In 2018, the Maldives faced a severe economic crisis and now in 2022, Sri Lanka is experiencing a similar situation. The problems in the two countries only emerged after their short flirtation with China.
The Maldives was in dire economic straits, with Chinese debt estimated at $1.5 billion to $3 billion. India stepped in to rescue Malé from distress, immediately providing a $1.4 billion economic assistance package in the form of budget support, currency swap deals and concessional lines of credit. .
Sri Lanka is also facing a similar situation and India has promised to help the neighboring country in distress as their relationship is rooted in the values and civilizational aspirations of the two peoples. To help ease the economic situation there, India has extended $2.5 billion in aid over the past two to three months, including credit facilities for fuel and food which are the most required.
A geographically dispersed country straddling a 960 km long underwater ridge stretching from north to south and forming a “wall” in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are of strategic importance for India.
While the Indian Ocean is seen as the key highway for global trade and energy flows, the Maldives practically presents itself as a toll gate.
It is therefore of vital importance to India since nearly 50% of India’s foreign trade and 80% of energy imports pass through this line of maritime communication westward into the Arabian Sea. Additionally, the Maldives is an important partner in India’s role as an internet security provider in the Indian Ocean region.
China’s strategic interests and logistical limitations in the Indian Ocean have prompted it to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. It has started to move closer to the Maldives, considered India’s backyard, and this has become a matter of concern for New Delhi.
China opened an embassy in the Maldives in 2011. Thereafter, they began to quickly build ties with their Belt and Road Initiative.
During Abdulla Yameen’s presidency from 2013 to 2018, the Maldives’ foreign policy took a decidedly pro-China turn.
The Yameen administration terminated a contract with a GMR to renovate the country’s airport for the benefit of a Chinese company. China has provided loans and sent state-owned enterprises to develop Maldives ports and other public works. The Yameen government pushed a trade deal with China through parliament without debate, eliminating tariffs on 95% of Chinese goods in eight years.
The country joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative and borrowed heavily from China for infrastructure projects.
Showing a lack of foreign policy wisdom, they danced to China’s beat for individual gain.
Under the Yameen administration, the Maldives has been left in a $1.4 billion Chinese debt trap, a state of emergency, as well as large-scale human rights abuses including targeted killings of journalists who dared to expose the situation on the ground.
Members of the government – both executive and judiciary – were also imprisoned during this period and the nation was in chaos.
In 2018, Yameen lost the election and was also involved in money laundering. Its defeat in 2018 saw the MDP return to power.
But, his problems are not over.
The International Monetary Fund report forecasts the Maldives’ external debt to reach 51.2% of GDP in 2021 from 34.7% in 2016 as a result of the projects.
While India’s relationship with the Maldives had collapsed under Yameen’s presidency when he moved closer to China, the return of the CDM has led to a revival of relations.
Mohamed Ibrahim Solih, who defeated Yameen, reestablished ties with India, adopting an “India first” policy.
To wean the Maldives off Chinese loans, India rescued the Maldives from economic crisis, by providing financial aid and undertaking massive infrastructure projects.
The two countries also agreed to enhance maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean region through coordinated patrols and aerial surveillance.
Further in the aftermath of Covid-19, the tourism dependent economy of the Maldives has been seriously affected. India quickly reached out. From providing 2,00,000 doses of Covid vaccine to extending a $150 million currency swap to provide stability, India has provided unconditional support to the people of the Maldives.
India’s military presence in the country has helped it boost its maritime surveillance capability to secure its vast Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Maldives also duly credited India for stating that their food security is highly dependent on imports from India. Whether it is rice, flour, sugar, chicken, eggs, potatoes or onions, the staples consumed by Maldivians in substantial quantities are all supplied by India.
However, the situation is changing after Yameen was released from house arrest. Under the influence of China, false propaganda aimed at creating a wedge between the Maldivian people and the Indian people has begun. He’s back in the business of the “India Out” campaign.
Yameen says that if his party returns to power in the 2023 elections, his government would cancel all agreements with India.
He claims that Indian military vessels could enter the exclusive economic zone of the Maldives by simply informing the Maldivian authorities rather than asking for their permission. He referred to an agreement with India to develop, support and maintain a coastguard base for the Maldivian National Defense Force on Uthuru Thila Falhu Atoll.
In fact, contrary to what he claims, Chinese state-owned fishing trawlers have systematically violated and plundered the marine resources of Maldivian waters with impunity.
Seeing this, the incumbent government announced that it was considering legislation to criminalize the “India Out” campaign. But due to internal divisions within the ruling apparatus, the bill was never presented to parliament.
Yameen hopes to stir up the kind of unrest that culminated in the ousting of the incumbent government in 2012.
China’s nefarious activities began before the elections in the Maldives. The India Out campaign is also broadcast on social networks. The pro-China opposition strategy begins to come to fruition, as Yameen seeks to overthrow the fledgling democracy and lead it into the arms of a waiting dragon.
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