Change in post-poll Maldives
India stands better chance to recover lost ground in the island nation
Winds of change have started blowing in the Maldives after the September 23 presidential elections, which saw the defeat of former President Abdulla Yameen who ruled the tiny island nation with an iron hand for five years from 2013. Even after he was defeated by Maldivian Democratic Party candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the country was abuzz with the rumour that Yameen would try to cling on to power arbitrarily. Fortunately, the doomsday sayers were proved wrong and Solih is going to be sworn in on November 17.
Already, imprisoned former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been released from jail. This happened within a week of the election. Now, the Election Commission of the Maldives has threatened to sue the ruling Maldives Progressive Party for defamation, which was unthinkable even a few weeks ago. The MPP had accused the EC of massively rigging the election in favour of Solih. The poll body has taken strong offence to this baseless charge.
Exiled president Mohamed Nasheed, now living in Sri Lanka, is expected to return to his country soon. He has demanded that all the agreements that Yameen Government had entered into with China between 2013 and 2018 be reviewed. This has immediately provoked Beijing into coming out with an angry response. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said that "If certain forces wantonly harm Chinese interests out of political purposes, China will firmly oppose it and resolutely protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises."
China signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Maldives last year. Beijing has lent to the Maldives $1.5 billion for the construction of three mega projects. In the first six months of the current year, China surpassed India as the second biggest exporter to the Maldives, next only to the United Arab Emirates. There is a growing fear that in not-too-distant a future, the Maldives may find itself caught in a debt trap, as Sri Lanka did. China is determined to keep the Maldives under its economic domination.
The strategic location of Maldives in the Indian Ocean is such that it is far too important for both India and China. The island stands in the route through which the transportation of nearly two-thirds of the world oil trade takes place. In the context of the growing Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean, both countries want to get a strong foothold here. Even Pakistan is trying to spread its influence on the Maldives, a Muslim country.
Over the years, the Maldives' dependence on China has increased heavily. The Maldives Independent daily reported on May 17 this year that Chinese lending is putting the Maldives at the risk of 'debt distress', that is, a condition when the debtor country cannot pay back the debt. The daily quoted from a study report by the Centre for Global Development, which says China is "heavily involved" in three major projects in the Maldives.
The first is an upgradation of the international airport costing about $830 million and the development of a new Population Centre and bridge near the airport, which will cost another $400 million. Then there is the relocation of a major port. Besides, the Maldives government also stands guarantee for another Chinese loan of $370 million. The terms of the lending have not been put in the public domain by either side. The country's total overseas debt now totals over $1 billion. The debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to 26 per cent.
The five-year rule of Abdulla Yameen saw India-Maldives relations nosedive in all spheres. Imports from India stagnated at 11 per cent while imports from China rose from 2.9 per cent to 8.1 per cent. Solih will have to restore a balance of relations between the two giant neighbours, India and China. For India, it is essential that it recover the ground lost to China and bring Indo-Maldives relations on an even keel.
There are many areas in which India and the Maldives can cooperate. Making the island attractive for Indian tourists is one. The scenic beauty of Maldives is legendary. It is known as the 'paradise of the tropics'. The political turmoil that marked the Yameen rule hit hard the tourism industry. Tourism accounts for a third of the Maldives' GDP, which stood at $3.5 billion in 2017. Bookings in hotels were cancelled by thousands of foreign tourists from India, China, the United States etc. Normally, nearly 60,000 Indian tourists used to visit the Maldives every year. It fell sharply during the last half a decade. With conditions stabilising under Solih, foreign tourist traffic is expected to pick up gradually.
There is no denying the fact that the Maldives is caught in the Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India should extend every possible help to the new government of the Maldives under Solih and give greater emphasis on developing people-to-people contact between the two countries to neutralise China's influence.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)