Diplomacy Opinion Politics

India and Maldives Amid a Troubled Neighbourhood

In the early morning hours of November 3, 1998, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was informed that the Indian Ocean Island of Maldives, a member of SAARC, had been invaded and its capital Male occupied by a group of unknown mercenaries. New Delhi responded swiftly. By late evening, Indian paratroopers landed in Male, routed the 80 intruders, who were mostly Sri Lankan Tamil militants, with a sprinkling of radicalised Maldivian Muslims. President Maumoon Gayoom thanked India and its political and economic ties with the Maldives blossomed.

Things changed drastically when Gayoom’s step-brother Abdullah Yameen became President. Yameen arbitrarily ousted members of Parliament, arrested the Chief Justice and other judges, together with his predecessor Nasheed and former President Gayoom. He placed restrictions on Indian nationals and Indian projects. He even demanded the removal of Indian Air Force helicopters, deployed in the Maldives and opened the doors for a flood of Chinese projects. The country’s islands were recklessly leased to China, opening the doors for deployment of Chinese military equipment.

The Indian response was slow but sure. Its policies led to Yameen’s decisive defeat in elections a fortnight ago by Opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, who has pointedly invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his inauguration. Solih’s victory is a serious setback to Chinese efforts to eliminate Indian influence in the Maldives, which is located barely 461 nautical miles from India and 3,048 nautical miles from China.

While China may provide massive economic “aid” to India’s immediate neighbours, to undermine India’s influence, it has little understanding of political dynamics in democracies. It has cut a sorry figure—initially in Sri Lanka by backing President Rajapakse, and now in the Maldives. China now appears to be very satisfied in Nepal, presuming that it has Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli in its pocket. India is not unduly impressed by Oli’s actions, like threatening to use Chinese ports for its trade, or boycotting participation in BIMSTEC regional forum activities like the meeting of army chiefs of BIMSTEC countries in Pune, evidently to appease its Chinese friends.

He will soon realise, like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and others, that receiving large amounts of Chinese aid is a recipe for bankruptcy and mortgaging national sovereignty. Chinese ports are located at over 3,300 km from Nepal’s borders, whereas Kolkata is at a distance of barely 640 km. Prime Minister Oli surely knows that Chinese ports can never be a substitute for ports in India and Bangladesh. Trying to play off India against China is hardly a credible option for Nepal.

India should tell its South Asian neighbours that playing off India against China is not realistic. New Delhi should provide its neighbours with documented information on how receiving Chinese “aid” under its “Belt and Road” initiative, is now recognised widely as a recipe for bankruptcy. And Islamic countries need to be reminded about the persecution of China’s Muslims in Xinjiang, its only Muslim-majority Province.

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