Maldives Crisis Could Stir Trouble Between China and India

Maldives Crisis Could Stir Trouble Between China and India


Mr. Nasheed, trying to rally alliances at a time when many opposition figures are either imprisoned or in exile, has pleaded for international intervention, including repeated calls for India, long seen as a security guarantor in the region, to send in troops to release Mr. Yameen’s grip.

Indian officials have expressed concern about the situation but have remained measured in their response. Indian influence in the Maldives has waned since 2012, when it did not stand firmly behind Mr. Nasheed, who had been an ally, as he was ousted from office.

Anand Kumar, a fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said although India was clearly alarmed about losing influence to the Chinese in the Indian Ocean, it had struggled to respond.

But he said India would be ill advised to consider a military option against a sitting president, because its attempt to send troops to counter an insurgency that was fighting another ally, the Sri Lankan government, had turned disastrous.

Part of the dilemma is that “the Maldives is just another front for the Chinese,” Mr. Kumar said, citing its militarization of islands in the South China Sea as one example. “China has deep-rooted economic, political and military interests in Maldives, and it’s not going to be a win-win situation for India.”

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Chinese tourists in Malé. China has cautioned its citizens against traveling to the Maldives since a state of emergency was declared.

Credit
Roberto Schmidt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Maldives government has condemned Mr. Nasheed’s calls for intervention by India’s military.

“There is no threat of Maldives being invaded by foreign military,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. “The government of Maldives would like to reiterate that it has maintained good relations with India since Maldives declared independence and firmly believes that India would not act on any such calls.”

The latest escalation in the Maldives began this month after an order by the Supreme Court to release political prisoners and reinstate members of Parliament whom Mr. Yameen had removed for crossing over to the opposition. The court also threw out Mr. Nasheed’s case; he is supposed to be serving a 13-year prison sentence but has been living outside the country.

After the Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine of the president’s opponents and ordered that those in jail be freed, Mr. Yameen sent troops to surround the court and arrest two of the judges and later even his half brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Despite calls from many Western countries for Mr. Yameen to lift the state of emergency and release the judges and opposition leaders, just how much leverage other nations beyond China and India have over the Maldives is an open question.

After Mr. Yameen declared the state of emergency, several Western ambassadors arrived in Malé, the capital, to meet with him and his officials and ask for an explanation of what was happening. But they said Mr. Yameen’s government showed no interest in talking.

“There was an announcement made by the government that the international community was welcome to come and visit the country and speak to the officials,” Tung-Lai Margue, the European Union ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives told a news conference in Malé afterward, flanked by his German and British colleagues. “Well, we came. And we couldn’t meet anybody.”

One pressure point Mr. Yameen might feel is a steep drop in tourists from abroad, a major source of revenue. Tourist reservations fallen sharply since the state of emergency was declared, and many countries, including China, have cautioned their citizens against traveling to the Maldives.

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Mohamed Nasheed, the opposition leader, has lived largely in exile since his term as the country’s first democratically elected president ended in a coup of sorts in 2012.

Credit
Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

In recent years, the Maldives has become a significant target for Beijing’s ambitious economic expansion. Its international airport, the major road connecting it to the capital and other projects fall under “One Belt, One Road.”

President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014 underscored efforts by China to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. And when Mr. Yameen went to Beijing last December, the two nations signed a trade agreement that opens up the huge Chinese consumer market to the Maldives’ fishing industry.

After declaring the state of emergency, Mr. Yameen sent envoys to China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, all of which he considers friendly to his rule, to update them on the situation and seek their support.

Western diplomats said that Mr. Yameen’s government had signaled a willingness to talk to opposition groups, but that its condition that the talks take place in Malé made it impossible, as no opposition leader trusted the government enough to fly home for such talks.The country’s politics has been long treacherous, both before and after it became a republic, not least when its first president was lured into a mob lynching in the 1950s near an old mango tree that still stands in the army headquarters.

Mr. Nasheed, who has spent much of his adult life in prison, in exile or on the run, has been dismayed by international calls for the Maldives government and opposition to sort out the issue domestically.

“If you tell us to ‘Fend for yourselves and continue your hardship,’ the next step would be a rebel army — and I don’t want to see that,” he said. “I am afraid that by asking us to find a local solution, you are really asking us for a fist fight.”

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