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India was a saviour for every Maldivian on 3 November 1988. The timely intervention by India helped the Maldivian President and the country as a whole to survive a coup by around 80 Sri Lankan terrorists. The Indian Army’s 6 Parachute Regiment landed within hours of an SOS call, even without having the maps of Malé. The coup was quelled within two days and normalcy was restored. India’s actions received international accolades. November 3 is celebrated as Victory Day in Malé every year since then.

 

 

India was respected in the Republic of Maldives for a long time, until China started showing interest in the archipelago (island chain), consisting of about 1,190 coral islands (of which 197 are known to be inhabited presently), merely 130 kilometres from Minicoy Island, the southernmost island (atoll) of the Lakshadweep archipelago. In 2012, President Mohamed Nasheed was physically forced to resign by the then Defence Minister Col. (Retd.) Mohamed Nazim. Mohammed Waheed, an unknown personality till then, usurped power and declared himself the President. The pro-India Nasheed was an eyesore for the Chinese.

 

President Waheed went on to rally against the globally competitive contract received by GMR, an Indian company. As a result, the contract was scrapped by November 2012. When the overthrown President Nasheed took shelter in the Indian embassy to avoid arrest, the bilateral relations between India and the Maldives took a nasty turn. The current President Abdulla Yameen took over after a controversial election. His autocratic rule ensured the arrest of former President Nasheed and his own Defence Minister on charges of treason and terrorism. Most ministers from his cabinet either were fired or resigned.

 

Chinese Influence

 

The Chinese government understood very well that the Maldives thrives on tourism. Therefore, special flights to Malé and subsidised travel were permitted to generate large revenue for the Maldives. Further, the airport expansion contract was awarded to a Chinese company. However, the International Tribunal ruled in favour of GMR in the arbitration case against cancellation of the airport expansion contract. Surprisingly, an unknown ‘foreign company’ paid for the damages worth almost US $270 million. Obviously, it has to be the same company or its front company that paid such a huge amount.

 

Recently, another contract for the construction of a road bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé, along with the expansion of Malé airport, has been officially granted to China. The Beijing Urban Construction Group of China is building a new 3.2-kilometre runway, fuel farm and cargo complex for the airport. It also plans to construct a new modern passenger terminal. As usual, the Chinese will never invest such a huge amount without a hidden agenda. Maldives will surely feel the grip of China’s loan-debt trap sooner than later.

 

The Chinese infrastructure development activities in Maldives through satellite imagery of Google Earth (GE) dated 26 April 2017 give out more information than what is known publically.

 

 

The development visibly observed is the road bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé islands. The bridge is being constructed from the south-eastern point on Malé Island near Tsunami Memorial to the southern tip of Hulumalé Island. There are five large piers being constructed. The bases of these piers, almost 30 metres in width, have been completed as observed on 26 April 26 2017.

 

 

The GE image of 26 April 2017 shows the reclamations being carried out east of the present airstrip in Malé airport. The new cargo terminal and fuel farm are identifiable on the imagery, although the fuel farm does not seem to be functional as yet. The grading work for a new airstrip seems to have commenced. The new terminal area has been reclaimed and grading work on the apron has commenced. The area north of Hulhumalé has been reclaimed. The reclaimed area is approximately 650 acres. A tetrapod boundary suggests that reclamation work has been completed. The basic road work has commenced, which indicates that it will be a commercial-cum-residential complex.

 

The Debt Trap

 

The World Bank had warned Maldives last year of the high risk of external debt distress due to large infrastructure projects including airport expansion, the bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé, and housing construction in Hulhumalé.

 

The Maldivian government, just like Sri Lanka, has possibly either sold the reclaimed land to the Chinese or leased it for a very long duration. It is also likely that the road bridge toll collection rights have been given to the Chinese company to recover the cost of the bridge. There is no other way a ‘foreign company’ would pay up US $270 million to GMR. This airport expansion and road bridge construction will provide China access and control over Malé airport completely. These infrastructure development activities, without any source of income other than tourism, will certainly force the Maldives into an inevitable debt trap, which in turn will force it to further lease out or sell land to China.

 

The Chinese presence, so close to Indian borders is detrimental to Indian interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India needs to, therefore, take strong diplomatic initiatives to wean away the Chinese influence within the IOR.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.