Is Maldives making India and Japan dance to its tunes?

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives Dr. Mohamed Asim is on an Official Visit to India as the Special Envoy of President Mr. Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and today he met India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a tweet stated that both had productive discussions to strengthen the bilateral relationship.

The Maldives many a time reiterated that it would not undertake any activity which would harm Indian interests and it was “sensitive” to India’s concerns over peace and security in the Indian Ocean region. However, Maldives has already signed Free Trade Agreement with China on which India has serious concerns. Rejecting India’s concerns, Dr. Mohamed Asim had stated on 18 December 2017 that the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Maldives and China would not undermine the former’s ties with India.

The signing of the FTA with China has already rattled the existing maritime security in the Indian ocean. This indeed forced Foreign Minister of Japan Mr. Taro Kono to visit the Maldives for one day on 6 January 2018. This was the first ever visit by Foreign Minister of Japan to the Maldives. During the bilateral meeting, Foreign Ministers of Maldives and Japan decided to convene an annual “Policy Dialogue” on political, economic and technical cooperation as well as regional and international issues of mutual interest.

The visit of Dr. Mohamed Asim to New Delhi comes in the backdrop of the visit of Japanese Foreign Minister to Male.

President Trump administration has so far treated the disputes in the South China Sea as a side issue and the FTA between Maldives and China has not yet drawn the effective attention of the United States.

However, Maldives has already restricted the role of India and has effectively confined India’s Ambassador to the Maldives. On 11 December 2017, the government of Maldives issued an executive order banning meeting of the Atoll Councillors with foreign representatives on the ground that foreign policy powers are vested in the presidency. Subsequently, three Atoll Councillors i.e. Ahmed Fuaad, Ahmed Nazmeen and Hussain Adam were suspended for meeting India’s Ambassador to Maldives Akhilesh Mishra.

There are only seven embassies in capital Male i.e. Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. The ban on the local councilors from meeting foreign diplomats is targeted towards India considering that Maldivian opposition has been openly supporting India’s concerns vis-a-vis China and Pakistan.

Unless the Maldives removes the restriction imposed for meeting all the stakeholders, the Ambassador of India will effectively remain confined to the Government of the Maldives represented by the President. It is unlikely that India and Maldives will break the chill just by reiterating diplomatese in the meeting of the Foreign Ministers today.

It remains to be seen whether the restrictions on meeting foreign diplomats are withdrawn by the Government of Maldives. The Presidential election in the Maldives is expected this year and the entire top brass of the opposition leaders have either been convicted on frivolous charges, disqualified on frivolous grounds and been sent to exile.

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