By N. Sathiya Moorthy
Nothing could explain the realities of bilateral relations in the post-Cold War era than the readiness and remarkable alacrity with which India despatched military aircraft and warships to quench the thirst of the Maldivian capital of Male, after fire damaged the city’s desalination plant in late 2014.
To the man on Maldives’ streets and across the country, it should have brought back fading memories of India rushing aid and assistance through its mighty military, first during the aborted coup of 1987 (‘Operation Cactus’) and later when the ‘Boxing Day’ tsunami struck the nation in 2004.
All three episodes proved only two things for the average Maldivian and his government of the day. That independent of political changes in India, the nation’s leadership has demonstrated an undeniable and unquestioned readiness to help Maldives in whichever way needed and whenever. In turn, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) have shown an even greater enthusiasm in reaching out to Maldives and Maldivians, and the imaginable ways that it could do so, before the rest of the world could muster up, and measure up!
It’s not geography that has united India and Maldives as none else! It’s also not the need for Maldives to depend near-eternally on external help in such matters that has made India an inevitable partner in every sense of the term. If anything, the ‘drinking water crisis’ may have drawn for both nations the subtle yet succinct differences between ‘help’ and ‘assistance’ – the first, in the hour of need, and the latter, over the medium term. A fuller understanding of this distinction could help fashion bilateral relations in ways that the current geopolitical and geostrategic situation in the shared Indian Ocean waters (where Sri Lanka is the leg in a regional tripod) commands and demands.
It’s inevitable that contemporary geostrategic calculations, particularly from the Indian perception, would (have to) involve China’s presence, contribution(s) and threats in the South Asian neighbourhood. There is no denying that China is possibly the only nation in the world that is flush with funds just now, to be able to invest even in nations and enterprises without financial returns alone as the motive.
Unless an Indian Ocean Region (IOR) nation in these parts is willing to provide a base for China and until China is able to develop a full-fledged ‘Blue Water Navy’, there can be no replacement for India in these waters. After the near-overnight collapse of the Soviet Union, nations big and small would and should re-think a thousand times to bet their future on unsustainable relations that have no connect to realism. Over the short and the medium term, the Chinese ‘assistance’ would go a long way in helping a nation like Maldives. Over the medium and the long-term, the Indian ‘help’ will be of greater assistance, as ‘Operation Cactus-1987’, Tsunami-2004 and the ‘Male Water Crisis-2014) have all proved.
It is not as if China did not rush help to Maldives. In fact, Bangladesh, another of the South Asian nations, did rush drinking water to Maldives. So did neighbouring Sri Lanka. They all however suffered from limitations of time, or quantity, or both. As a larger neighbour with a larger heart, India alone was well-equipped to help Maldives face the emerging situation, which had the potential of turning into a nasty law and order problem. And there were enough people in the country, almost as ever, to capitalise on it.
New leaderships, both
The year 2014 began with new Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen making his overseas visit after assuming office, to India, in January, to meet with then prime minister Manmohan Singh. He was again in New Delhi in May after India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his inauguration. A third time, the leaders of the two nations met on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit at Kathmandu later in the year. Ministers and officials from each nation have been visiting the other for bilateral and SAARC-centric multilateral discussions.
Included in the list was the New Delhi visit of Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim to meet with the new Indian dispensation after they had settled down. India’s new External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stopped over at Male while returning home from an official visit to Mauritius for discussions with Maldivian counterpart, Dunya Maumoon. This was followed by India’s new National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval visiting Male where he called on President Yameen, senior officials and various political stakeholders.
The message was clear. That the two nations would miss no opportunity to remain engaged. Some, though not all of such engagements seemed to have involved India’s compulsive need to study and understand the implications/repercussions of Maldives joining China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR) project.
As may be recalled, the project was mooted when President Yameen visited China during the year, to be followed only weeks later by counterpart Xi Jinping’s three-nation South Asia tour, where India was the last and the most important leg. Maldives and China have since tied the loose ends, it would seem, when a Maldivian delegation visited Beijing. A bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) too is also on the anvil.
A respecter of the ‘sovereignty’ of individual nations, India has clearly conveyed to neighbours its no-nonsense approach to their engaging with China on trade, business and investments. India’s overall concern is only about such relations denigrating into or many of these nations enlarging their China relations to include a geo-strategic component with a military element. This could trouble the placid Indian Ocean waters in these parts, and India would not be the only one to face the consequences.
Yet, with new leaderships in the two nations in the bygone year, India and Maldives have been able to shed the ‘GMR baggage’ -- involving the midway cancelled airport construction and concession contract with the Indian infrastructure major -- without much trouble or recall. However, both remain to learn lessons from the same, still. While the air has been cleared of the immediate concerns and consequent embarrassment, they will have to ensure that there is no repeat of the same, big or small, unintended though they all have been.
(N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org)