COLOMBO: Relations between India and the Maldives, which became particularly frosty after the ascent to power of the tough and pro-Chinese politician Abdulla Yameen in 2013, now appear to be thawing.

Political analysts attribute this to the changing geo-political environment and the rethinking that this has triggered among leaders of the countries of the region about ways and means of solving international problems.

Both India and the Maldives are observing restraint. Total avoidance of each other that marked the recent past, has given way to a modicum of cooperation.

An early sign of thawing is the Maldivian decision to allow India to send an Offshore Petrol Vessel (OPV) INS Sumedha, to undertake joint surveillance and patrolling of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from May 9 to 17. The warship had been sent under the Indian Navy’s 'Mission Based Deployments' plan in the Indian Ocean region.

“It is an endeavor of the Government of India and the Indian Navy to ensure the safety and security of the vast EEZ of the Maldives," the Indian Navy’s spokesman Capt.D.K.Sharma reportedly told the Indian media.

According to the Maldivian media, two officers and eight sailors from the Indian Navy’s marine commandoes wing are in Maafilhafushi in the Maldives, 145 km north of capital Male, for training in diving and tactics under the second asymmetric warfare training exercise called “Ekatha”.

INS Sumedha undertook an operational turn-around at Male on May 11-12, involving training and embarkation of some personnel from the Maldives National Defense Forces. There would be joint surveillance from May 12 to 15, reports said.

The Slide

India-Maldives ties hit rock bottom after Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen declared a State of Emergency on February 6, following an order by the country’s Supreme Court onFebruary 1, to release a group of opposition leaders who had been convicted on terrorism and other grave charges. The Maldivian government said that the charges and convictions were as per the law of the land. But the trials were dubbed by international rights groups and Western governments as a witch hunt by a dictatorial Yameen.

Because the Yameen regime saw India as a fellow traveler in the West-led global campaign to free the convicted former President Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldivian navy declined to participate in India’s eight-day naval exercise codenamed “Milan” in the Andaman and Nicobar seas.

Maldives government’s official excuse was that it needed the naval personnel and equipment to be at home to police the State of Emergency which was then on in the country. But the real reason was to show its displeasure with India.

The Maldives followed this up with a request to India to take back one of the two Indian Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs) stationed in the archipelago to perform rescue missions. Maldives had decided not to extend the agreement to station the helicopter, apparently because it felt that there were too many Indians; that the mission was occupying too much space; and that the objectives of the Indians were not wholly transparent.

It is learnt that the Yameen government preferred to have the helicopters minus the Indian personnel, but India would not agree to that.

However, the Yameen government exercised restraint and did not go the whole hog to seek cancellation of the entire agreement involving the naval choppers.

Nasheed’s Demand

Meanwhile, the ebullient and media-savvy former President Nasheed, willfully dragged India into his rivalry with Yameen by openly asking for a “military- backed Indian diplomatic intervention” in his favor. He played upon fears among India’s opinion makers about the increasing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean and South Asia.

While there was a great deal of support in New Delhi’s think tank circles for a repeat of the Indian military intervention in 1988 to thwart a coup against the Maumoon Gayoom regime, the Indian government had no intention of re-enacting it.

The geo-political scenario in 2018 is different from that which existed in 1988. India is no longer operating in a vacuum as China is now on the scene. India’s diplomacy has also changed. It is now based on cooption and cooperation through bilateral and multi-lateral institutions floated by it rather than confrontation. Gun boat diplomacy is out of the question.

However, with President Yameen not coming down even by a notch and with arrests of officials and political opponents continuing, the Indian External Affairs Ministry felt constrained to ask Yameen to lift the State of Emergency; implement the Supreme Court’ original order to release and re-try nine top level political leaders; and restore the independence of the Supreme Court. India refused to meet the Special Envoy Maldives wanted to send to brief New Delhi on its case.

The Yameen government reaction to this was expectedly sharp. It openly said that it would be better for outsiders to avoid tendering advice on matters they are not fully conversant with.

The government then went on to state its case which is that the Supreme Court judges had been brazenly arbitrary, refusing to give the Attorney General a hearing before or after passing the orders. According to the government, the judges had been bribed by a fugitive businessmen-politician in self-exile.

But Male’s defense fell on deaf ears. However, despite the acerbic exchange, New Delhi held its hand, partly because it now prefers to abjure strong statements and military engagements abroad, and partly because any overt political or military intervention could have led to the Maldives going further into the waiting arms of China. China had also said that it would intervene if there was any foreign military intervention.

Change in Neighborhood Policy

By then, India had changed its neighborhood policy. It preferred cooperative diplomacy to confrontational diplomacy. The accent was on accommodation rather than on using its might to push things down any country’s throat.

Had it not been for such a change in thinking in New Delhi, the eye ball to eye ball military standoff with China over Doklam on the Bhutan-China border in 2017, would have led to a India-China war with deleterious effects on the resurgent Indian economy. The crisis in Doklam was defused by diplomacy initiated and doggedly pursued by the new Indian Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale.

Given the changes in the global political and economic scenario, and the need to fulfill its multi-billion dollar projects under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is also keen on solving issues diplomatically rather than through muscle flexing and confrontation. That is why not a shot was fired in Doklam though there was much belligerent talk.

The unprecedented and successful two-day summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping which was held in Wuhan recently, was a reflection of the new mood in both New Delhi and Beijing.

China has indicated that it is not in a zero sum game with India in South Asia, pursuing objectives without regard to India’s traditional place in the region. Striking a new path, Chinese President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Modi agreed to have joint projects in Afghanistan. Prior to that, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had asked India to participate in China’s Belt and Road projects in Nepal. The Chinese Ambassador in India Luo Zhaohui had told Indian journalist S.Venkat Narayan that China is ready to have joint projects with India in Sri Lanka and Maldives also.

The Maldivian envoy in India Ahmed Mohamed said in Chennai that like China, India too can undertake projects in his country. But he made it clear that the initiative must come from India.

India is also moving away from the US, which under President Donald Trump has become somewhat unreliable and not always mindful of India’s concerns. India would like its foreign policy to be guided primarily by its interests and not necessarily as a strategic ally of the US. For instance, it would like to have good relations with Iran given its investment in the Chabahar port and the highway linking it to Central Asia. India is also moving closer to Russia both in military and economic terms through connectivity projects in Central Asia.

Therefore, signs of improvement in Indo-Maldivian bilateral ties must be seen as being part of the many changes taking place in the South Asian region and beyond and not in isolation.