Maldives: A strategic pawn in the Indo-Pacific great game
Maldives is one of those nations in South Asia which has been lavish in the praise of Indian people’s benevolence and generosity – both in happy and trying times, even though smaller neighbours generally feel intimidated by the sheer size and intent of a country like India, fearing a sovereignty grab anytime. Since the establishment of diplomatic relationship in 1966, New Delhi has endeavoured to nurture the unequal, though sensitive, India-Maldives bilateral tie with utmost tenderness, so much so that Maldivians were never compelled to hit the streets or take to social media for voicing their concern about possible usurpation of sovereign rights by the giant neighbour, even a decade ago.
During the 1988 coup d'état attempt in Male, the citizenry showed unparalleled love and admiration for the stationed Indian military personnel because of their impeccable conduct, with local families inviting officers to have meals together. However, after the Hindu right-wing nationalists grabbed power with a brute majority in the 2014 national election, the course of India’s neighbourhood policy took a curious turn. Notwithstanding the fact that who’s who from the neighbouring countries graced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anointment ceremony, the crux of India’s foreign policy turned muscular overnight, registering a radical shift from the pacifist foundation of non-interference. In fact, an aggressive version of cultural nationalism, with a subterranean agenda of establishing Akhand Bharat – a unified South Asia under Indian suzerainty – somewhere along the line, has subtly shaped India’s foreign policy in the past seven years. Professed by the country’s current set of rulers, this sub-regional concept of unifying smaller nations under Modi’s “Hindutva” umbrella has found resonance in Indian diplomats’ official utterances too. Indian High Commissioner to Maldives Sunjay Sudhir’s reference to India and Maldives being “one nation” in an official tweet, causing a great domestic furore in the host country, amply reflects diplomatic insensitivity, and confirms that New Delhi’s public diplomacy outreach too is coloured by the expansionist neo-Hindutva agenda.
Meanwhile, the United States met Modi’s India’s muscle-flexing halfway by carving out a “Western Indian Ocean” theatre – encompassing the geographical limits, including territorial waters, of Somalia, Kenya, Madagascar, Comoros, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania with an outstretched jurisdiction extending from the west coast of India to the east coast of Africa – over which the two parties will have converging geostrategic interests. After all, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros and Maldives’ Addu are already under Indian radar as New Delhi is investing heavily on creating permanent security infrastructure in these strategically crucial island nations keeping in mind its fledgling role in the vast Indo-Pacific region.
Moreover, as a quid pro quo for Washington’s tactical move to make India the linchpin of a vital sea corridor consisting of Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and the east African coast, New Delhi literally pushed Male into America’s strategic ambit in the Indo-Pacific. This gambit will also help New Delhi counter Beijing’s significant naval presence, Pakistan’s expanding sub-aquatic warfare capability and Iran’s tilt toward the Russia-China axis. The 2020 Maldives-U.S. defence framework agreement entails deployment of American troops on Maldivian soil as and when necessary, and convert the picturesque archipelago into a launching pad for military operations against perceived adversaries.
A former Maldivian defence minister in a communication with this writer had expressed categorical apprehension of this move likely endangering peace and stability in his country and beyond in the context of rapid militarization of Indian Ocean’s blue waters. Indeed, what is happening in the extended region contravenes the spirit of Sri Lanka sponsored UN General Assembly Resolution 2832, that designates the Indian Ocean as a “zone of peace” and restricts all forms of military presence, including bases, installations and logistic supply facilities. The UN therefore is the only independent global forum capable of dispensing justice to a beleaguered people fearing entrapment in the brewing “great war” originating in the Indo-Pacific. But it is a million-dollar question if the intergovernmental organization seriously wants its resolutions to be implemented and enforced on the ground.
While ordinary Maldivians seethes in anger over India’s attempt to put enough boots on the ground in Addu, in the form of commissioning a listening post that will operate under diplomatic cover, apart from deploying a special forces contingent in the southernmost atoll peeping into the southern hemisphere, the current dispensation in Male is however open to fealty.
In May 2019, Maldives voted against a UN General Assembly motion seeking Mauritius’ complete decolonization, which in fact is seen as a precursor to letting Addu become a crucial link in the Diego Garcia, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar comprised alternative “islands chain” crucial to exercising tactical supremacy in the busy Indian Ocean Sea lanes situated to the west of Malacca Straits. Ironically, New Delhi is supposed to be the colonial agent in this Anglo-American sponsored geo-strategic architecture, seeking benefit from the trickle-down effect. Clearly, India’s perception management in the regional periphery has failed to undo the wrongs that led to souring of a fairly vibrant relationship with Maldives. No doubt, neighbours will find it difficult to trust a regime which behaves like land sharks and remains busy isolating a segment of its own people from the mainstream, domestically, because of their faith. When closer home, in India’s coral atolls of Lakshadweep, Maldivians witnesses a frightening dispossession of indigenous people through forceful imposition of draconian laws meant to subsume unique cultural identity and ancestral lands, surely their insecurity is bound to aggravate.