Maldives tests India's foreign policy 'red lines'

Jan 3, 2018
In mid-December, K.C. Singh, a former head of India's external affairs ministry, criticized Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for alleged slackness in setting the parameters that shape the country's ties with its smaller neighbors. In India's immediate periphery, "invisible red lines must exist and be enforced," Singh argued in a commentary in an Indian newspaper.
The former diplomat's comments followed the surprise approval of a trade agreement between China and the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago with a population of 400,000 that is regarded by New Delhi as being within its sphere of influence.
But the Maldives has not stopped there. In mid-December, "Vaguthu," a pro-government Maldivian news website, carried an editorial headlined, "India is not a best friend, but an enemy." The editorial urged the Maldives to find a new ally on the international stage.
Earlier in December, the Maldives' Local Government Authority announced restrictions on the movements of Akhilesh Mishra, India's ambassador in Male, after the envoy met three councilors from the Maldivian Democratic Party, the main opposition to the increasingly authoritarian government of President Abdulla Yameen. The pro-Yameen authority also suspended the councilors for three months for meeting a foreign diplomat.
Political allies of Yameen have targeted Sri Lanka, Maldives' closest neighbor, with similar vitriol. In mid-November, Riyaz Rasheed, a parliamentarian from Yameen's party, accused the Sri Lankan government of being in cahoots with Maldivian opposition figures who were allegedly planning to overthrow the Yameen administration.
"What we are seeing now [is] the Sri Lankan government backing potential plans to overthrow a democratically elected government," Rasheed said at a press conference. His comments infuriated the Sri Lankan government, according to a political insider in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Diplomatic sources in Colombo, where many embassies accredited to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are based, view these displays of boldness as a result of Yameen's growing confidence following deals with China on trade, loans and investments. Yameen is targeting a number of large infrastructure projects financed by Chinese loans -- including the $400 million expansion of the country's international airport -- to cement his popularity ahead of a presidential election that must be held by November 2018.
Yameen and his allies appear unfazed by international criticism. After restrictions were imposed on the Indian envoy, Joern Rohde, Germany's ambassador in Colombo, tweeted: "The deterioration in democracy and freedoms continues [in the Maldives]. Why does MAL Gvt mistrust its own people so much? Very concerning."
Atul Keshap, the United States ambassador in Colombo, mirrored similar thoughts in a tweet. "A further restriction on democracy and transparency in #Maldives: It appears that local elected officials can no longer meet diplomats and civil society [nongovernmental organizations] without central government permission. Why?"
Male's bravado coincides with growing political and economic concerns in the island nation, which is largely dependent on attracting high-end tourists to indulge themselves in idyllic tropical resorts. The International Monetary Fund's latest assessment of the Maldives has, for the first time, classified the country as a "fragile state," following two critical reviews.
Nikkei Asia Review, January 3, 2018

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