Film! Fashion! Food! The Maldives has enjoyed a long love affair with all things Indian, from the silver screen to the catwalk and dinner table.
The Indian town closest to Malé – Thiruvananthapuram – has signs in Dhivehi and residents who speak the Maldivian language fluently. And tens of thousands of Maldivians travel to India every year, as much for medical treatment as the country’s cultural familiarity.
In politics, India has played the role of protector by ensuring the safety and security of the little archipelago. Rajiv Gandhi diapatched troops in 1988 to save Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government from invading Tamil mercenaries. More recently, when fire damaged Malé’s desalination plant, India sent navy ships and aircraft laden with drinking water.
But the Maldives-India jodi is on the rocks, at least on the political front, as President Abdulla Yameen repeatedly spurns India in favour of China’s embrace.
The credit for starting the diplomatic anti-India baiting could go to former president Mohamed Waheed. He threw out India’s GMR from the Maldives, cancelling a US$511 million dollar deal with the firm to develop the international airport.
He also went on an infamous Twitter rant accusing India of interfering in the Maldives’ internal affairs. His outburst was all the more surprising, given that his government was legitimised in large part by Manmohan Singh recognizing the highly controversial transfer of power.
— A frayed knot —
The GMR fiasco led to the first thread unravelling in the tight bond that had previously entwined both countries for decades. The last months of Mohamed Nasheed’s presidency were marred by anti-GMR and anti-India protests.
The opposition whipped itself and its supporters up into a nationalistic frenzy, replete with ‘GMR Go Home’ balloons and speeches full of racist comments about India.
When then vice president Waheed was propelled into the top office following Nasheed’s controversial exit, it was only a matter of time before GMR was booted out.
But relations between the Maldives and India have sunk to new lows — and remain on a downward trajectory — since Yameen was sworn into office.
What has upset the Indians so? In a word, China. Yameen’s decision to let China muscle in on what has long been considered Indian territory – the Indian Ocean – has rankled New Delhi no end.
Yameen’s government amended the constitution in 2015 to allow foreign parties – with over a billion dollars to spend – to buy land in the Maldives. The move was widely perceived as opening the door to Chinese and Saudi acquisitions.
Last year, a Free Trade Agreement between the Maldives and China was also rushed through parliament under highly controversial circumstances, and quickly ratified by Yameen.
To add insult to injury, almost every single major infrastructure project that Yameen has signed has been with a Chinese company: a ‘friendship’ bridge, 7,000 housing units, a hospital building, the Hulhumalé megawatt power plant and the Laamu link road.
Andrew Small, an expert on China and author of The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, says an accumulation of things have wound India up.
“It has happened in stages, played over a long arc,” he tells the Maldives Independent. “China’s systematically embedding themselves economically in the Maldives with the security implications that follow, via the FTA, the money they have put into projects, the changing of the constitution in order to allow them to buy islands.”
— Red Lines —
The latest uproar follows the government’s attempts to return two helicopters given to the Maldives by India. The helicopters are used by the Maldivian military to transport critically ill patients and for search and rescue operations. The return of these gifts is considered a slap in the face for New Delhi.
Even more alarming for India was the visit of Pakistan’s army chief and subsequent announcement that Pakistan warships may patrol the Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone alongside Maldivian coast guard vessels. Indian officials quoted in the Indian media said that joint monitoring exercises with Pakistan would be a red line for New Delhi.
“The Chinese are seen as strategic rivals, but Pakistan is an outright adversary. Direct military cooperation between the Maldives and Pakistan will not be viewed well in India,” says Small.
He says New Delhi would be anxious if it appeared that Pakistan was doing China’s bidding when it comes to the Maldives.
“India understands that cooperation with China in economics and trade may bring with it some security cooperation too, and China has broader goals in the Indian Ocean. But adding Pakistan into the security mix, which is more clearly directed at India, causes a different kind of concern in New Delhi.
“A red line of sorts was crossed when Yameen extended the state of emergency, and not much was done, the Indians didn’t act forcefully. There isn’t much appetite in Delhi for military action,” says Small.
Not only did Yameen’s government ignore India’s pleas and extend the SOE, it also accused India of distorting the facts and issued a public rebuke of its erstwhile ally.
One of Yameen’s ministers, who was tasked with briefing foreign media at that time, went so far as to say that India should mind its own business and stay away from the Maldives’ internal affairs.
Small suggests that, rather than an overt military response, India is more likely to use its political influence to maintain pressure on the Yameen administration and help the opposition in the run-up to this year’s presidential elections.
But there is mounting scepticism over whether Yameen will hold free and fair elections. If those elections are rigged, and Yameen remains in power with Chinese support, it remains to be seen what India will do.
Are Maldivians ready to give up Indian dhal and settle for Chinese takeaway? There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for it among the public, even if the government is keen for a menu change.
Main photo: Hussain Waheed/Mihaaru