Post-emergency crisis in Maldives escalated and international community began expressing their concerns over the deadlock. Hours after their arrest, Supreme Court judges under duress revoked the unanimous ruling of full bench overturning release of nine political prisoners and refuting their orders of retrials of all cases against them. This move officially foreclosed President Nasheed’s chances of contesting in the upcoming elections. Rattled Nasheed in an article in Indian Newspaper beseeched India to intervene. He cautioned the international community that “In his (Yameen) endless quest to enrich himself, he has sold off nation’s sovereignty. Foreign powers, among them China, are engaged in a “land grab” of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure and even essential utilities. This landgrab not only undermines the independence of Maldives, but the security of entire Indian Ocean Region. Under President Yameen religious radicals have quietly moved into key positions in the government, security services and institutions. There is a state with the state-a network of radicals lurking in the shadows waiting to overrun the government”. He urged India to act soon, to force Yameen into accepting Supreme Court’s decision ensuring the conduct of free and fair elections under international monitoring.
Spurred by ambitions of power projection in Indian Ocean, China eyed Maldives and established embassy in 2011 during the Presidentship of Nasheed. Ever since, there has been a massive upsurge in the scale of Chinese association with the largest Island chain. Even the enormity of Beijing’s influence in Maldivian politic has increased steadily. While the world severely condemned the sudden ouster of Nasheed and questioned the credibility of Waheed who was installed in his place, China backed him. This move cemented Maldives pivot towards China. In reciprocation, Waheed cancelled a $511 million contract awarded to Indian firm GMR group for development of Male International Airport and was awarded to Chinese company Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUGC) for $800 million by Yameen. GMR eventually reclaimed only a paltry $270 million as compensation when it pulled up Maldivian government to court for cancelling the contract. China filled Maldives coffers to pay compensation amount. It is also believed China granted $500 million (roughly 25% of Maldives GDP) in funds to Waheed on his visit to China.
By September 2014, when presidents of both Maldives and China exchanged visits, Maldives agreed to be part of the Maritime Silk Route (MSR). President Xi on his at visit to Male, laid foundation stone for the construction of 1500 houses at Hulhumale, nicknamed as Chinatown Ever since, an overwhelming of Chinese influence with signposts in Mandarin, hotels, restaurants run by Chinese on the archipelago became ubiquitous. China soon replaced Europe as the largest source of tourists to Maldives. A 30% surge in Chinese tourists reiterated symptomatic Chinese expansionism. China had even clinched a contract to build Gadhoo port in Southern Atolls and China-Maldives Friendship bridge that connects Male to Ibrahim Nasir international airport at Hulhumale. Yameen raised $800 million for development of Ibrahim Nasir airport from EXIM Bank of China and Saudi Arabia. China is keen on gaining control over Gadhoo airport for its proximity to US base Diego Garcia. In 2015, Yameen tailored a constitutional amendment facilitating Chinese inveterate land grab. Holding toast to Chinese friendship, in August 2017, disregarding Indian concerns, Yameen allowed docking of three Chinese warships in Male.
China steadily expanded its hold over Maldivian economy. Since 2008, Maldivian imports increased 200% turning it into a vassal state of China and bilateral trade became awfully skewed. Giving fresh impetus to trade ties, both countries signed of Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as Maldives believed that FTA is expected to boost its fishing industry. The drama leading to signing of FTA in December 2017, on Yameen’s visit to Beijing and the secrecy that loomed large raised more suspicions. Parliamentarians were denied access to the FTA documents, government allowed less than half an hour to approve 1000 pages plus document. It was passed in parliament (with total strength of 85) with just 30 votes. President Yameen during his New Delhi visit in 2016 assured that Delhi would be first country with which Maldives will sign FTA. But made a massive U-turn signed an FTA with China and later sent an envoy, Minister Mohammed Asim to India reaffirming his government’s adherence to Maldives “India First Policy and emphasized that Maldives attached highest priority to its ties with India”.
Economically unviable infrastructure projects, non-concessionary Chinese grants bloated the debit to GDP ratio of Maldives which has transitioned into Middle Income Nation from Least Developed Country in 2011. Currently over 70% of Maldives debt is owed to China becoming second south Asian nation to be ensnared by debt diplomacy of China after Sri Lanka. Highlighting the enormity of grievous economic situation Nasheed in his interview to TOI said “The loan interest is more that 20% of Maldives budget”. While parallels are already drawn between the fate of Gadhoo port of Maldives and Hambantota of Sri Lanka, Maldives is akin to Pakistan, another Chinese vassal state. Similar fate is awaiting Pakistan which has become major partner of BRI through CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) is expected to pay $90 billion debt to China over the next 30 years. Yet another feature common to Pakistan and Maldives that abets their tilt towards the Dragon is its abominable disregard for liberal values, human rights and democratic values. In recent times, authoritarian and undemocratic regimes of small countries are seeking shelter of illiberal behemoth to escape the wrath of the West. Further China always had close ties with OIC (Organization for Islamic Cooperation), an organization of 56 Muslim countries. In the past few decades, China with its economic might rapidly expanded its influence among smaller countries headed by despotic leaders by offering to build infrastructure facilities without any regard to rule of law. Even the authoritarian rulers are getting increasingly attracted towards China’s “authoritarian capitalism”. Many countries are now embracing China’s developmental model. Especially the East European countries like Poland, Hungary and South East Asian countries- Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia are now keen on following Chinese footsteps.
Besides, China after gaining adequate economic leverage in countries started exerting great control over domestic politics. The scintillating example of overthrowing Zimbabwean President Mugabe by leaders propped by Dragon stands testimony to China’s interference. Even the regimes in Angola and Ethiopia regimes have come under Chinese influence. Australia and New Zealand plagued by burgeoning Chinese influence in politics have ordered serious investigations. Yameen’s hardened stance despite international appeals to honor Supreme Court’s decision inadvertently confirmed China’s support to an illiberal Maldivian government.
Responding to Maldivian crisis Indian spokesperson observed, “It is imperative for all organs of the government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court”. China which not only took objection to India’s statement and Maldivian opposition clamor for Indian intervention, through its official mouth piece Global Times, argued, “Political struggles are supposed to be internal affairs and New Delhi has no justification to intervene in Male’s affairs. The Maldives must be under huge pressure from India. The Maldives sovereignty should be respected. The political unrest should be left to the Maldivian people to address. We urge all sides in the country to exercise restraint and end the crisis at the minimum cost, striking the correct balance between legal and government authority”. Mincing no words, it added, India’s involvement would be akin to invasion. China’s indifference to Yameen’s absolutism has buttressed his position who has sent envoys to friendly countries which included- China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Maldivian Ambassador to India told Reuters that the government wanted to send a special envoy to India but the dates were not suitable for the Indian Foreign Ministry.
Reposing great faith in India’s role as the regional security provider Nasheed has consistently pleaded “Maldivians see India’s role positively: in 88 they came, they resolved the crisis and left. They were not occupiers but liberators. That is why Maldivians took to India now” against Chinese false propaganda that India has been manipulating Maldives and harbors a strong desire to control south Asian countries. Yesterday Maldivian government arrested two journalists from AFP, private television channel including an Indian and suspended the local Rajje Television from broadcasting. Yameen refused to meet delegates of diplomats from Britain, EU and Germany. Emboldened by Chinese support, Yameen is ruthlessly cracking down opposition and media.
While it continues to maintain that it never interferes in internal affairs of other countries, China’s warning that it doesn’t want Maldives to become a “flashpoint” clearly illustrates Dragon’s role in shaping Yameen’s regime. Meanwhile, Nasheed made a startling revelation that China have have taken control of 17 Maldivian islands and urged international convention to prevail over Chinese land grab. Maldives located along the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and 700km away has a crucial role in India’s security. India as of now is closely monitoring the situation in Maldives. Clearly, China with its massive economic clout not only emerged as a formidable land grabber but a formidable force supporting despotic regimes. It is time India joins hands with like-minded countries and regional players in reinstating democratic values to restore peace and order in Maldives.
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