majority South Asian countries. Evidently, political instability and socio-economic uncertainty are the main drivers that have fuelled Islamic radicalism in the atoll state.
Pakistan-based jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) have exploited these fault lines through its charitable front organisation, Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, to establish a foothold especially in southern Maldives in the garb of relief operations post-2004 tsunami.
Developments in West Asia and the Af-Pak region have also influenced Maldivians towards radicalisation. The youth, who return from their religious studies in Pakistani madaris controlled by various jihadist groups and from Saudi Arabian madaris, return not only with radical ideas but also with jihadi connections. The madrasa-educated youth are indoctrinated to wage jihad in trouble spots like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Chechnya. These battle-hardened Maldivians help to recruit Maldivian youth for Islamic militant groups based in these areas.
New Delhi’s national security managers, therefore, need to worry about the migration of Indian terror groups like Students Islamic Movement of India and Indian Mujahideen to the Maldives. Also, the LeT could seek sanctuary in these remote islands to launch terror attacks on India. So the concern is, how to deal with Islamic radical forces that have gained political influence in our neighbourhood.
Moreover, China’s strategic footprint has lately increased and the Maldives has emerged as an important “pearl” in China’s “String of Pearls” construct in South Asia. Given Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has been vying for a naval base in the atoll to ensure the security of its maritime traffic which transports the flow of critically-needed energy supplies from Africa and West Asia through Indian Ocean waters.
Today, the Chinese make the maximum number of visits to the Maldives, given Beijing’s keen interest to develop infrastructure in the Ihavandhoo, Marao and Maarandhoo islands. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s Maritime Silk Route, the maritime half of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has provided grants and soft loans to Maldives to build a bridge from its capital Malé to the airport, named the “China-Maldives friendship bridge”.
Also, Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have been awarded contracts for resort development. This includes the strategically important Feydhoo Finolhu island near the capital.
Therefore, the current political dispensation in Male believes that “it will be to the detriment of the Maldives to not engage with China.” Amendments to the Maldivian constitution in July 2015 allowed foreigners to own land, including investments over a $1 billion for projects where 70% of the land has been reclaimed. Looking at the parameters, China is the obvious beneficiary. Chinese nationals now account for the largest tourist arrivals on these islands.
India’s concerns stem from the increasing Chinese strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region. Though the Maldivian government under Yameen has reassured India that the Chinese presence in its atolls is purely economic, the concern of “places turning into bases” is genuine. In the process, Beijing’s largesse to Male has neutralised New Delhi’s economic diplomacy with the island state that has encouraged the Maldives to play the China card against India.
Over the years, India has bailed the Maldives out of political and social crises ranging from the 1988 coup attempt to rushing drinking water to the island in December 2014. However, with the rise of China, which has transformed the regional strategic environment, India has to respond to new realities. The major challenge for India’s diplomacy is how to balance relations with its neighbours without any compromise on its core security interests.
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