The China-Africa Forum for Co-operation (Focac), 2018 Summit in the first week of September had again kept India on the edge of their seats trying to anticipate what comes out from the hidden heavy purse of “The Middle Kingdom”. Howsoever this summit may have consolidated China’s position in Africa, India felt a moment of respite coming from the tiny tropical nation of Maldives.
The election results in the Maldives saw coming of a new leader, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and ousting of Mr Yameen whose pro-China stand was undisputed. Mr Ibrahim’s win brings hope to the Indian Diplomatic block, so much so that, India went ahead and congratulated him even before the Maldivian election commission announced the results officially. Within hours of the political success, Mr Solih had spoken to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and publicly declared that India was the Maldives’ “closest ally”.
The article, second in the series, discuss implications of recent elections in the Maldives and extending soft power to new measures in such times.
MALDIVES: AN ISLAND IN POLITICAL OCEAN
The Maldives gained independence in 1965, and since then has shared diplomatic relations with India. Being former British colonies both countries have quite a legacy to share. The Maldives Archipelago comprising of 1200 islands lies next to the shipping routes of Indian ocean through which energy supplies to major Asian economies like China, India & Japan are met. The Maldives lacks required economic self-sufficiency and defence equipment which necessitates it to seek external support. These factors and its strategic position have led to large-scale FDI in the island nation from the likes of India and China. It has become the heart of International and Regional Asian geopolitics. These fundings have been used as a soft tool of diplomacy which has led to diplomatic war between Indian and China.
Indian ocean had been used as an important strategic tool in past during world war as well as cold war. Today there lies a high stake of South Asian countries in the Indian ocean. China with deep pocket has used its economic power over the foreign and domestic policy of Maldives. India through various groupings like BIMSTEC and Indian Ocean Rim-Association has tried to take the Maldives on board as latter can be a helpful partner in Indian Ocean Strategic Partnership. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called the Maldives “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood.” Being a fellow SAARC member, Maldives needs to be on board with India to achieve the aim of a leader in the region.
INDIA AND MALDIVES: A GRAPH OF UNCERTAINTIES
The Maldives has followed the policy of “India First” from the time of its independence but post-2015, the relation between New Delhi and Male has been in strain. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit due to different reasons which were considered by Male as the breaking point of relations. Ignoring India’s contributions in the past, Maldives has tried to play the weak country card and aligned with China at various forums.
In domestic happenings, the Court of Maldives ordered the release of the former president along with 8 other opposition party members who were tried for various offences against the state. This emergency was criticized by New Delhi at the public forum which was not digested by the Maldives government and this led to further dip in the relations. With diplomatic as well as military support from China, Mr Yameen took a strong stand against India by not extending the visa of defence personals as well as workers.
India has in past criticized western powers for influencing domestic politics of countries, but this has been a rare exception where India has tried to influence internal politics and economy of the island. Small countries in South Asia have used their geographical position so well in a manner that they played China card against India whenever India has tried to influence them in any way and same has been done by Mr Yameen. Another big challenge looming large for India is the challenge of radicalization in the Maldives, with a large number of fighters in Syria arriving from the island nation.
When it comes to China, western powers stand with India and this has further led to China exerting more pressure on the smaller countries and making them sign highly unprofitable contracts. It is said 70% of the external aid of Maldives is from China which gives a dominating position to the dragon in the island. China has recently signed a free trade agreement with the Maldives which on the other hand was not offered to India.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
The recent happenings in domestic politics of Maldives and ousting of Mr Yameen have come as a relief for India. What seemed to be the Gordian Knot is now perceived to be losing up, where India instead of acting like Alexander to cut it open has preferred to be Shakespeare’s Henry V in dealing with it.
The recent election win has been considered as the victory of India’s patience. India taking the side of caution despite pressure from the opposition in the Maldives to intervene during the emergency has turned out to be successful. This comes out again as a shining example of how Soft Power remains the most effective way of handling situation in neighbouring countries for India.
Happymon Jacob, Associate Professor at School of International Studies, JNU states that “The success of Indian diplomacy would lie in striking the ‘Goldilocks’ balance in dealing with Male; neither too hot nor too cold.” As has been asserted by the authors in the previous article of this series, Maldives and India’s bilateral relations can reach new heights when soft diplomacy is the tool in hand.
In repairing and healing the relations back to normal, India will have to face tides of a strong challenge from within the Maldives as well as to counter the influence of China. How it is to be done? Is soft power enough? If not, what is the alternative?
The lesson for India is to firstly, understand that democratization of South Asian and other neighbouring countries has made their governments more accountable to their population. Soft power shall be the medium to bring small countries on the positive side but cannot be the ultimate end.
Secondly, India now needs to deliver alternatives. Neighbours will end up choosing China if India doesn’t provide, if not better, but alternatives. India can further explore more close relations with the USA as both countries share the same concern of increasing China’s influence. This must be an extension arm of Soft Diplomacy.
China lacks on sharing common culture and familiarity with the Maldives. The only strong point that drives it towards China is the latter’s economic contributions. A certain hostile attitude of India can act as fuel in fire creating more gap in Indo-Maldives relation. As has been contended before, soft power can help bring the Maldives to consider “India again First” for its development work. But India cannot go ahead with old school diplomacy of helping in organizing literary events or send labour force. There must be a substantial inflow of FDI, defence equipment, infrastructural contributions, health sector partnerships, technical assistance and many other new initiatives to keep the Maldives engaged with India.
There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interests.- Chanakya
In the past, small nations have tried to act on their own interest and used the geopolitical situation for leveraging their own profit. India has faced a setback in Sri-Lanka where a “before election” pro-India government has signed many agreements with China. Similar happened with Nepali Congress in Nepal elections.
We need to understand that dividing countries on pro and the anti-India stand does not make sense any more. Countries, even if small economies look after their own interests rather than trying to sideline with major powers for protection or political ideologies etc.
There is a need to derive new forms of soft power which don’t only limit itself to shaking hands but involves passing cherry along.
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Source URL: Medium