In recent times, especially since President Abdulla Yameen assumed power in the Maldives, there has been a series of anti-India actions. The country has moved closer to China, imposed emergency and jailed political leaders while turning down Indian requests for participation in the Indian naval exercise, Milan.
Maldives also refused to send any delegation to the Indian defence expo and asked India to take back its Dhruv helicopter. It simultaneously welcomed the Pakistani army chief with open arms.
While most of these actions could have been ignored as the actions of a child seeking attention of both parents, India and China, as also playing one against the other, however the visit of the Pakistani army chief was possibly the last straw.
India would have ignored the visit, except that it comes at a time when Maldives is in a Chinese embrace and India was, as is the unwritten rule, not informed of the visit.
What irked India more was the announcement of joint patrolling of the Maldives Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), claims of which conflict with those of Sri Lanka.
Maldives had declared that no shipping vessel can enter its EEZ without prior permission of its government. It could never enforce it but involving the Pakistan navy is another issue.
Pakistan may not be able to deploy its ships on a permanent basis, as its navy presently lacks capacity, but the announcement irked India. Maldives turning down participation in Exercise Milan would not have been an issue, except that it participates in the Pakistan conducted bi-annual exercise, Aman.
Pakistan and Maldives even played out the religious card. The statement issued by the Maldivian President’s office after the visit of General Bajwa stated, “Noting that Pakistan and Maldives are two brotherly Muslim countries, the General emphasised on further cultivating ties of friendship”.
Pakistan went ahead and even offered to welcome members of the Maldivian National Counter-Terrorism Centre and providing military doctors to Maldives.
When Yameen declared emergency and requested India to accept a delegate to hear out reasons for this, India refused.
India even went ahead and conducted naval exercises close to the Maldives, which was being touted as a possible Indian military intervention in the country. Nasheed, the ex-President, now in self-exile in Sri Lanka, requested Indian interference, which India refused.
India however, along with the US and other western nations criticised the emergency, demanded its roll-back and sought the release of political prisoners, which Yameen refused. By moving closer to Pakistan, Yameen is now closing doors to India in multiple ways.
Indian decisions were also impacted by Chinese warnings. Chinese investments and the Maldives’ active participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ensure that China would never desire a regime change.
For China, any dictator following any policy is acceptable, provided he tows the Chinese line. As China’s close ally Pakistan wades in, it ensures that Maldives moves further away from India.
Chinese investments in Maldives are a repeat story of Pakistan or Sri Lanka, where unable to repay loans they get deeper and deeper into debt. Thus, Maldives is deep in the Chinese camp. Its offering China an uninhabited island for development into a tourist destination, in addition to other projects including construction of a bridge linking Male to its nearest island and the airport would have the country permanently indebted. It may, like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and possibly Myanmar end up providing a naval base to China, supporting its ‘String of Pearls’ policy.
The question is whether India has made made an error in its foreign policy judgement or have it adopted a wait-and-watch policy which could prove beneficial in time? Or has India by sticking to her ideals opened the doors for inimical nations to grab a foothold at her doorstep, enhancing threats.
Many analysts felt that India should have intervened militarily to restore democracy in Maldives after the declaration of emergency, removed the dictator regime of Yameen and sought to replace it with a government seen closer to India.
Military intervention in an internal issue of the Maldives would have damaged India’s reputation in the region. India may continue to be accepted as a military power, but would have been considered an unreliable neighbour, which waded in uninvited to remove a legally established government.
Indian intervention may have succeeded but would have pushed our other smaller neighbours into the Chinese lap. Nepal which already has a pro-China Oli in power, would have rushed deeper into China’s arms, solely to keep India at bay. The trust and respect which India has developed over the years in the neighbourhood would have been lost.
India erred from the time Yameen took power. It should have stopped supporting his predecessor and made efforts to adopt a realistic approach to diplomacy, rather than an idealist one.
Even when emergency was declared and the crackdown was in progress, it could have been more supportive and accepted the special envoy, even use him to convey a strong message.
It could have opened channels of communication and removed any fear of Indian intervention, which was being touted in Maldives as imminent. By ignoring the envoy, it closed all doors and deepened distrust. Maldives has retaliated by indicating its displeasure, assured of Chinese and Pakistani backing.
India has no option but to wait and watch. There may be a regime change some time in the future, but by then it may be too late. China would have entrenched itself so well that no government would ever be able to ignore it.
Maldives has clearly been an Indian foreign policy failure, based on our mistaken belief that we are too powerful in the sub-continent to be ignored. This lesson must sink in and we must learn from it in the days ahead.
We are likely to have similar issues with other South Asian nation in the future, hence must be careful to avoid pushing them too far. India should adopt a realistic foreign policy.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.