Maldives has stepped up its back channel diplomacy with India in an attempt to woo India, miffed over the arrest and conviction of former president Mohammad Nasheed over terror charges. An aide of Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon was in New Delhi earlier this week and had quiet talks with several Indian interlocutors.

Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed dragged by security forces during his arrest. PTI

This is the second major push from the government of President Abdulla Yameen to repair strained ties with India in a week after Yameen sent an invitation to Prime MinisterNarendra Modi to visit Maldives. Modi was scheduled to visit Maldives in March as part of his visit to three other Indian Ocean island nations but canceled his visit to Male at the eleventh hour after the Yameen government arrested Nasheed on terror charges on 22 February.

However, the Yameen government hasn’t changed its hard position one bit in the Nasheed case. It is highly unlikely that PM Modi will soften his own position and visit Maldives at a time when the Nasheed episode has become messier, human rights violations have attracted ire of the West and brutal police crackdown on peaceful rallies by Nasheed supporters continues.

The Yameen government has not changed its stance on Nasheed case and has thus far been unwilling to release the country’s first democratically elected president and withdraw the politically motivated case against him despite India’s repeated nudging. Thus there is no difference in the ground situation between early March when Modi cancelled his Maldives visit and now which warrants Modi undertaking a trip to Maldives.

Apparently, Maldives’ latest ploy of offering India an exclusive investment opportunity in the Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development (iHavan) project too hasn’t worked so far. Maldives’ iHavan project offer to India is a clever move by the Yameen government to play the China card as by partaking of this project India stands to counter the increasing Chinese influence in Maldives in a big way.

PM Modi has rightly kept away from the Yameen government. He must not allow a small country like Maldives with a GDP of just $2.4 billion (at official exchange rate) to play China card with India which Nepal has done repeatedly and former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa also tried but burnt his fingers in the end.

According to Invest Maldives, an agency of Maldives government agency entrusted with promoting, regulating and licensing foreign investments in the country, the Ihavan project includes three major components: transshipment port; airport development, warehousing and export processing zones; and a cruise hub. India is only a few minutes away by air from the proposed project site.

The USP of the transshipment port is that currently more than $18 trillion worth of goods is transported across the channel annually, with over 70,000 ships crossing the Indian Ocean every year. iHavan’s central location in the Indian Ocean will access more than 30 large cities within a radius of 4,000 km. The proposed cruise hub component is aimed at tapping the global cruise industry which  is expected to grow at a rate of 7.2 percent annually and Maldives is already a prime stopover point.

An in-depth information about the strategic implications of the iHavan project is available here
 

Maldives is a sovereign nation and an important neighbour of India. But the current Maldivian government cannot take India for granted. Its stubbornness over the Nasheed episode is a major red rag for the Indian government.

Besides, the Yameen government’s tactic of playing the China card is not going to much ice with India. True, the influence of China, as well as Pakistan, has increased phenomenally over the years, particularly since Nasheed was eased out of office in a soft coup in early February 2012.

But China cannot overcome geographical constraints. Geographically, Maldives is much closer to India than to China.

China can easily overwhelm Maldives with its huge economic might but it has not done so despite its immense strategic interests. China would have done it by now if it could.

Maldives must understand what all India can do for its rapid development and integration into SAARC as well as world economy. PM Modi announced a $1 billion Line of Credit for a country like Mongolia which no Indian PM had visited before him. Obviously Modi could have done much more for Maldives. The ball is in the Yameen government’s court.

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