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An Ex-President, 'India Out' & China: Why is Jaishankar's Maldives Trip Vital?

Abdulla Yameen, a former president currently leading an anti-India campaign, was recently freed from house arrest.

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An Ex-President, 'India Out' & China: Why is Jaishankar's Maldives Trip Vital?
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Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India's external affairs minister, completed an eventful trip to the Maldives on Sunday, 27 March.

Along with regional security and maritime safety issues, he reportedly discussed "socio-economic development, trade and investment, and also tourism" with his counterpart Abdulla Shahid, the foreign minister of the archipelagic nation.

There are, however, other factors at play here. The "India Out" campaign is regaining momentum in the country, especially after Abdulla Yameen, the former Maldivian president, was released from house arrest three months ago.

The spectre of China may be another reason why India is signing pacts on socio-economic development and reiterating the importance of defence cooperation.

What is "India Out", and why is Jaishankar's visit important? Read on.

An Ex-President, 'India Out' & China: Why is Jaishankar's Maldives Trip Vital?

  1. 1. 'India Out'

    The first thing to understand about the Maldives is that foreign policy plays a key role in its economy, thereby playing a key role in its elections.

    The foreign policy of the current Maldives government, led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is very friendly to India. The friendliness is often characterised by his rivals as "over-reliance".

    During an email interview with The Hindu, however, Solih had said that it is not over-reliance to move away from "an isolationist foreign policy" to "strengthen our national security and increase respect for us as a sovereign country".

    Nevertheless, since he assumed office, the "India Out" campaign has been quite active, especially on social media.

    It is led by critics of the Solih government, who accuse it of compromising Maldivian sovereignty by allowing the Indian military to be present in the country.

    What is important to note is that the Indian military does not have a base in the Maldives. It only maintains and trains the flight crew of three surveillance aircraft used by the country's defence forces. There is also an Indian military medical team at a military hospital.

    Another source of tension is the UTF (Uthuru Thila Falhu) Harbour Project agreement that was signed between India and the Maldives in February last year.

    According to the agreement, India would develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at UTF, situated close to the capital, Malé.

    Local Maldivian media began speculating that the UTF project would be turned into a naval base for India. The Maldivian Defence Ministry has repeatedly clarified that this will not be the case.

    One more issue often raised by the "India Out" campaigners is the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) that the Maldives got from India in 2010 and in 2015.

    The choppers are meant for search-and-rescue operations and maritime weather surveillance, but "India Out" protestors cite this as evidence of the Indian military's increasing presence in the country.

    Expand
  2. 2. The Significance of the Maldives

    The Maldives is located on the Indian Ocean, and is between the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca, which are two of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

    A huge portion of world trade takes place via the Indian Ocean and most of the energy supplies that arrive from Gulf nations to Southeast Asia pass through this route.

    The location of the Maldives at this intersection of commercial sea routes makes it important to India, and naturally, to China.

    The Maldives is also a member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and India enjoys Maldivian support within the organisation.

    Relations between the nations have been extremely tight since 1988, when the Indian government led by Rajiv Gandhi prevented a coup (Operation Cactus) from taking place against the then president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

    It was only between 2012 and 2018 when Indo-Maldivian relations became a little tense, thanks to the pro-China foreign policy of two presidents – Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen.

    Even then, the two nations remained close and Yameen's current "India Out" campaign, experts say, is aimed at nothing more than winning the 2024 elections. Yameen knows the significance of India to the Maldives with respect to defence and socio-economic cooperation.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Return of Abdulla Yameen

    Abdulla Yameen (president from 2013 to 2018), along with his party, the Progressive Party of Maldives, is known to have a pro-China stance, given that his government pivoted towards Beijing despite Malé having extremely tight ties with New Delhi for over two decades.

    His five-year rule was characterised by widespread human rights violations, suppression of free speech, and a crackdown on dissent. Human Rights Watch had called his style of governance an "all-out assault on democracy".

    Yameen was released from house arrest in December last year after the Supreme Court of the Maldives overturned his conviction. He had been convicted of corruption and money laundering in November 2019.

    His return to Maldivian politics will no doubt influence the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections.

    But it is also likely to have an effect on relations between the Maldives and India. A few days after Yameen got his freedom back, his party, the PPM, began escalating the "India Out" campaign with posters and press releases with his pictures all over them.

    "The 'India Out' campaign has become more politically active because now they have a leader, a strong face, with Yameen. That wasn't there before. Now it is no longer a civil society movement. It is definitely a political movement," Gulbin Sultana, an expert on Maldivian affairs, told The Indian Express.

    Expand
  4. 4. The China Factor

    Bilateral relations between China and the Maldives go back to 1972. Until 2013, their relationship was fairly limited to Chinese projects across the country.

    Then Yameen came to power. It was also the year in which China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched. The Yameen government endorsed it after Xi Jinping's trip to Malé.

    Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the road constructions, housing, bridges and tourism among other projects.

    The Yameen government also borrowed millions from China to boost the country's economy. By the time that government was voted out of power, the estimated worth of the Maldives' debt to China was between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion.

    When Solih defeated Yameen and came to power, his administration turned to India instead of China.

    Therefore, preventing Chinese influence over the Maldives has become a strategic goal for India, given its strategic relevance in the Indo-Pacific.

    India seems to have the upper hand in this, as of now. Indo-Maldivian relations since 1988 have been far too close for China to just swoop in and turn the tables overnight. Jaishankar's trip also seems to have worked well in this regard.

    What we should watch out for in the next few months is how prominent of a role Yameen plays in Maldivian politics. That could give us a clue about whether the country's geopolitics is headed.

    (With inputs from The Hindu and the Indian Express.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

'India Out'

The first thing to understand about the Maldives is that foreign policy plays a key role in its economy, thereby playing a key role in its elections.

The foreign policy of the current Maldives government, led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, is very friendly to India. The friendliness is often characterised by his rivals as "over-reliance".

During an email interview with The Hindu, however, Solih had said that it is not over-reliance to move away from "an isolationist foreign policy" to "strengthen our national security and increase respect for us as a sovereign country".

Nevertheless, since he assumed office, the "India Out" campaign has been quite active, especially on social media.

It is led by critics of the Solih government, who accuse it of compromising Maldivian sovereignty by allowing the Indian military to be present in the country.

What is important to note is that the Indian military does not have a base in the Maldives. It only maintains and trains the flight crew of three surveillance aircraft used by the country's defence forces. There is also an Indian military medical team at a military hospital.

Another source of tension is the UTF (Uthuru Thila Falhu) Harbour Project agreement that was signed between India and the Maldives in February last year.

According to the agreement, India would develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at UTF, situated close to the capital, Malé.

Local Maldivian media began speculating that the UTF project would be turned into a naval base for India. The Maldivian Defence Ministry has repeatedly clarified that this will not be the case.

One more issue often raised by the "India Out" campaigners is the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALF) that the Maldives got from India in 2010 and in 2015.

The choppers are meant for search-and-rescue operations and maritime weather surveillance, but "India Out" protestors cite this as evidence of the Indian military's increasing presence in the country.

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The Significance of the Maldives

The Maldives is located on the Indian Ocean, and is between the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca, which are two of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

A huge portion of world trade takes place via the Indian Ocean and most of the energy supplies that arrive from Gulf nations to Southeast Asia pass through this route.

The location of the Maldives at this intersection of commercial sea routes makes it important to India, and naturally, to China.

The Maldives is also a member of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and India enjoys Maldivian support within the organisation.

Relations between the nations have been extremely tight since 1988, when the Indian government led by Rajiv Gandhi prevented a coup (Operation Cactus) from taking place against the then president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

It was only between 2012 and 2018 when Indo-Maldivian relations became a little tense, thanks to the pro-China foreign policy of two presidents – Mohammed Waheed Hassan and Abdulla Yameen.

Even then, the two nations remained close and Yameen's current "India Out" campaign, experts say, is aimed at nothing more than winning the 2024 elections. Yameen knows the significance of India to the Maldives with respect to defence and socio-economic cooperation.

The Return of Abdulla Yameen

Abdulla Yameen (president from 2013 to 2018), along with his party, the Progressive Party of Maldives, is known to have a pro-China stance, given that his government pivoted towards Beijing despite Malé having extremely tight ties with New Delhi for over two decades.

His five-year rule was characterised by widespread human rights violations, suppression of free speech, and a crackdown on dissent. Human Rights Watch had called his style of governance an "all-out assault on democracy".

Yameen was released from house arrest in December last year after the Supreme Court of the Maldives overturned his conviction. He had been convicted of corruption and money laundering in November 2019.

His return to Maldivian politics will no doubt influence the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections.

But it is also likely to have an effect on relations between the Maldives and India. A few days after Yameen got his freedom back, his party, the PPM, began escalating the "India Out" campaign with posters and press releases with his pictures all over them.

"The 'India Out' campaign has become more politically active because now they have a leader, a strong face, with Yameen. That wasn't there before. Now it is no longer a civil society movement. It is definitely a political movement," Gulbin Sultana, an expert on Maldivian affairs, told The Indian Express.

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The China Factor

Bilateral relations between China and the Maldives go back to 1972. Until 2013, their relationship was fairly limited to Chinese projects across the country.

Then Yameen came to power. It was also the year in which China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched. The Yameen government endorsed it after Xi Jinping's trip to Malé.

Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the road constructions, housing, bridges and tourism among other projects.

The Yameen government also borrowed millions from China to boost the country's economy. By the time that government was voted out of power, the estimated worth of the Maldives' debt to China was between $1.1 billion and $1.4 billion.

When Solih defeated Yameen and came to power, his administration turned to India instead of China.

Therefore, preventing Chinese influence over the Maldives has become a strategic goal for India, given its strategic relevance in the Indo-Pacific.

India seems to have the upper hand in this, as of now. Indo-Maldivian relations since 1988 have been far too close for China to just swoop in and turn the tables overnight. Jaishankar's trip also seems to have worked well in this regard.

What we should watch out for in the next few months is how prominent of a role Yameen plays in Maldivian politics. That could give us a clue about whether the country's geopolitics is headed.

(With inputs from The Hindu and the Indian Express.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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