Following his election in 2014, India’s incoming prime minister, Narendra Modi, invited leaders of the countries of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his inauguration. It sent a powerful signal that India accepted that it needed to engage with and play a positive role in its immediate neighbourhood if it was to be accepted as a significant global actor.
The timing was fortuitous – civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal had finished and the government in Bangladesh was amenable to engagement with India. Soon after, tension with Pakistan led to SAARC being sidelined, but India has pushed ahead in attempting to enhance its relationship with countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, along with various multilateral initiatives.
Yet each of its neighbours has sought to balance their relationship with India by engaging with China, an increasingly assertive actor in the Indian Ocean region. Some countries have gone further than others in playing “the China card”. One of those countries would be the Maldives,
In 2015, the Maldives passed an unusual constitutional amendment. The change allowed foreign ownership of territory in the Maldives territory. Specifically, the constitutional amendment allows foreigners who invest over $1bn to own land, provided that at least 70 per cent of land purchased is reclaimed from the sea. This limits the number of potential buyers. Both Saudi Arabia and China have expressed some interest. Both countries seem keen to develop infrastructure in the Maldives as a means of protecting oil shipments from the former to the latter.
Despite (or perhaps because) only around 400,000 people live there, the Maldives has an unusual recent political history. Briefly, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was president from 1978 until 2008, his support peaking in 1983 at 95.6 per cent. He was widely accused of human rights abuses and corruption.
He lost the 2008 election to human rights activist, Mohamed Nasheed (the subsequent flourishing of freedoms contributed to the spread of radical Islam. Per capita - by some measures - the Maldives has provided most recruits to the Islamic State). Nasheed was ousted in 2012. He won most votes in the first round of an election the following year, but the Supreme Court annulled the vote and Abdulla Yameen, half brother of Gayoom, became president. Nasheed was subsequently convicted of terrorism for arresting a judge. After travelling to the UK for medical treatment, he sought and received asylum.
This is when things became interesting. In 2015, following an apparent assassination attempt against Yameen, the vice president along with 17 of his supporters were arrested. Yameen has actively courted investment from both China and Saudi Arabia. Tacit support from these two countries appears to have encouraged Yameen to further centralise power and sideline any opposition. Sino-Maldivian relations were further strengthened a couple of weeks ago when the Maldives became the second country in Asia to sign a free trade agreement with China (after Pakistan), a move widely seen as cocking a snook towards India.
In Mach last year, Gayoom and Nasheed decided to team up against Yameen. They also called on India to intervene. And while it may be an unusual coalition, it would almost certainly win a free and fair election. It would also have a majority in parliament if various ousted MPs were reinstated.
And last week the Maldives Supreme Court ruled that that is exactly what should happen. It also ordered that political prisoners be released. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Yameen ignored the call. Instead, yesterday, he introduced a state of emergency, ordered troops to blockade the Supreme Court building and arrested Gayoom.
What happens next will play into broader issues of governance across the Indian Ocean region. If Yameen remains in power – self-evidently through suppression and by ignoring the country’s constitution – other rulers inclined towards the autocratic end of the spectrum may feel that they can secure their tenure by throwing their lot in with China (though in turn, China may be learning that throwing its lot in with rulers with little legitimacy may not be a sustainable strategy in the long-term).
But if the rule of law is to be upheld, who would uphold it? The obvious answer would be India. While this would go against India’s long-standing claim not to interfere in other states’ affairs, the Maldives presents as benign a location for intervention as is imaginable. The main opposition (which would hold a majority in parliament) is actually calling on India to act, sending an envoy, backed by its military. If India does seek a role in its neighbourhood (in which it does, sporadically, intervene) and to uphold a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean, this would appear to be an ideal opportunity for it to do so.
Gareth Price is a senior research fellow at Chatham House working on South Asia
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