The Maldives’ former president and now exiled leader, Mohammad Nasheed, talking to The Wire recently, emphatically said, “India should be more engaged. It is India’s neighborhood.” Nasheed has been frantically calling for India’s intervention, stopping short of “Indian boots on Male,” to press President Abdullah Yameen to restore democracy and normalcy in the Maldives. The political storm currently sweeping across the island nation in the Indian Ocean started after President Yameen defied a Supreme Court decision to free opposition leaders he had jailed. Moreover, he imposed a state of emergency in response and also got two judges as well as former president and his estranged half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom arrested.
The political volatility inside the Maldives has a regional dimension, with both India and China being invested in the region. Maldives’ geographical location undoubtedly puts it in India’s conception of its strategic backyard and its natural sphere of influence. On the other hand, China’s rising aspirations to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean Region primarily through infrastructure investments makes the Maldives a natural partner in Beijing’s scheme of things. For Male, like for any smaller country, it makes strategic sense to hedge its bets between China and India.
Dealing with its backyard will be a permanent foreign policy headache for India and the crisis in the Maldives is no different. Neither will this be the first time that New Delhi has been found wanting in its ability to control outcomes in its neighborhood, nor will this be the last.
Male’s foreign policy orientation under Yameen has put New Delhi into a familiar conundrum of trying to affect favorable outcomes while underplaying its image of a “big brother” in its neighborhood. As in many other South Asian countries in recent times, China’s ability to create incentives for the Maldives to depend on Beijing’s economic largesse has eaten into India’s strategic space in the region. For instance, Maldives has become the second country in South Asia after Pakistan to enter into a Free Trade Agreement with China despite Maldives’ principal opposition party being unhappy with the rushed manner in which it was passed in the Maldivian parliament. Much to India’s chagrin, Maldives has also signed up for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Male also signed a deal to upgrade its international airport with a Chinese company after unceremoniously scrapping the one with India’s GMR. Moreover, the news of Maldives declining an invitation to join the multinational Milan naval exercise to be hosted by India does not portend well for New Delhi’s re-energized Indian Ocean diplomacy, to establish itself as a net security provider and its aim to counter China’s unilateral forays into the Indian Ocean Region.
India has shown its displeasure with the way things have gone down under Yameen’s tenure by often giving political bandwidth to his nemesis, former President Nasheed. In response to the current crisis, New Delhi has made its annoyance known by declining a visit by a special envoy of President Yameen. Besides calling for the safety and security of Indian expatriates in the Maldives, a statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs clearly sided with the decision of the Maldivian Supreme Court. On the other hand, China has taken an expected line, stating that it does not believe in interfering in the internal affairs of Maldives and that it believes that the government of Maldives and its people have the “wisdom and ability to appropriately handle the issue facing them and return the country to normal order in accordance with the law.”
The rise in India’s material capabilities has certainly improved its overall position in the region and globally. However, to what extent New Delhi can translate its material growth and diplomatic resources to influence its neighborhood remains in doubt. India’s ability to do so in the Maldives will face two obstacles. One, China’s strategic drive and capability to increase its influence beyond its immediate sphere of influence into the Indian Ocean Region. Two, Maldives’ own strategic rationale to balance its power asymmetry against India by ramping up its ties with China.
The travails of democratic transitions in India’s neighborhood, whether in Nepal or in the Maldives, have deep foreign policy implications for India. The emerging dynamics in the Maldives portend a trial by fire for a government that has professed a neighborhood first policy from day one. What could New Delhi do to raise the cost for governments in the region to act in ways detrimental to its interests? While military intervention by India in its neighborhood is not unprecedented, as seen in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and in Operation Cactus in the Maldives in 1988, New Delhi’s ability to control and sustain political assets over a period of time has been anything but satisfactory. Time and again, India’s ability to shape outcomes in its so-called sphere of influence has been found to be severely limited. Whether this trend repeats in the case of the Maldives or India realizes its folly remains to be seen.
Image 2: Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images