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Indian concerns over Maldives island-lease: It’s not about China but about sovereignty talk
Posted:Feb 1, 2017
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By N Sathiya Moorthy
At a New Year news conference in Male, Chinese Ambassador Wang Fukang reportedly expressed ‘surprise’ over “concerns raised by Indian journalists over the leasing of the Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu (an uninhabited island close to the capital Male) to a Chinese company to develop a resort”. 
The SunOnline reported on January 4, 2017 that: “Some Indian media outlets have reportedly raised concern that giving an island close to the main airport of the country was a danger to the strategic interests of India. In response, the Chinese Ambassador said that the Indian attention on a Maldivian tourism lease with a Chinese company is very surprising.“
“The Ambassador said that he believes the Maldives is a popular tourist destination and so is always looking for foreign investors and is an opportunity open to the whole world”. He has a point. The web version of another local daily Miadhu quoted Ambassador Wang as recalling how “100 million Chinese travelled as tourists last year...(to Maldives), hence the number of visitors to Maldives can be increased”.
Ambassador Wang further pointed out that 700,000 Chinese tourists travelled to Bali, in Indonesia, alone. Around “500,000 Chinese tourists visited Japan last year, and 960,000 visited South Korea. So, it will not be difficult to get 1.5 million tourists to Maldives from China alone”, the Chinese envoy said.
He noted that “Maldives is much better than Bali in so many ways. Bali is just one island. So, the number of people who want to visit Maldives can be increased. Maybe the problem lies in marketing and pricing and advertising”, the web journal quoted him as saying. 
In this context, Miadhu quoted Ambassador Wang as saying: “Maldives is the most popular destination in China, but the problem is that Maldives is pricey.” He further pointed out that there are direct flights between Maldives and China by Mega Maldives and China Airlines. However, since China Airlines does not have regular scheduled flights, there are some challenges.
The Miadhu also quoted Ambassador Wang as saying that China supported the Maldivian government’s policies "in protecting the sovereignty” of the Indian Ocean archipelago nation. “Maldives is an important partner in the Maritime Silk Route project of China. He also noted that China is assisting in development of the economy of Maldives and also in developing infrastructure there.”
Ambassador Wang recalled that “Maldives supports the ‘One-China’ policy and Chinese policies regarding the South China Sea. China wishes to work with other countries to attain economic development. We want both parties to benefit,” he said. In this context, the envoy “noted that the economy can develop only when a country is peaceful and stable”.
Meanwhile, visiting Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim met Liu Liange, President of the Chinese Export-Import (Exim) Bank, in Beijing to take forward discussions on the loan-agreement for developing Male’s international airport. The Chinese bank had granted a $373-million loan for developing Male airport in 2015.
In Beijing, Minister Asim met his counterpart Wang Yi, when China promised to “always support the developmental projects by the Maldivian government”. The two leaders also discussed foreign relations and regional issues at the meeting, SunOnline reported. 
There is no denying the increasing Chinese involvement in Maldives and other developing nations, across the region and across the world. The quid pro quo arrangement helps the beneficiary nation, yes. In the case of some African partners of China, it also helps the latter to plan future farm produce, petroleum products and the like for re-export to meet its own increasing domestic demand back home.
It is the kind of arrangement that the US-led West, on the one hand, and the erstwhile Soviet Union, on the other, had worked out to mutual benefit with partner-nations through the Cold War era. Even today, the US has been doing so, but with tightened purse strings. It seems to be focussing on larger regional partners, like India, that too focussing mostly on defence and security partnerships, mostly focussing on global terrorism and at times ‘Chinese expansionism’, both with independent but deep seated multiple consequences for regions and the world at large.
Maldives has been facing second and further stages of developmental aspirations of the people after the long and successful course through the Maumoon Abdul  Gayoom-driven tourism-centred socio-economic progress of the individual. China has been a great source of funding, especially in recent years. The airport-bridge, which carries a political message in favour of incumbent President Abdulla Yameen ahead of the 2018 presidential polls, is only one of them.
The details of China’s new Maritime Silk Route benefits for Maldives, about which Ambassador Wang spoke, are yet unclear. However, at least the Yameen leadership seems to be counting on it for the future, both in terms of the nation’s economic development and its own political popularity, in these days of an increasing consolidation of ‘anti-democracy’ opposition to him on the domestic front.
Be that as it may, ‘Indian (journalistic) concerns’, unlike those cited by Ambassador Wang, are not about Chinese developmental investments in Maldives, Sri Lanka or any other nation in the neighbourhood.
Having been forced by post-Cold War circumstances to ‘balance’ between Washington and Moscow (especially after the latter’s going back on the committed cryogenic engine, the Kudremukh iron project and the like), India, with its own agenda for economic reforms, understands neighbourhood developmental aspirations, independent of its own regional and geo-strategic security concerns vis-a-vis China.
In the case of Maldives just now, such ‘Indian concerns’ are also not about China per se. They are instead about Maldives as a government, and President Yameen as a political leader with adequate politico-administrative experience in the past, having changed tacks with it.
As a frontline leader of the ‘December 23 Movement’ against the then Mohamed Nasheed presidency, Yameen was among those who had linked their opposition to the Male airport contract, granted to Indian infra major, GMR group, with issues of sovereignty.
The ‘December 23 Movement’, named after the day of the all-party anti-Nasheed rally organised by Islamic NGOs in Male in end-2011, had objected to the GMR contract, arguing that Male was the only international airport of the nation, and that their ‘sovereignty and national security’ could be compromised if it was handed over to a ‘foreign entity’, India or not.
Sure enough, Feydhoo Finolhu, the island that has now been leased to a Chinese firm, reportedly for developing a tourist resort, is not where the airport is located. But it is uninhabited and is close to Male and, by extension, the international airport. It is not rocket science to conclude that any ‘foreign power’ wanting to keep a tab on Maldives does not require an airport of its own, or under the control of their national entity.
It is another matter that already other Chinese entities are running resorts in Maldivian islands. So is India’s Taj Group of Hotels. But for the Yameen leadership opposing the GMR contract on ‘sovereignty and security’ issues when not in power, and yet, when in power, going the China way when such issues would have to be considered as well in the case of Feydhoo Finolhu, should come as a ‘surprise’ indeed.
The Indian concerns, if any, are thus addressed not to China, but to Maldives, and in the context of the GMR-linked sovereignty and security issues that were flagged in the past but not considered just now -- China or not. It is another matter that as Yameen very correctly pointed out after his maiden overseas visit as President in January 2014, “GMR did not do their political ‘due diligence’ before taking up the Male airport contract”.
But the ‘sovereignty and security’ issues on the occasion were/are very different from the ‘due diligence’ part. It is also much different even from issues of legality and morality of the Nasheed government rushing it all through the public sector airport company, or Parliament, or while clearing it, using a constitutional loophole, not meant for such occasions. If anything, the ‘sovereignty and security’ issues came to be flagged only when the ‘December 23 Movement’ got into the act.
(N Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter, of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to editor@spsindia.in )
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