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The China factor in relations between India and Maldives

Friday, March 09, 2018
By Ranajoy Sen

The subterranean, if at times, overt antagonism between India and China is a stated factor in Indo-Chinese relations; it is also an attribute of global diplomacy. While many speak about the possibilities of cooperation between the two countries, it turns out that undercurrents of discord often eclipse amicability. It is inevitable that the Indian side would state that China actuates activities, which are clearly not desirable for India. Furthermore, it rakes up issues which trespass in the way of basic Indian interests and objectives. It appears that China is hell-bent on raking up issues with India to keep a strand on continuing discord.  

Viewpoints from China are bound to contradict Indian expressions of wariness and annoyance. It is in any country’s national interests to speak up for most of its acts. But, more often, bland declarations and sweeping generalisations from China point to absence of reasonable responses. At such junctures, China is often seen reacting through an amalgamation of anger, in spite of its own promises to uphold the sovereignty of other countries and its approach of maintaining friendly, mutually convenient relationship with other countries, including India. But, on issues from border disputes, searching queries of seeking to build dams on a river which flows into India, and on its often observed silence on terrorism from Pakistan – on which most other countries are supportive of Indian position, China’s acts seem to indicate an inherent perspective of antipathy towards the success of most Indian approaches and its internal political paradigm.  

A political ordeal at Maldives
The latest issue seems to be surrounding the island country of Maldives. A very popular tourist destination, known for its natural beauty and eco-friendly infrastructure, the island nation has maintained an historically close relationship with India. It has also looked toward India for support during its times of potential social and political ordeals. India has appropriately responded to that country’s woes. However, with increasing internal political rivalry among that country’s two major political parties, external relations of that country, and specifically cordial relationship with India, appears to have become subject to controversy. The present dispensation of Maldives, under the leadership of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, in what appears to be purely to continue and cement its own political position in that country, has upped the ante of anti-Indian statements and acts.

The consequent effect of it has been that the current President of Maldives is keen and has potentially extended the duration of his rule through an “Emergency” measure. It is purely to keep his political opponents on a tight leash and possibly to display his positions of dare against India. In this, he is increasingly trying to ignore India by making statements which give out an impression that the Maldivian President is interested to strengthen Maldives’ relationship with Beijing, in order to somewhat neutralise New Delhi’s closeness to the country. There have been disturbances in Maldives’ capital city Male. It all began with a ruling of that country’s Supreme Court that stated that the government should release political prisoners and reinstate the elected members of the Maldivian Parliament.

That, feared the President, would give the opposition a majority in the country’s central legislature, thereby signalling a conclusion to his current stint in power. To prevent it all, the President appears to endeavour to forcibly put forward his resoluteness to stay in power through acts, which risk the accusation of being arbitrary.

India has been a benevolent patron of stability in Maldives. In this there is a democracy factor. Notwithstanding some lingering, yet serious shortcomings in the functioning of Indian democracy, and its attendant undesirable acts, it seems that the Indian democratic approach assists India to strike a truly symbiotic relationship with other countries, to begin with. Nevertheless, this is not to say that democratic countries are above reproach in the practice of their respective foreign policy. Neither is this an endeavour to allude that all and every aspect of Indian foreign policy, past and present, is beyond the pale of culpability. But, more than anything else, Indian foreign policy has insisted on non-intervention and genuinely good relationship with most countries of the comity of nations.

A benevolent, constructive Indian policy for Maldives
However, it is to Indian interests, that when unnecessary signs of obstacles to Indian interests or needless hostility toward India are displayed, it not be countenanced by any measure. Surely, India cannot allow itself to be made to something akin to a scapegoat by others, when they are in a detriment of their own making. So it is with Maldives. India has always sought stability, progress and economic uplift of Maldives. Furthermore, it has been its steady guarantor of security. When a risk of coup appeared on Maldivian political horizon in 1988, India took effective steps to thwart that liability and ensured that stable, civilian leadership continued in that island nation.

However, to emphasize his potential anti-Indian position, the Maldivian President seems to be inclined to also let it be known publicly that talks for the possibility of a “Chinese sea station” in Maldives is on. Would a “joint ocean observation station” be built through agreement between China and Maldives on the country’s northern atoll of Makunudhoo? If so, then that would be clear threat to Indian security as that potential site is rather close to arena of Indian interests within the Indian Ocean.

Hopefully, India would act effectively and reasonably to it. Moreover, the current Maldivian President would be well advised to realise that inviting Chinese security cooperation to neutralise Indian influence and above all else to protect his political interest, is probably not a feasible or wise step. The political opposition in Maldives realises this and is stating so. There are no reasons to infer that the Maldivian President is not aware of it, notwithstanding his outward acts.

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