Maldives president-elect invites Modi, but India unlikely to get bonanza it expects
PK Balachandran, bdnews24.com Special Correspondent in Colombo/BDnews24
The Maldives president-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend his oath-taking ceremony in November.
Modi in turn has invited Solih to visit India, which the latter accepted, the Maldivian publication The Edition has reported.
Solih’s spokesperson Mariya Ahmed Didi said on Wednesday Modi was invited to the ceremony during a telephonic conversation between the two sides following Solih’s victory in the presidential elections on Sunday.
If Modi comes, it will be his first visit to the Maldives since he came to power in India in May 2014. He had been avoiding a trip to the Maldives because of strained relations since 2013 when the pro-China Abdulla Yameen became president.
But India is unlikely to get any significant benefits from the Sept 23 presidential election in the Maldives in which the avowedly “pro-Beijing and ant-Indian” incumbent Yameen suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the “pro-Indian and pro-Western” Solih.
The history of regime changes in other countries in South Asia shows that replacement of pro-Beijing regimes by supposedly pro-Indian or pro-Western regimes has not necessarily benefited the promoters or supporters of the regime changes in question.
In each and every case, China has come back, and that, on more favourable terms than before.
In the case of the Maldives, there are already signs that the Mohamed Nasheed-backed Solih government will tread cautiously vis-a-vis India.
New Delhi cannot expect bonanzas from the new government, though sweet words about “historical and cultural ties” will be uttered to keep New Delhi pleased.
The main reason for the Maldives leaders’ caution is that they are disappointed with India’s reluctance to back the movement for regime change fully at a time the opposition was desperate and hopeless.
While seeming to support regime change, New Delhi was quietly negotiating with Yameen to keep its strategic military assets in the island country and to draw it into its strategic net through participation in military exercises.
Nasheed had gone out of the way to warn New Delhi of the long term price it would have to pay for letting China get entrenched in the Maldives. He openly sought a “military-backed diplomatic intervention.” But New Delhi turned a deaf ear and the Indian defence minister denied his claim that she had a discussion with him.
This made Nasheed say that India’s diplomacy “lacked imagination”. New Delhi did not have the “capacity” to practise that kind of muscular diplomacy, he added.
When the European Union threatened sanctions if the presidential poll was not free and fair, New Delhi observed stony silence. India did not take any punitive action even when thousands of Indian workers were denied visas. Yameen’s brazen bid to get rid of the Indian navy helicopters and their crew was treated with kid gloves by Delhi.
It appeared as if all that India wanted from the Maldives was its cooperation in the military strategic field, and not democracy and human rights.
A disappointed Nasheed told The Hindu: “We have now come to an understanding that Indian diplomats and officials are very smart. We have learnt a fair bit from them. They too understand that we are smart.” Nasheed was signalling that Indians cannot take Maldivians for a ride.
Nasheed’s international spokesman Hamid Ghafoor made it clear that the new government’s policy on Chinese investments will be “pragmatic and principled.” And Nasheed had told The Hindu that the coalition as a whole will have to take a stand on the issue of Chinese investments, taking into account the government’s obligations in the contracts. He knows that Maldives had to cough up $280 million to the Indian company GMR for ending the contract to build the Male airport.
Therefore, the door is still open to China to come back to Maldives. Here are some examples of the Chinese being back.
In 2014 in Sri Lanka, the Western powers and India took advantage of a popular dislike for the pro-China president Mahinda Rajapaksa to plot his ouster. They helped the fractious opposition to unite and put up a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, who won the presidential election in January 2015.
However, the regime led by Sirisana and the hard boiled pro-Western Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was anti-China only for some months.
The new government did put controversial China-funded projects such as the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City and the $1.2 million Hambanota port under a scanner, and stalled them for a year and a half. But to the dismay of India and the West, Sri Lanka gave the projects back to China on terms more favourable to the Chinese than earlier.
The Chinese got back the Hambantota port with the lease increased from 35 years to 99 years. And with the debt being converted into equity, the Chinese became part owners of the port.
With little money coming from the West to help Sri Lanka’s balance of payments crisis and also to develop the country, Colombo had had to go in for more and more Chinese loans to build roads, houses, water supply schemes, and hospitals.
In July 2018, the debt to China stood at $5.5 billion. Recently it was announced that a further loan of $1 billion is being taken to build a road from Kurunegala to Polonnaruwa.
And while being partial to China, the supposedly pro-Indian government has been dragging its feet on a number of projects proposed by India, reflecting a deep rooted fear of Indian domination in Sri Lanka.
India backed the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that helped former pro-Chinese Maoist, Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, to come to power. But India-Nepal ties soured when Prachanda proposed a Nepal- India-China trilateral economic agreement.
In 2017, another government headed by the “India-friendly” Prachanda signed a contract with a Chinese firm Gezhouba for the 1200 MW $2.5 billion Budhi Gandaki hydropower project. India opposed it. When the pro-India Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba formed a government, the contract was cancelled.
However, with the coming back of pro-China KP Oli recently, Nepal revived the project and gave it back to the Chinese. India was dismayed but could do little about it. And disregarding India’s opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Nepal joined the BRI.
Nepal and China have also signed a trade and transit agreement which will enable Nepal to get access to seven of China’s ports and thus end the stranglehold of India on the landlocked country.
The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh is said to be the most pro-Indian government in South Asia. But still, aware of India’s deficiencies in executing large projects, Dhaka has given huge infrastructure projects to China. An example of this is the $3.4 billion bridge across the river Padma.
The Padma bridge project is only one of many Chinese funded projects on the cards which are of a total value of $30 billion. And like Nepal, Bangladesh is also officially a part of China’s BRI.
Given its size and historical background, India feels that it is entitled to sit at the high table in South Asia. But it does not have the requisite financial, technical and military power to enforce the purported right.
The Western powers would like India to be their point man and executing agent in the region. But India is too deficient in resources and political commitment to fulfil the expectations of its strategic partners.
India’s commitment to upholding human rights and democracy abroad is virtually non-existent. Its stand on the Rohingyas of Myanmar and also the Tamil war victims in Sri Lanka bears testimony to this.
Presently, India’s sole objective appears to be to safeguard its “military-strategic” interest in the region. As a result, it looks upon even normal commercial Chinese investments in the region as a “strategic threat” and objects to them.
But countries of the region see this as being unwarranted and untenable. Against this background, India’s efforts to forge military tie ups are viewed with suspicion and distaste. The refusal of the Maldives and Nepal to join India-sponsored military exercises recently reflects the distaste.