Maldives turning down India’s invitation to participate in the Indian Ocean naval exercise Milan puts the spotlight on China’s growing influence in the region. The Maldives government cited the ongoing state of emergency in the country as the reason behind its decision. Clearly, New Delhi must rethink its strategy. China’s growing influence in the Maldives and the stronger presence in the Indian Ocean region, including the recent agreement to set up an ocean observation station in the islands, and the $160-million grant by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are red flags.
Abdulla Yameen, who removed Maldives’ only democratically elected leader Mohamed Nasheed, has close ties to radical Islam. Not only have the domestic Islamist forces been strengthened, Yameen has increasingly given the country’s foreign policy an Islamist orientation. This is a cause for concern. In recognising the legitimacy of the Yameen government, Beijing has set itself as an ally. Over the last few years, Chinese investments have grown to 40% of GDP. At the same time, the historically close ties between India and Maldives have frayed. India, along with countries such as the United Kingdom, France, United States and Canada, must work towards the restitution of democracy in Maldives, including the release of opposition leaders as ordered by the country’s Supreme Court, and of the judges who got arrested for their pains.
Military intervention cannot be the first resort but India must not rule it out, holding it out as an actionable threat. Working with other countries, New Delhi must ensure UN attention on the Maldives situation, pushing for economic sanctions that would undercut Yameen’s support in the country. These efforts will at least ensure the sanctity of the presidential elections due to be held later this year.
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