February 13, 2018

Strong political case for intervention in Maldives, but not a legal one yet


By ET Bureau | Feb 14, 2018, 08.02AM IST

India’s dilemma is that it has always called for respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries.

By: Kanwal Sibbal

India is facing a quandary in Maldives: to intervene or not to intervene, with good arguments on both sides. President Yameenhas been on a collision course with India for some time, convinced that we seek his ouster in the next election. Our attempts to engage him diplomatically have failed, causing us much frustration. His foreign minister’s visit to India last month did not resolve differences. Despite serious misgivings about the internal and external direction of Yameen’s policies, India has tried to give him a long rope in the hope that he will heed India’s concerns. India has avoided coercive diplomacy. Yameen knows India’s reservations about former president Nasheed but the manner in which he has dealt with him and the opposition in general, not to mention the parliament, is unacceptable by any democratic standards. India would have preferred Yameen to respect basic processes and not smite all opposition thug-like.

By treating India’s concerns with disdain, unabashedly playing the China card against us and reaching out to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in addition, Yameen has indicated where he expects support for his political delinquency. Tolerating his defiance will only encourage some other neighbours to play the China card against us all the more. They will conclude from our failure to act that, coupled with the general perception of our weak resolve, the China factor has limited our options in our own neighbourhood. China is obviously wedded to Yameen because he has promoted its strategic goals in the archipelago. In 2015, he got the Maldives constitution amended to allow foreign nationals and entities the right to own freehold land, including entire islands. This caused concern in India in the light of China’s efforts to obtain control of some islands as part of its maritime silk road project. In December last year, Yameen, without giving the parliament a proper vetting opportunity, precipitately signed a free trade agreement with China during his Beijing visit, disregarding its implications for India ties. China would be against Nasheed’s return to power in view of his vehement anti-China position. By stating that the government and people of Maldives can resolve the situation “independently” and voicing opposition to external intervention as being against the UN charter, China is protecting Yameen in all his excesses. China’s statement that both it and India have a “common interest” in stability in Maldives implies that it has equal stakes there. When its sources say that China wants to avoid another flashpoint with India in Maldives, the provocative nuance is that China’s interests in Maldives equal those of India in Bhutan even when no bilateral sovereignty or trilateral border issues are involved. Tomorrow China can use the “flashpoint” argument if India sought to reduce Chinese influence in Sri Lanka or Nepal.

India’s dilemma is that it has always called for respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, not to mention its position against imposition of democracy by force, opposition to policies of regime change and intervention only if mandated by the UN. If it intervened in Maldives, it would be against these very principles that it has espoused in the conduct of international relations. There is a strong political case for intervention but not a legal one as yet. In the immediate future, political and economic pressure on Maldives should be put by likeminded countries that are already building understandings on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region in the background of China’s maritime ambitions, namely, India, US, Japan and Australia. With pressure, patience is needed.

(The author is a former foreign secretary.)