The Maldives government’s move to allow foreign ownership of its islands will not affect India’s strategic interests, said Maldives President Abdullah Yameen.
The Maldives government’s move to allow foreign ownership of its islands will not affect India’s strategic interests, said Maldives President Abdullah Yameen on Thursday, after ratifying the constitutional amendment on freeholds that could benefit countries like China, that are eager to build land holdings in the Indian ocean. “Our sovereignty is not on offer," the new Maldivian Vice President Ahmed Adeeb told The Hindu in an exclusive interview, adding, "We don’t want to give any of our neighbours, including India..any cause for concern. We don’t want to be in a position when we become a threat to our neighbours.”
Blaming the opposition parties in the Maldives for raising concerns over the law, Mr. Adeeb said, "The opposition wants to say they will come and run military bases, but that is not the reality. We are looking at projects like Singapore's Marina Bay Sands or Dubai’s Palm islands. We are not looking at strategic projects."
Mr. Adeeb, who was sworn in on Wednesday also disclosed that the Maldives was trying to “create the environment” for PM Narendra Modi to visit the Maldives, after he cancelled the trip in March, and said that Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar was expected to visit. While the MEA didn’t confirm any dates for Mr. Jaishankar’s visit there, a senior official told The Hindu the Foreign Secretary “may make a visit soon.”
The conciliatory statements from Male come a day after India raised concerns over the land law amendment that was passed overnight on Tuesday by the Maldivian People’s Majlis (parliament). To a question from The Hindu about whether the concerns had been addressed, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, “The government watches closely all issues that pertain to India’s national security. In the context [of the Maldives], I would refer you to the text of President Yameen’s statement on the issue today.” In his statement, President Yameen specifically referred to India’s objections to China building military bases, or using reclaimed islands for them, as it is accused of doing in the South China Sea.
"The Maldivian government has given assurances to the Indian government and our neighbouring countries as well to keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone,” Mr. Yameen said. The MEA’s remarks indicate that India is willing to accept the Maldivian President’s assurances at face value for now. However it is clear that given the parameters laid out for land ownership, including investments of over 1 billion dollars for projects where 70% of the land has been reclaimed, China will be the obvious beneficiary.
President Xi Jinping’s 21st century new “Maritime Silk Route” hinges on projects in the Maldives, and during his visit to the Maldives in September 2014, Mr. Xi discussed several big projects, like the 1.5 Km “China-Maldives friendship bridge” project connecting Male with the airport island Hulhule. Moreover, with more than a million tourists last year, Chinese nationals now account for the largest arrivals in these tourism-dependent islands, and Chinese hotel and resort chains, who so far were only allowed to lease not own lands, will be keen to move in. “Even if there isn’t a military base being planned, it is China that will benefit the most at present,” said one diplomat.
In sharp contrast, India has seen a dip in its relations with the Maldives, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit there as part of his “Sagar Yatra” in the Indian ocean this March. The Indian decision came over internal disturbances in the Maldives over the arrest and rough treatment of former President Mohammad Nasheed. Since then, the government has kept its communications with Male at low-ebb, and even when PM Modi telephoned his counterparts in Islamic SAARC countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to wish them for the Ramzaan month in June, he didn’t called President Yameen. It remains to be seen whether President Yameen’s recent moves for reconciliation with Mr. Nasheed and his party the MDP will evoke a thaw from India, beginning with a visit from FS Jaishankar who has visited all SAARC nations except the Maldives so far.
Since July 1st, the Maldivian government has held at least three rounds of talks with MDP representatives, and extended Mr. Nasheed’s house-arrest as he serves a 13-year jail term on terrorism charges. On Wednesday, President Yameen also sacked his vice-president Jameel Ahmed, a known Nasheed-baiter who belonged to the pro-Sharia DHQ party, and replaced him with his 34-year old tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb instead. “We are trying for a political reconciliation,” Mr. Adeeb told The Hindu, confirming that the government’s prosecutor-general would now assist Mr. Nasheed with his appeal against his sentence.
As a result of the talks, the Nasheed’s MDP party surprised all by backing both the appointment of the new vice president as well as the amendment for land ownership in parliament. The moves also come even as the the Maldives prepares to celebrate its 50th independence day anniversary, and speculation has risen of a deal to free Mr. Nasheed if a political reconciliation, that India has been urging, comes through.