A few days before India celebrated its Independence Day (August 15) the Maldives envoy in New Delhi ‘reminded’ his host nation that Male wanted India to withdraw its two military helicopters and the service personnel stationed in the island nation. This terse message was first conveyed to Delhi in July after the agreement for stationing Indian helicopters expired in June this year.
This development is a reflection of a steady downward spiral in the India-Maldives bilateral relationship that has been troubled for some years.
The bilateral relationship between India and the smallest SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) member, Maldives (population 417,000), has become a victim of the domestic political discord within the island state. It may be recalled that current President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom who assumed office in November 2013 has suppressed all dissent and political opposition in the Maldives and governed with an iron hand. This culminated with the arrest of opposition leaders and even the Chief Justice of the country in February this year.
New Delhi along with many other nations had expressed their dismay at this turn of events and had advocated an immediate release of those imprisoned and a return to the dialogue process in the furtherance of the democratic principle. Clearly this was not acceptable to the Maldivian leader who saw this as an affront to him and ever since President Yameen has adopted an intense anti-India stance.
The return of the helicopters apart, there have been many political and diplomatic snubs aimed at Delhi by Male over the last year and this is ironic, considering that almost 30 years ago – to the date – in November 1988, India had mounted an extraordinary military operation (Cactus) to avert a mercenary coup that was seeking to overthrow then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – half-bother of the current President.
The sub-text of Maldives cocking a snook, as it were at India, has to do with the China card, which refers to the manner in which Beijing is making steady inroads into the Indian periphery over the last decade.
This has included the opening of Chinese missions where they did not exist – Maldives is a case in point – and tacitly signalling that the smaller neighbours have a supportive ‘big brother’ in Beijing.
It may be recalled that the 17 th SAARC Summit was held in the Maldives on November 10, 2011 and two days prior to this major regional event, Beijing opened its embassy in Male. The politico- diplomatic signal was clear – Beijing had decided to increase its foot- print in the Indian Ocean region and the strategic geography of these small islands was being acknowledged.
In September 2014, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit the island nation and the domestic political environment allowed Beijing to ‘invest’ in the local leadership. In December 2017, Beijing rolled out the red carpet for the Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and to India’s chagrin – Male signed its first FTA (free trade agreement) with China. Traditionally India has been a major trading partner for the Maldives and Delhi has been the first-provider of critical aid and assistance over the decades. But the India-first option for Male has now been slanted in favor of China.
Given the critical location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and China’s long term global maritime aspirations now subsumed in the ambitious Xi Jinping led BRI (Belt-Road-Initiative), there is a certain strategic logic and compulsion to Beijing investing in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and now Djibouti.
Cumulatively this “Maldives syndrome” and the steady increase in Chinese presence in the Indian neighbourhood has resulted in a relative shrinking of New Delhi’s profile. This has diluted the natural primacy accorded to India that was taken as an existential reality of South Asia.
Over the last decade, China’s political, trade-economic and military foot-print in the Indian  neighbourhood is being enhanced in a visible manner. Traditionally, it was Pakistan that was seen as the “all- weather” ally of China and the Sino-Pak bilateral remains a deep and opaque strategic partnership that includes WMD (weapons of mass destruction) cooperation. Over the last decade, China is emerging as a major benefactor for all of India's neighbors.China has evolved a regional template for southern Asia with a clear maritime and land connectivity focus as part of the BRI and many SAARC nations have signed up to this macro connectivity project.
Paradoxically the success, or lack thereof of the BRI will be determined to a considerable extent by the stance that India adopts. Currently India has distanced itself from the BRI due to the territorial sovereignty issues related to the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and this will be a major item on the bilateral agenda in the near future.
With a population of a billion plus and an economic trajectory that projects India as the world’s third largest GDP within a decade (next to China and the USA), it would be imprudent for China to trample over Delhi’s core national interests and sensitivities within the SAARC region. That would be the normative logic in the event the Xi Jinping “dream” is able to envision a China and Asia rising together in tandem. This would also enable the realisation of the “Asian century” wherein China and India would be among the three top global economies in the run up to 2050.
However this exigency, promising as it is, will have to navigate the complex Maldives syndrome – that is the degree to which India and China will either compete or cooperate in the extended south Asian neighborhood. The smaller nations, including Maldives, are uneasy about getting into a debt-trap with Beijing and the Sri Lankan example, where Colombo has had to hand over a port facility for 99 years to a Chinese entity is a case in point.
Maldives is expected to “elect” its leader on September 23 and the outcome will have implications that go beyond the destiny of its tiny population.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)