External affairs minister Salman Khursheed seems to be clueless about how to deal with tiny Maldives in the wake of its rebuff to India by cancelling the largest single Indian investment contract in that country to Indian infrastructure giant GMR group to develop the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Maldives’ capital Male in 2010. Khursheed’s first reaction to the cancellation was a freeze in the $25-million budgetary commitment that it had made to Maldives and an indication that infrastructure projects like the construction of a national police academy in Maldives would be put on the back burner. Now, however, there are signs of backtracking on the tough stand as Khursheed has indicated that India is watching the situation in Maldives closely but has no plans as yet to curtail any aid.
The Maldivian provocation was not confined to just the cancellation of a commercial contract, which had been bagged through a global tender. It was compounded by a shockingly brazen statement by the spokesperson of President Mohamed Waheed’s office, Abbas Adil Riza, accusing the Indian high commissioner to Maldives D H Mulay, of taking bribes and threatening the Maldivian government over the GMR issue. Riza called the high commissioner an “enemy of Maldives”, saying, “we cannot allow him to commit the crimes he is committing in our country.”
While for the record President Waheed has been parroting how important a friend India is to Maldives, it is inconceivable that the spokesperson of his office could have said what he did without a go-ahead from him.
The high commissioner was promptly told by India to pack his bags and head for an assignment to the United States and a replacement for Mulay was announced for Maldives. The fact that not only has the high commissioner been replaced but Maldives has not taken back the revocation of the contract with GMR while New Delhi has backtracked on its threat to stop aid to Maldives is an indication that India is not on a strong wicket.
There is indeed a nagging feeling that the flexing of muscles by Maldives has to do with China’s encouragement to Waheed that the Chinese are there for Maldives in the event of India leaving that country in the lurch. The shadow boxing between India and China is evidently behind the cancellation of the GMR airport contract in Male. In recent years, India has had to contend with a China that is repeatedly nibbling at India’s clout vis-à-vis smaller countries.
In recent months Nepal and Sri Lanka have moved closer to China at the cost of their ties with India and while Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has held its ground against Chinese overtures, there is no knowing what would be the shape of Dhaka’s relations with Beijing and New Delhi after next month’s general elections in Bangladesh.
New Delhi believes that vested interests are at work in Maldives to foment anti-India sentiments and hurt bilateral relations. Adhaalath, a radical Islamic party in Maldives, tweeted recently: ‘We would rather give the airport contract to our friends in China, who now make the majority of our tourist population.’ If that is the thinking in the inner circles, India is up against a challenge to its influence which it would quickly need to counter sooner than later rather than groping for a policy direction.
At a time when China is locked in disputes with South-East Asian countries like Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei and its relations are under strain with Japan over the Japanese takeover of two small islands, it is an extension of Chinese designs that it is looking to blunt Indian influence in Maldives which sits on an important sea line of communication between the Middle East and East Asia.
China, in particular, seems interested in developing Ihavandhoo and Maarandhoo Islands, with transshipment ports among other things, as well as grabbing a piece of action in the development of the country’s second international airport at Hanimaadhoo.
The islands in question are located in the Haa Alif Atoll, situated in the north of Maldives. China wants a presence in these islands since they are the closest to India and Sri Lanka. There have also been unconfirmed reports about Chinese plans to establish a naval submarine base in Marao, an island of Maldives. China’s efforts to make further headway in Maldives have gained ground after the visit of Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, to Male in May.
China’s avowed aim is to ensure the security of its sea lanes facilitating its critically-needed energy imports. There is no doubt that it is working to virtually encircle India, through what is called the ‘string-of-pearls’ strategy. Other ports include the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the Chittagong port in Bangladesh and the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. India rightly fears the string tightening around its neck.
Doubtlessly, India, too, has stepped up its defence engagement with countries like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. After defence minister A K Antony’s visit to Male in August 2009, for instance, Indian warships and Dornier reconnaissance aircraft are helping Maldives in maritime patrol and surveillance. New Delhi is also assisting Male to set up a network of ground radars in all its 26 atolls and link them with the Indian military surveillance systems. Earlier, apart from hydrographic surveys and other military assistance, India had transferred INS Tillanchang, a 260-tonne fast-attack craft designed for fast and covert operations against smugglers, gun-runners and terrorists, to Maldives in 2006.
That the Chinese have made promises of aid to Maldives to compensate them for India’s stoppage of aid is clear. President Waheed announced triumphantly last week that China will grant $500 million in loans to the Maldives. Last year, China set up an embassy in the Maldives ahead of a South Asia summit that India also attended — becoming one of only a handful of countries with a full diplomatic presence there.
Indian interests were better safeguarded under Nasheed, who gladdened Indian hearts when he stated while still in office: “We have always categorically stated that we do not want foreign powers, in particular the Chinese, interfering in the Indian Ocean.”
As Chinese influence increases, India will likely have to partner with the United States in the region to counterbalance the strong position of the Chinese. This could be why the US has recently deployed counter-terrorist operatives in India, as well as the Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Three of the countries are host to Chinese ports.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.