‘There’s visible engagement with China, but with India, the engagement is not as visible’

Ahmed Mohamed, Maldivian ambassador to India,defends his country’s leaning towards China

shankar

Shankar Kumar | January 8, 2018 | New Delhi


#Interview   #India   #China   #Maldivian ambassador to India   #Ahmed Mohamed   #Maldives   #International Relations  
(Photo: Arun Kumar)
(Photo: Arun Kumar)

Under president Yameen Gayoom, the Maldives has closed ranks with Beijing on a free trade agreement and the belt and road initiative. Recently, it suspended opposition councillors who met Indian ambassador Akhilesh Mishra in Male. The signals are that Maldives is neither comfortable with India, nor does it care for New Delhi’s interests in the Indian ocean region. In an interview with Governance Now, the Maldivian ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohamed, defends his country’s leaning towards China. He also holds India responsible for reducing the political and economic weight it commanded in the Maldives.

Maldives has signed a free trade agreement with China. Does it have any impact on relations between New Delhi and Male?

Well, firstly, what we need to bear in mind is that trade is one of the factors that contribute to moving us out from poverty to prosperity. If we have better trade links with multiple sources, it is better for the Maldivian people and its economy. The FTA with China gives us space for sourcing the best goods in terms of their quality, variety and price. It lets us keep the door open for import of goods and services in a way that is beneficial to the Maldivian people. You have to understand that we are virtually an import-dependent country. Even if we produce our own water [by desalination], we import [drinking] water to cater to the needs of local population as well as tourists. I think in signing the FTA with China, the Maldives has no intention to keep one nation or another in advantageous or disadvantageous position. If it is feasible and both India and Maldives are willing to sign FTA [between them], there is an equal space for that.

But the media has expressed surprise over the manner in which the FTA was signed with China.

It should not surprise anybody because, two years back, when negotiations on an FTA between Maldives and China began, we had made it public. It was reported in the media. Has the Indian government expressed surprised over it? I am sure the Indian mission in Maldives would have informed New Delhi about it two years ago.

Is there any Indian proposal for an FTA with Maldives?

As far as I am aware, there is no such proposal.

India and Maldives share close cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious ties. But they are not on the same page on several issues. Is it true that for Maldives China has become a preferred destination over India?

In relations between two countries, perception matters. There is quite a visible engagement with China, but there’s not so much visibility in engagements between India and Maldives. Lately, our foreign minister has visited India four times, but the Indian foreign minister has visited just once. Engagement and visibility are important to change perspectives. See, if India wants its interests to be promoted in Maldives, then it is India which will have to do it. It cannot be promoted by Maldives. We have proposed many investments to the Indian government, but has anything happened? Business as usual would not work anymore.

By allowing Beijing to have a larger footprint in Maldives, isn’t Male trying to hurt India’s interests in the Indian ocean region?

With regard to the Indian Ocean region, I should tell you that Maldives is a strong advocate of making it a zone of peace. This policy has not started with the present government; rather, it is there since our independence. For us, it [the Indian Ocean] is as much a sensitive matter as it is for India. But I think merely engaging in commerce [with China] or inviting investment [from China] doesn’t affect security in the Indian Ocean.

Indian analysts expressed concern when Maldives leased the Feydhoo Finolhu island to China for 50 years for about $4 million in December 2016. What is your comment?

What is the concern? Well, let me tell you, there are several Indian companies, including the Taj Group, that have taken islands on lease for running resorts. This helps the Maldivian government to generate revenue. We have also requested the Indian government to encourage more Indians to invest in the country’s tourism sector. The particular island you referred to was on an open bid. We selected the highest bidder for it. So far as we are concerned, it does not matter who was the highest bidder, whether they were Chinese, Sri Lankans, Indians or Saudis. Maldives is an independent sovereign state and the said island lies within the boundary of the country. Before signing an agreement between the Maldivian government and investors, they are clearly told about land use there. In more than 40 years of tourism in Maldives, nobody has used land given to them for purposes other than what it was meant for. There are Chinese investors on other Maldivian islands also, but some sections of people create a different view about them according to their own convenience. The convenient view is not necessarily the real view. I will tell you that our constitution doesn’t allow any third country to establish a military presence there. That is clear.

How you see China’s One Belt, One Road initiative?

If we see economic merit in it, if we see our prosperity in any international initiative, we will go for it. Any bilateral or multilateral initiative seen to be economically beneficial, Maldives will latch on to it. This is the reason we have subscribed to the BRI [belt and road initiative] of China.

Terrorism is a major problem of the subcontinent and the world. What efforts are being made by Male to stop radicalisation of youth? There are reports of Maldivian nationals joining the ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

Terrorism, extremism, radicalisation – these are concerns for Maldives. I’m sure terrorism is a matter of concern for any country. Having said that, no country is immune to terrorism. Ours is an archipelagic state, comprising 1,200 islands over a vast area, with people living in isolated pockets. But somehow, people are penetrating into them [Maldivians]. What hasn’t been acknowledged in the media is that even before terrorism created a buzz in the international arena, we have been a Muslim country for centuries. Yet any public or religious lecture or Friday sermon can be delivered only after approval from our ministry of Islamic affairs. And this has been a practice for 30-40 years. The ministry of education or ministry of Islamic affairs has to approve a book before it is sold. But such restrictions have lost meaning with the arrival of the internet. Still, the fact is that all imams are employed by the Maldivian government. It is not that anybody can go to a mosque and start preaching there. Despite this, we agree that people have gone out to join ISIS, Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. However, our official records show that 40-50 Maldivian nationals have joined terrorist groups and not 100-200 Maldivians as the media has shown it. Thanks to our bilateral relationship and intelligence-sharing mechanism with various countries in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, we have been able to bring some of them back to the country. But being a small country with limited capacity, we are facing the challenge of rehabilitating them and making them join the mainstream. For this, we need help from bilateral and multilateral partners.

What is Maldives’s stand on the India-led resolution on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) pending before the United Nations since 1996?

Well, this is a specific question on a specific UN resolution and I, while sitting in India as a Maldivian ambassador, don’t have immediate response to it. My colleague sitting in New York would have probably better understanding about it. But in principle, I feel, we will agree to any mechanism that brings additional measures to defeat terrorism.

What is Male’s position on SAARC? Is there any need for its revival?

SAARC is a beneficial group and it should be revived. One of the most important things to come out of the SAARC mechanism is SAFTA [the South Asian Free Trade Area]. Such is the priority we give to it that among all SAARC nations we have the least negative list for SAFTA and this shows as to why we see trade as a mechanism to move to prosperity. Therefore, our stand is that SAARC should be revived and so should be SAFTA.

What about defence cooperation between the two countries?

Defence cooperation [between the two countries] continues. The eighth edition of joint exercise between the Indian army and the Maldivian National Defence Force was concluded recently in Karnataka. Then, under the banner of ‘Dosti’, the Maldivian coast guard together with Indian and Sri Lankan coast guards holds biannual maritime exercises. Besides, many Maldivian defence officials, including the current chief of defence force, have attended military training programmes in India. We also reciprocate in a small way by allowing Indian defence personnel to participate in diving programmes.

Does Maldives plan to expand its existing defence strength by having its own air and naval wings? 

We have set up our own air force. We have identified the first air force base in Laamu Atoll. We want all aspects of defence – land, air and navy. We have quite high aspirations. We may be small but have high aspirations.

To have free and fair presidential elections in 2018, would Male seek any international assistance?

We don’t need any assistance from any country to ensure free and fair elections. Yes, we need observers either through a bilateral mechanism or a multilateral one. We will welcome them to see whether Maldives conducts free and fair polls or not.
Having said this, I don’t know why the notion of not having a free and fair election in Maldives is cropping up. In any country, when it comes to election, opposition parties call for holding of free and fair elections. Name any country where opposition parties have not raised such a demand? In 2008, when we had the first multi-party election, people expressed their fear that president Abdul Gayoom would not allow free and fair elections, but Mohamed Nasheed won the election. When Nasheed was the Maldivian president, the general election [for parliament] was held in 2009. Nasheed’s party didn’t win majority seats. It was again free and fair polls in 2009. The 2013 election was again free and fair and international observers had certified it. Then came the 2014 general election, it was documented by international observers and it was free and fair. Recently, polls for local councils were held and the opposition won more seats in this election than the ruling establishment. So in the history of Maldives, whether it is during the presidency of Abdul Gayoom, Nasheed or Yameen, elections have been free and fair. There is a system in place. We have an independent election commission and it runs the elections, not the government.

shankar@governancenow.com

(The interview appears in the January 15, 2018 issue)

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