New Delhi is predictably upset with the Maldives for an amendment to the country’s constitution permitting foreigners to own land, provided the entity invests a minimum of $1 billion. The move is being seen as an attempt by the Indian Ocean atoll to forge closer ties with China. Chinese companies are already involved in other projects, notably the construction of a bridge to connect Hulhumale island, on which the airport is, with the capital Male. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit last September, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen readily agreed to become part of China’s ambitious maritime silk route project. New Vice President Ahmed Adeeb has said that criticism of the amendment as a backdoor move to permit foreign powers to establish military bases on its territory are unfounded. As many as 70 members in the 85-seat Majlis voted in favour of the changes. Among the 19 opposition members who voted for the bill, 10 were from the Maldivian Democratic Party, whose leader, Mohamed Nasheed, a former president, is under house arrest. The concern in India, and for some in the Maldives, too, is that the possibility has not been ruled out entirely.
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Sovereign nations act according to what they believe are their own best interests. Other countries have to work towards ensuring that these interests coincide with theirs. Delhi, which harbours an unrealistic expectation that its neighbours must play its game or none at all, was unfortunately not deft at deciphering the signals from the Maldives right from the time Nasheed was ousted back in 2012, or far thinking. It lost no time in dropping the young MDP leader and backing the new regime. It was only when the Indian firm GMR was turfed out from the Maldives airport project did Delhi fathom this Indian Ocean game ran deep. Despite his political brinkmanship, Nasheed was the most India-friendly politician in the Maldives. If some in his party have now voted in favour of the amendment, it is in the hope that in return, the Yameen government may give some concessions on Nasheed’s 13-year jail term, handed down by an anti-terrorist court earlier this year.
India must stop complaining and start thinking of how to repair strained ties with this small but strategically important neighbour it has helped in many ways. One way to do this might be to step up engagement with all political players there immediately.